By Kim Staudinger
It's just two weeks before the Montana State University-Northern Lights wrestlers will be hosting the NAIA National Wrestling Tournament in Great Falls. But the Lights still have one major tournament to go to before the highly anticipated national tournament.
On Saturday morning, the Lights will leave for the Northern Regional Tournament held at Dickinson State. The tournament begins Sunday at 10 a.m.
Twelve wrestlers will be making the trip for Northern all of whom have already qualified for the national tournament. But, head coach David Ray said, the 12 still have to wrestle at regionals or they will not be allowed to wrestle at nationals.
The tough thing about only being able to take 12 wrestlers is having to leave others behind. Two other wrestlers qualified for nationals, Ray said, but neither one will be able to make the trip.
The 12 going to regionals are: Carl Valley (19-6) and Andy Thompson (14-6) at 125 pounds, Caleb Schaeffer (28-5) at 133 pounds, Eric Dunmire (12-5) at 141 pounds, Bobby Mantle (23-15) at 149 pounds, Dustyn Azure (15-9) at 157 pounds, Kyle Klonizos (9-3) at 165 pounds, Kyle Fisher (22-8) and Mike Lester (17-8) at 174 pounds, Tyson Thivierge (39-3) at 184 pounds, Emmett Willson (37-5) at 197 pounds, and Matt Carter (10-2) at heavyweight.
Eleven of the 12 have competed in a regional tournament before, something the Lights hope to use to their advantage. Schaeffer, Mantle and Willson have all won the tournament before, with Fisher and Thivierge adding second-place finishes. Thivierge has taken second in each of his three years at the tournament.
Also working in favor of the Lights having six No. 1 seeds going into the tournament. Ray said Schaeffer, Dunmire, Fisher, Thivierge, Willson and Carter should all take the top spots going into the tournament. But even those who are not ranked in the top are coming out strong at the right time of the season. Azure is 10-3 in meets since the second semester of school started, and Klonizos is 8-1 since competing in the Dickinson State Tournament.
The Lights are currently ranked fourth nationally, behind Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Lindenwood and Wisconsin Parkside. Northern also has six wrestlers ranked nationally.
For the first time since the early 1980s, the Lights capped off an undefeated season in dual meets. The Lights became the first NAIA team since 1969 to beat Southern Oregon in a dual meet at home. These two accomplishments should help to give the Lights momentum going into the regional tournament.
"When you go undefeated you have a huge feeling of confidence for each individual and the team," Ray said. "It's a feeling of success, especially for the seniors. It's something they will always remember."
But having a successful season does not always carry over to the postseason. While the Lights feel confident in their abilities, one team may stand in their way of a title the University of Mary.
"They have a good team," Ray said, noting they have eight All-Americans currently on the team. "They're loaded, too. They've got some good kids. In this region, they will be our toughest competition."
Ray said he expects to see a tough battle between the two teams and anticipates seeing a lot of the U-Mary wrestlers in the finals with his Northern team.
Still, Ray promises his team is ready and excited for this tournament.
"I feel real good going into regionals," he said. "The players feel real good. They're excited, not for the year to be done, but for the national tournament. They're pumped for it. This regionals, this nationals, it's what it's all about."