By Kim Staudinger
The Montana State University-Northern Lights wrestling team has numerous things to look forward to this season. Along with the addition of assistant coaches Terry Brands, Turk Lords and Lee Fullhart, the squad is hosting the NAIA National Wrestling Tournament. Both the Lights' coaches and players know they have a season to complete before looking to the National Tournament.
"We don't want to focus on any one goal this year," head coach David Ray said. "We just want to keep steadily going up. We want to hit our peak at the 45th annual NAIA National Wrestling Tournament."
The Lights are a young team this year, with only four seniors on the team, but Ray said the small numbers of upperclassmen does not mean inexperience.
"We're young, but we have a lot of experience," Ray said, mentioning his team's confidence. "Even some of our younger guys have a lot of experience."
Joining the four seniors (Josh Wright, Carl Valley, Tyson Thivierge and Dane Jacobsen) are eight freshmen, eight sophomores and eight juniors. However, Ray said, most of the eight freshmen will likely redshirt.
Among the returners for Northern are six NAIA All-Americans, one NCAA Division II All-American and two NJCAA All-Americans. These totals look impressive for the Lights, but maybe even more impressive is the addition of four quality transfers, with equally impressive records.
Eric Dunmire, a four-time Montana state champion, joins the Lights from the University of Northern Iowa; Kyle Klonizos transfers from Boise State University, where he compiled a 17-0 record last season; Joc Muir, a junior moving over from Dickinson State, who qualified for nationals last year at 157 pounds; and Andy Thompson, who transferred from the University of Iowa, will also wrestle for the Lights.
Also highlighted for the Lights is new recruit Dustin May, from Derby, Kan. May is Ray's first four-time state champion to sign directly out of high school.
Due to the loss of key performers last year and the new recruits for this season, some wrestlers have changed weight classes. Another factor impacting what weight class the wrestlers will compete in is the spring semester. Thompson, Dunmire, Wright and Klonizos will all be eligible to compete in the spring semester only.
Competing for Northern this year at 125 pounds is Carl Valley, a three-time All-American. Thompson and Bret Favorite will also challenge for the starting spot. Wes Barrett may also add some competition at 125 pounds, but will most likely compete at 133 pounds.
The 133-pound slot for the Lights is solid with the return of sophomore Caleb Schaeffer, who finished fourth at the national tournament. Schaeffer also racked up the most wins for the Lights last year with 41.
Barrett could also compete at this spot, but will find some tough competition in Schaeffer. Barrett did not compete last season due to a knee injury.
Dunmire, who will be ineligible to compete until spring due to a knee injury, could also contend for the starting spot at 133 pounds, but may opt to wrestle at 141 if necessary. Dunmire is recovering from knee surgery this summer and expects to be ready in the spring.
Along with Dunmire at 141 pounds, two new Lights will compete for the starting spot at this weight freshman May and junior transfer Muir. Ray said a factor for May will be adjusting to the long college season and overcoming injuries. Muir, as a national qualifier last year, will add experience at 141 pounds. Kurt Lorenz may also challenge for the top position at 141 pounds.
Battling it out to wrestle at 149 pounds this year for Northern is a full slate of grapplers. All-American Dustyn Azure leads the returners, but is still unsure if he will wrestle at this weight class or at 157 pounds.
Also returning at 149 pounds are two national qualifiers Brent Riggin and Bobby Mantle. Mantle qualified last year at 157 pounds.
Moving up from 141 to 149 is sophomore Kyle Nay, who compiled a 17-12 record last season. Adding further depth at this weight class is the addition of two freshmen, Havre's Aaron Jensen and Billings Skyview's state champion, Tim Kaczmarek.
With Mantle and Azure moving to 149 pounds, the competition at 157 pounds is wide open. Trevor Floerchinger and Wright will battle for this spot, as well as Big Sandy's Lance Nelson.
Wright transferred from Southern Colorado, where he wrestled at only five dates in the last two years. He received two hardship years from the NAIA, allowing him two more seasons of competition to complete in two semesters. That means he will only be available to compete in the spring semester for the next two years.
The depth continues for the Lights at the 165-pound weight class with Klonizos, who is only eligible to compete in the second semester, and Mike Lester, a two-time NJCAA All-American. Joining Klonizos and Lester is freshman Ron Oliver, who will most likely redshirt.
Havre's Kyle Fisher moves up one weight class this year to wrestle at 174. Fisher finished fourth in 2001. Although Fisher is the only wrestler at the time at 174 pounds, either Klonizos or Lester may move up and compete at 174.
The challenge at varying weight classes continues at 184 pounds with Tyson Thivierge and Emmett Willson. Thivierge, a three-time All-American, enters the season as a preseason favorite. Thivierge may also compete at the 197 pound slot. Willson will challenge Thivierge at 184 pounds, but he may also choose to wrestle at 197. Willson is an NAIA third-place All-American.
The 197-pound slot is also wide-open at this time, as the graduation of Lords has left big shoes to fill. Senior Jacobsen will move from heavyweight to 197 and, as mentioned before, Willson may decide to move up and wrestle at 197.
Two freshmen will compete for the starting spot at heavyweight this season. Trevor Nelson, who placed second at the state tournament last year, weighs in at 280 pounds. Cody Donais will also compete in the heavyweight spot, weighing in at 250 pounds. If necessary, Jacobsen could also move up and wrestle at this slot.
"Wrestling USA" has ranked Northern's 2001 recruiting class as fourth among all non-NCAA Division I institutions in the Sept. 15 issue.
With all the versatility in wrestlers, Ray said he is fortunate to have "a lot of guys capable of doing a lot of things."
Coach Ray enters his ninth season as head coach of the Lights. In his tenure, he has had nine individual national champions and 56 All-Americans. In four of the last five years, Northern has scored enough team points at the NAIA National Tournament to rank in the top 10 highest team scores in the history of the tournament.
For the first time in his years at Northern, Ray is fortunate this year to have an assistant coach. Ray not only got one assistant coach, but he will have two others volunteer their time as they prepare to train for the Olympics.
Brands enters his first season as an assistant coach to Ray. Brands formerly assisted at the University of Nebraska. Prior to coaching at Nebraska, Brands spent two years as the athletic department strength coach and eight years as an assistant for the University of Iowa. Brands came to Northern to obtain his master's degree.
With the addition of Brands to the Northern staff, Lords and Fullhart have decided to become volunteer assistant coaches while they train under Brands for the 2004 Olympics.
Fullhart is currently attending classes at Northern as well as training for the Olympic Games. He attended the University of Iowa and was a four-time All-American and the 1997 National Champion at 190 pounds. In the summer of 2000, Fullhart placed third in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at 187 pounds and placed third last June in the 2001 World Team Trials.
Lords, a very familiar face to Lights wrestling fans, is back with the program as an assistant coach. Lords is teaching three HPEA skill courses for Northern and working with Ray on promoting and fund-raising for the national tournament in Great Falls. Lords was only the sixth wrestler in the 44-year history of the NAIA to win four national titles. Lords won 126 matches with only 10 losses for a .926 winning percentage. His dual record was 51-2 and he tallied 50 pins in his career. Lords defeated all four of his national finals opponents by a combined score of 41-3, earning him the outstanding wrestler award in the 2001 national championships.