The Montana State University-Northern wrestling program has been steadily growing, steadily improving and steadily getting strong under head coach, and former Lights great Tyson Thivierge.
But as a new season dawns, it would be easy to say the Lights might take a step back this season with the losses of greats like Evan Hinebauch and Anthony Weerheim. But Thivierge thinks nothing could be further from the truth, and his expectations are as high as they’ve ever been for a Northern squad which 2012-13 season is underway.
“I think we’re a national contender for sure,” Thivierge, who enters his fourth season as the Lights head coach said. “I definitely think we are in the top three if we do what I think we’re capable of and I’m always going to believe we can fight for a national championship. That’s what we want in this program and that’s what we continue to work hard for.
“You can’t really replace a wrestler like Evan Hinebauch and we’re going to miss him,” Thivierge added. “But this season, I think we have as much depth as we’ve had since I’ve been here. In the past, we’ve been really talented, but it’s been spotty. Where we were really tough in certain spots, we weren’t in others. Now we have depth and we’re really solid throughout our entire lineup. That’s going to be a big difference for us this season.”
Northern begins the year ranked just 12th in the NAIA after finishing a solid seventh at last spring’s NAIA national tournament. The Lights return two NAIA All-Americans in Ethan Hinebauch (165) and Max Payne (174) and those two, along with Cameron Neiss and Mickey Cheff will be expected to lead the Lights this season.
“We may be getting overlooked nationally,” Thivierge said. But that’s OK with us. That’s actually good for us. We want this team to have a chip on its shoulder, we want to go out and wrestle every single match with something to prove and I think these guys will do that this year.”
Up-and-down the Lights’ lineup, the talent is there, and in some areas, the experience is too.
Ethan Hinebauch is just a red-shirt sophomore, but he’s been through a ton of adversity in his Northern career already, dealing with multiple injuries and wrestling in big matches. And he’s coming off a stellar third-place finish at last year’s national tournament, so he knows what it takes to get the job done.
“Ethan has a ton of experience now,” Thivierge said. “He’s really grown and he’s continued to work hard to develop. He’s been working on being more consistent in his wrestling and he’s as hard a worker as anybody. He’s got that Hinebauch will to win, and for that you can never count him out. He’s one of our big guns now and I expect him to have a great season.”
Another former Havre Blue Pony will red-shirt at 165 pounds in freshman Kameron Pribyl, so Hinebauch will go it alone at that weight.
Payne is coming off an 8th-place finish at 174, and he too will likely be Northern’s only 174-pounder this season as fellow junior Jared Miller will red-shirt this season. Miller and Payne battled throughout last season and both reached the national tournament while trading places in the rankings for much of the season.
“Max has a wealth of experience now,” Thivierge said. “And he’s continued to work his tail off to get better. Max has always been willing to do whatever it takes, and he’s going to have a big season for us.”
Also back for the Lights in the upper weights is Cheff at 157 pounds and Kody Reed at 184. Cheff is coming off a breakout freshman season in which he came within a match of earning All-American last spring. Reed, who shared time with Evan Hinebauch at 184 over the last two seasons, also competed well at nationals a year ago.
“Mickey had a great season, especially the second half of last year,” Thivierge said. “It really clicked with him it seemed, and he had a great national tournament and that experience is going to carry over for him this season. And I thought Kody Reed grew by leaps and bounds last year. He had a great partner in Evan and he’s become as mentally tough as anyone on this team. Kody knows that it’s his time now and he’s just going to keep improving and getting better and better I think.”
Rounding out what should be a very salty upper part of Northern’s lineup this season is red-shirt freshman Toby Cheff at 197 pounds and most likely true freshman Tucker Erickson of Helena at heavyweight. Cheff is coming off an outstanding red-shirt campaign, while Chinook’s Jorrell Jones will red-shirt and the Lights also have freshman Garrett DeMers at 197. Erickson is a two-time heavyweight state AA champion, while the Lights will also have two more state champions possibly red-shirting at heavyweight in Sidney’s Allen Neuleib and Oregon’s Travis Williams.
“I think we’re going to be pretty strong in the upper weight classes,” Thivierge said. “I’m really excited to see Toby Cheff and what he can do. He’s really fun to watch. He’s a big kid who wrestles like a lightweight because of his amazing flexibility. He’s been waiting patiently for this moment, and he’s excited to get out there.”
Northern is also excited to have sophomore Hunter Azure back at 141 pounds. Azure tore up a knee early last fall and missed most of what was looking like a promising 2011-12 season. But Thivierge said he’s fully recovered and ready to resume what should be a stellar career at Northern. The Lights also have another sophomore in Garrett Tennant and Havre’s Dillon Seely on the roster at 133.
“He’s healthy, he’s strong and he feels really good,” Thivierge said of the former Montana four-time state champion from Poplar. “He really worked hard this summer, got re-focused and he’s coming into this season as a very dangerous 141-pounder.”
Neiss will be the anchor for the Lights in the lower weights. He’s coming off back-to-back appearances at the national tournament, and Thivierge said he’s as focused as anyone in the room, considering Neiss didn’t finish as well as he would have liked last season.
“Cameron is coming into this season angry,” Thivierge said. “He was unhappy with how nationals went last year. He didn’t like how his season ended and he’s used that as motivation for this season. He’s going to be a leader on this team and he’ll have a great season. I know he will.”
Northern has a trio of wrestlers competing for the starting nod at 125 pounds. Havre’s Duell Stadel is coming off a red-shirt season, while junior Aaron LaForge and freshman Chris Williams are also vying for the spot. Riley Miller, who started at 125 for the Lights last season, will redshirt this year.
The 149-pound spot is also up for grabs with talented red-shirt freshman Trevor Goss and Brandon Leliefeld set to battle it out. Goss is coming off a solid red-shirt year, while Leliefeld wasn’t with the program a season ago, but does have national tournament experience.
Northern will start the season with six wrestlers ranked nationally. Ethan Hinebauch is ranked No. 1 at 165 pounds, Mickey Cheff is ranked sixth at 157, Neiss is ranked 11th at 133, Azure is ranked 11th at 141, Payne is ranked fifth at 174 and Reed is ranked ninth at 184.
“We have a lot of talent, and we have depth this year,” Thivierge said. “I also think we have a group of guys who have done everything we’ve asked of them. So far this year, they’ve taken everything we’ve thrown at them and they haven’t broken down. They work hard, it’s a great room and I think it’s going to be a great season.”
The Lights will hold their annual Maroon/Gold Dual tonight at 7 at the Armory Gymnasium. MSU-N opens the season Friday night at home against North Idaho College. Northern’s other home dates this season include duals against Northwest College Nov. 15 and Western Wyoming on Jan. 16. MSU-N’s two-match rivalry series with UGF kicks off Dec. 4 in Havre, and the Lights travel to Great Falls Feb. 6. The season winds down with the Western Regional Tournament Feb. 16 in Great Falls and the NAIA national tournament March 1-3 in Des Moines, Iowa.