By Ryan Divish
The Montana State University-Northern wrestling team certainly didn't need to make this weekend any tougher. But it did anyway. The Lights head to Las Vegas to face perhaps their strongest competition of the season without a full lineup.
Northern will be without competitors in its lightest and heaviest weight classes when the team faces Embry-Riddle University and Missouri Valley College in a pair of duals today in Las Vegas. It isn't something that head coach David Ray expected or is pleased with.
"We have 26 guys eligible and we have to forfeit two weight classes?" Ray said. "There is something wrong there."
Northern will be forced to forfeit the 125-pound weight class despite having two wrestlers who have competed there earlier this season. According to Ray, senior Andy Thompson and freshman Jamie Muir came in well over weight following the Thanksgiving weekend and weren't able to make weight.
The Lights will also be forced to forfeit at the heavyweight classification since senior Matt Carter won't be eligible till the second semester begins.
"We automatically are giving up 12 points going into each dual," Ray said. "Even if we win six matches by decision, the dual would still be a draw because of the forfeits. We simply can't make any other mistakes at the other weight classes."
Although Thompson and Carter are consistent point scorers, the remaining eight wrestlers form a pretty solid core. Ray still doesn't consider losing either of the duals an option.
"It's going to be a test for those eight remaining guys," Ray said. "They're a solid group. They know that wrestling is still an individual sport. They can't worry about people that aren't going to be there. I told them to just take care of their own responsibilities and matches."
But taking care of those matches won't be easy by any means, especially in the middle weight classes. The Embry-Riddle Eagles placed fourth at last year's NAIA national tournament and return five national qualifiers from that team.
The Eagles are led by defending national champion Pat Cadwallader (157) who will square off against Northern's Bobby Mantle. Embry-Riddle also has returners at 133, 141, 149 and 165.
"They have some outstanding wrestlers," Ray said. "And we can't afford to lose any matches in those middle weights."
It doesn't get any easier for Northern. In fact, the Missouri Valley College Vikings may actually be a little tougher. The Vikings feature five returning All-Americans and three other wrestlers who competed at nationals last year. Sophomore Josh Pulsifer (141), who placed fourth last season and is now ranked second in the NAIA, should be a stiff test for Lights freshman Anthony Haukenberry. MVC's Chad Dolt (149) is also ranked second in the NAIA this season and finished sixth at nationals last season. He will face off against one of Northern's most consistent wrestlers, Dustyn Azure. MVC also has standouts in Tyson Biddle (133), Patrick Giangrosso (157) and Jory Dick (165).
"They've got a solid team," Ray said. "Chad Dolt is probably their best wrestler. But their guys at 133 and 141 are also very good."
Ray is still confident that his eight wrestlers can bring back a pair of dual victories. However, he is concerned with the momentum the two forfeits give his opponents.
"When you give them two forfeits, it gets them pumped up," Ray said. "It gives them hope. In wrestling or any sport, you never want to give your opponents hope."
After today's duals, Northern will take part in the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational. The tournament features 60 of the top teams from around the country. There is a 64-man bracket for each weight division and it is a straight double elimination. It is the best individual competition that Northern will see all season. However, Ray has never been big on the difference between NCAA Division I wrestlers and his own. He firmly believes several of his kids can place at the tournament with the right attitude.
"Our guys need to go in there with the attitude that they should place and nothing less," Ray said. "It's a tough tournament, but we have guys that should be very confident going in."
Northern's next home match will be Dec. 12 when it hosts Northwest College in a dual.