The NAIA national wrestling tournament was once a stomping ground for the Montana State University-Northern Lights. And MSU-N head coach Tyson Thivierge is trying hard to get it to be that again.
And before the Lights departed for Des Moines, Iowa, where they begin competing in the 2012 NAIA national tournament today, there was a confidence in Thivierge’s voice, because he believes he is taking a team capable of making plenty of noise over the next three days.
“I am probably more confident this year than in the other years,” Thivierge said. “I just feel like this team is more ready to compete at the national level. We’ve been a better dual team this year, we’ve been a better tournament team, we have more guys who have weathered a full season of wrestling at this level. And even though we’re a young team, and a team that is probably going to get overlooked a bit this week, we believe we have the talent to win a national championship. And that belief is what matters. Our guys need to believe that, to have that confidence.”
Northern comes into the three-day tournament at the Jacobson Events Center in Des Moines ranked No. 10 in the country after finishing third at West Regional two weeks ago. The Lights, under Thivierge, have finished in the Top 10 in each of his first three seasons at MSU-N and they qualified 12 wrestlers for the national tourney, though redshirt-freshman Hunter Azure suffered a season-ending knee injury several months ago, leaving the Lights with a solid 11 grapplers this weekend.
Of those 11 Lights, Thivierge says many could reach the medal stand at tournament’s end. Leading the way of course is seniors Evan Hinebauch and Anthony Weerheim, just as the duo did a year ago. Hinebauch is the defending national champion at 184 pounds, while Weerheim comes into the tournament on a roll, ranked No. 1 at 141 and the No. 1 overall seed in that weight.
But in order for the Lights to contend with the favorites this week, which included No. 1 Grand View, as well as Southern Oregon, Great Falls and Oklahoma City to name a few, they will need wrestlers from all up and down the lineup to win matches, score bonus points and wind up as all-americans at the end of the weekend.
“I think it will take seven or eight all-americans to win the national championship,” Thivierge said. “I really believe we can do that. We have a lot of young guys who are really stepping up and wrestling well right now. We have the wrestlers to get there, it’s just a matter of proving it each time they step out on the mat.
“There are a lot of good teams in this tournament,” he added. “But I also think it’s pretty wide open. I don’t think you’ll see a team run away with this one. If I had to pick, Grand View is probably the favorite, but there’s six or seven teams that can win this and I feel like we’re in that group.”
After Hinebauch and Weerheim, there are a handful of Northern wrestlers expected to, not just hoping to do well in Iowa. One of those is redshirt-freshman Ethan Hinebauch at 165 pounds. He’s suffered just four losses this season, with two of them coming at the West Regional. Both Jared Miller and Max Payne at 174 pounds could contend for a spot on the final podium as well, while Cameron Neiss is a returning all-american at 133 pounds and Mickey Cheff has raised plenty of eyebrows recently with his high level of wrestling at 157 pounds. Kody Reed is a wildcard at 184 pounds, while Beau LaSalle (149), James Petersen (149) and Riley Miller (125) will all be making their first trips to the national tournament. It’s especially exciting for LaSalle, another former Havre Blue Pony, who has battled a lot of ups and downs in his Northern career, which is in its final weekend.
And with Northern’s talented lineup, rankings, seeding and the past are all thrown out the window. Thivierge said his team must now rely on focus and the technique that’s gotten them to this point. They know they are good enough to bring a trophy back to Havre, it’s just a matter of executing it over the next three days.
“I think, as a group, they just have to maintain that level of focus,” Thivierge said. “Focus is the biggest thing. Just staying the course. We can’t too high or too low at any point in the tournament, because there are going to be moments of both. There’s a lot of distraction and adversity at the national tournament, and focus and concentration is what gets you through it.
“We have prepared our guys well,” he added. “We didn’t change anything from last year to this year. We’ve trained very hard leading right up to this week and I feel like our guys are very ready. Now they just have to go out and focus on one match at a time, one period at a time and not get ahead of themselves. This is a very exciting year for our team. We’re going down there with a lot of confidence and if we wrestle like we’re capable of, good things will happen for these guys.”
The first round of the 2012 NAIA national tournament begins today in Des Moines, Iowa. The tournament runs through Saturday with the finals set for 5:45 P.M. M.S.T. Fans can get results from each day by checking www.havredailynews.com.
Here’s a look at each Northern wrestler competing in this week’s NAIA national tournament in Des Moines, Iowa.
125 – Riley Miller
Miller is a true freshman who’s manned the 125-pound spot for the Lights all season long. He’s had ups and downs on his way to an 11-29 record, and he’ll be a big underdog this week. However, qualifying for the national tournament is a huge step for a true freshman and this week will give Miller plenty to build on. Southern Oregon’s Mitch Lofstedt is the No. 1 seed and defending national champion at 125. Miller opens the tournament with Deterious Prather of Missouri Baptist.
133 – Cameron Neiss
Neiss had high hopes for his sophomore year, especially after earning NAIA All-American as a freshman, placing seventh at nationals. But an elbow injury derailed the early part of his season. Still Neiss, ranked No. 11, went on to record an 18-7 record and has wrestled really well as of late. His bracket is wide open this week, and it would not be a surprise if Neiss betters his finish from a season ago. Campbelsville’s Tim Thurston is the No. 1 seed. Neiss opens the tourney with Travis Baroquillo of Indiana Tech.
“Cam has been there, he knows what to do,” Thivierge said. “He really wrestled well at regionals. I think he’s got a good chance to place very high this week. Even though he’s just a sophomore, nothing will be a surprise to him this week.”
141 – Anthony Weerheim
A year ago, Weerheim was the No. 1 seed at 149 pounds, but stumbled at the national tournament. He now enters the 2012 national tournament as the No. 1 seed and with the No. 1 ranking at 141 pounds, the most loaded weight class in the tournament. Weerheim dropped to 141 two months ago and has yet to lose, and he beat defending national champ, Greta Falls’ Anthony Varnell in the regional final. Weerheim’s road is treacherous however, with Varnell and former Havre Blue Pony Myles Mazurkiewicz, as well as Southern Oregon’s Kyle Wikurty and three-time all-american Tommy pretty all in his bracket. However, with a 29-9 record and a head of steam coming in, there’s no doubt Weerheim is the favorite for a national title this week. He opens the tourney with Christian Hernandez of Bacone.
“He’s got his sights set high and I do too,” Thivierge said. “The good thing about his move to 141 is, he’s not outsized anymore. He was just as good a wrestler at 149 but he was just up against a lot of bigger guys. Now, he doesn’t have that problem anymore. Anthony is the best wrestler in this weight class in my opinion. He just has to go out and have a solid three days.”
149 – Beau LaSalle
LaSalle is making his first trip to nationals in his final season as a Light. It’s a great story for the former Havre Blue Pony state champion, and he’s been a tremendous part of the Hi-Line wrestling scene for over a decade now. In and out of the lineup this year, he’s compiled an 11-15 record. Grand View’s T.J. Moen is the No. 1 seed in the bracket, which includes regional rivals Mike Vasser of Great Falls and Jimmy Eggemeyer of Southern Oregon. LaSalle opens with Cody Green of Midlands.
149 – James Petersen
Another one of Northern’s first-timers, Petersen could have redshirted this season, but was thrust into action after Azure went down with an injury. It’s been a big learning curve for the Charlo native, and this week will give him a ton of experience going forward. He’s 10-12 on the year and capable of scoring points for the Lights this week. Petersen opens with Bradley Steele of Dickinson State.
157 – Mickey Cheff
It’s been quite the first year for the former Ronan state champ. Cheff has racked up a 22-19 record while wrestling alone at 157 all season. He’s had up and downs, but he’s had more ups this last month. He’s wrestling at a really high level going into nationals and though he’s un-ranked, he’s certainly an all-american candidate. OKC’s Nikolas Turner is the No. 1 seed in what’s considered a wide-open bracket. Cheff opens with Tyler Schaffer of Northwestern
“I’m really excited about Mickey Cheff,” Thivierge said. “This last month, he’s really put it all together. And he’s done it against really good competition. I feel like he’s probably our hottest wrestler right now, and I have really high expectations for that kid this week. He’s done a great job and has really stepped it up another level.”
165 – Ethan Hinebauch
Injuries have gotten in Hinebauch’s way at times this year, and last. But he’s still put together a solid first full season as a Light. Hinebauch is a sparkling 27-4 and ranked No. 11 coming into this week. And though he might be being overlooked, he’s certainly capable of making a run to the finals and all-american status. Hinebauch is in another wide open bracket, with Grand View’s Brad Lower the No. 1 seed. There are also two SOU wrestlers which Hinebauch suffered losses to at the regional, but with his style wrestling, no one is really favored over him in any match. Hinebauch opens his first national tourney with Anthony Martinez of William Penn.
“I think Ethan will have a great national tournament,” Thivierge said. “He’s got that go get em’ attitude. And it works for him.”
174 – Jared Miller
Sharing the 174-pound class with teammate Max Payne, Miller has had a strong sophomore season. He’s 23-13 and poised to reach the medal stand this weekend. Payne will be one of the grapplers he’ll have to compete against, while Morningside’s Joseph Sivert is the No. 1 seed. But Miller has beaten top competition all season long and reached the West Regional final two weeks ago. He opens the tourney with Dominic Smothers of Dakota Wesleyan.
174 – Max Payne
It’s Payne’s second straight trip to nationals, and with teammate Miller, he’ll be hoping to score big points for the Lights. Payne finished third at regionals, comes in with a stellar 20-12 record and a No. 11 ranking. Neither he or Miller is seeded this week, but both are capable of reaching all-american status and that would go a long way towards helping the Lights into trophy contention. Payne has a bye in the first round.
“Max and Jared are both wrestling extremely well,” Thivierge said. “They both can be all-americans by just going out and having a great three days.”
184 – Evan Hinebauch
Hinebauch has but on goal, and he’s had it all season. Repeat as a national champion. Last year, he bested arch rival Michael French in the 184-pound final, and he’s gone on to a 31-9 senior season. He didn’t compete at the West Regional due to a rib injury and that dropped his ranking to No. 4 and he won’t be the No. 1 overall seed this week. That spot belongs to Kody Kersten of Midland, while No. 2 seed Brian Block is the only NAIA 184-pounder to beat Hinebauch this season. But rankings don’t matter because Hinebauch, when healthy is clearly the best wrestler in the bracket and he has the hardware to prove it. Now, he’ll look to become only the fifth Northern wrestler in history to capture more than one national title. Hinebauch opens the tourney with Dan Capp of Hastings.
“Evan has sacrificed a lot for us this year,” Thivierge said. “He’s went up to 197 a bunch and he’s really just had a year in which he’s made a lot of sacrifices for our program. But now, he can just focus on what he needs to do for four more matches. Evan thrives on wrestling with something to prove to himself. Last year, he had French as that motivation, and he doesn’t have that anymore. He has to find that motivation somewhere else this week and I know he’ll do that. He loves to compete and he knows what he needs to do. Evan’s chasing some history this week. He’s already among the great at Northern, but he can do something very few guys here have ever done. I expect he’ll have a great week.”
184 – Kody Reed
Reed could make a big difference for the Lights this week. Yes, he’s in Hinebauch’s bracket, but he’s learned from Hinebauch the last two years and that makes a big difference. He’s also been to the national tournament so he knows what to expect. Reed is 19-12 wrestling between 184 and 197 this season and he comes into the tournament ranked No. 10 and wrestling at a high level. He opens the tourney with Eric Johnson of Cumberlands of Tennessee.