Anyone wondering if the young, but talented Montana State University-Northern wrestling team was ready for the 2011 NAIA postseason – the Lights answered those questions on Saturday.
The No. 8 Lights put together an outstanding day Saturday in Prescott, Ariz., wrestling to a second-place finish at the Western regional, and almost knocking off Southern Oregon in the process. The Lights scored 135.5 points to SOU’s 138 points at the regional tournament, which turned out to be great preparation for the upcoming NAIA national tournament. The University of Great Falls, ranked sixth nationally, finished a distant third.
"We had a good tournament but not a great one," Northern head coach Tyson Thivierge said. "We have another level and the guys were the first to admit that. We just have to continue to build and get better everytime we step on the mat. This tournament was a good tournament in terms of seeing our guys overcome adversity. We scored a bunch of bonus points in this tourney, especially in the consolation rounds."
MSU-N also had two individual champions on the weekend, including former Havre Blue Pony Evan Hinebauch, who beat arch rival Michael French in the 184-pound championship. Hinebauch knocked off the top-ranked French 2-1 in triple overtime. Hinebauch had lost to French in every meeting between the two longtime rivals this season, including just last week in Great Falls. But on Saturday, it was Hinebauch's turn to exact a measure of revenge.
"Evan finally put together his own game plan," Thivierge said. "He put it together and he controlled the match. He didn't allow any takedown, he got an escape in the second overtime and rode out the third for the win.
"He wrestled a flawless match."
Northern also got a regional title from junior Anthony Weerheim at 149 pounds. Weerheim beat SOU’s Jimmy Eggemeyer in the championship match, and continues to be on track for a national championship. Weerheim has lost just once all season and will be a top seed at the national tournament and a favorite at 149.
A big help in Northern’s finish Saturday was true freshman Cameron Neiss. The former Ronan star finished second at 133 pounds, reaching the championship match before losing. Neiss has come on strong the second half of the season and is showing he’ll be a force for the Lights for years to come. Neiss lost a close 3-2 decision in the final.
Another trio of young Northern stars place third. Jared Miller was solid in finishing third at 165 pounds, beating third-seeded Tucker Van Metre of SOU in the consolation match, while redshirt freshman Max Payne took third at 174 pounds, with a 10-4 decision over Tyler Thomas of SOU in the consolation final. Both wrestlers were pre qualified for nationals, but wrestled very well in Arizona. Heavyweight Rudy Schaffroth also placed third for the Lights, while Brandon Leliefeld finished fourth at 141 pounds, and Cody Miller and Tay Todd, both also bound for the national tournament, finished fifth and sixth, respectively at 157 pounds. Miller beat Todd 3-1 in the fifth-sixth place match.
The only down side to the Lights’ regional tournament performance was the two grapplers who weren’t qualified for nationals not getting through. Former Harlem standout Chase Dirden, who’s been injured much of the season, finished sixth at 125 pounds and will not make the national tournament. Dirden was a qualifier for nationals as a freshman a year ago. Gary Anthony also missed out on a trip to nationals by finishing sixth at 165 pounds. The Lights were also without 197-pounder Kody Reed, who sat out the tournament with an infection, but should be ready for nationals.
"I am proud of these guys and we know the season is far from over," Thivierge said. "Up and down the line-up we supported one another and we are now focused on having a great tournament in Iowa at nationals.
Former Blue Pony Myles Mazurkiewicz returned from injury this weekend and finished third at 141 pounds for UGF. He pinned Leliefeld in the 141 consolation final.
The Lights put one of their best performances of the year together at regionals and will now look to use it as a springboard at the national tournament. Northern heads to the NAIA national tournament with 10 wrestlers qualified. The NAIA tourney runs March 3-5 in Cedar Falls, Iowa.