The Montana State University-Northern wrestling doesn’t have a senior. The Lights, at least by grade, aren’t what you’d call a veteran team. But none of that means much as Northern heads to the NAIA national tournament this weekend.
Nine Lights will converge on Des Moines, Iowa for the biggest wrestling meet of their lives. The NAIA national tournament gets under way Friday morning and runs through Saturday night, and though the Lights don’t have a huge contingent, they do have firepower, and fourth-year head coach Tyson Thivierge said his team is ready.
“It’s been a long, hard road to get here,” Thivierge said. “This program has taken big steps forward the last couple of years. I know people still look at us as a young team, and that we don’t have a lot of experience. But that just isn’t the case. We have a group of guys, many who have national tournament experience and all who have experience in big matches. So they are going into this weekend with confidence.
“This group has really grown up this season,” he added. “We have had a really good season and these guys are ready for this. They’re fired up and they want to go to Iowa and make a lot of noise.”
The Lights have steadily climbed the ranks at the national tournament since Thivierge arrived. Three years ago, Northern finished 15th, then 10th, and the Lights came away with a 7th-place finish a year ago. And though they don’t have any seniors, Northern does return three NAIA All-Americans, the Lights have three top-ranked wrestlers and a slew of stalwarts who can earn a All-American status this weekend.
In other words, Northern, while still building for the future, is a national championship caliber team right now.
“Last year, the national champion had seven All-American,” Thivierge said. “We had four. I think this year, we have at least eight guys with the potential to earn All-American. So I definitely believe we are in the hunt for the national championship. Like everyone else, it will just come down to how well we wrestle.”
Northern has as many as five grapplers who have a legitimate shot to reach Saturday night’s championship round. Top-ranked Ethan Hinebauch is a heavy favorite at 165 pounds, as is Kody Reed at 184. Cameron Neiss is ranked No. 1 at 133 pounds and is wrestling at a very high level right now, while Max Payne is ranked second at 174 and Toby Cheff will be one the favorites to challenge Reed at 184. Hinebauch, Payne and Neiss have all reached All-American status already in their careers.
“It’s really hard to single out any one of those guys,” Thivierge said. “But there’s no doubt in my mind we have five guys capable of winning a national championship this weekend. I’m so impressed with those guys. They are a great group and they will be fun to watch this weekend.”
Thivierge is impressed with his entire national tournament contingent actually. Northern’s lineup also includes 125-pounders Aaron LaFarge and former Havre Blue Pony Duell Stadel, 149-pounder Trevor Goss and 157-pounder Mickey Cheff. Cheff is making his second straight appearance in the national tournament.
“We have a lot of firepower,” Thivierge said. “We have a lot of guys who will get pins and score bonus points. What it really comes down to is being consistent. We can’t get ahead of ourselves and we can’t worry about what anybody else is doing. We have done a good job with all of that this year and that has to continue this weekend in order for us to be successful.”
Being successful won’t be easy though. Defending champion Grand View is still considered a team to beat, while Western Region rivals Southern Oregon and Great Falls, coached by former Northern national champion Caleb Schaeffer are also poised for big things this week. The Argos qualified the most wrestlers (12) of any team in the field this weekend.
But make no mistake, Thivierge has his team as ready as any in the tournament, and while Northern will be looked at as a heavy national title favorite in 2014, the current Lights don’t want to wait.
“Grand View is very solid, and Lindsey Wilson and Dickinson State are right up there too, ” Thivierge said. “But I truly believe the three best teams, with the best chance this weekend are coming out of our region. That being Southern Oregon, Great Falls and us.
“And we’re ready to go,” he added. “We’re going to need to score points on the back side and in the winner’s bracket, and we’re going to need to wrestle our very best in every match. But I just feel like this group has really grown, they’ve really matured, they have the skills and the desire to make a lot of noise this weekend. Now it just comes down to performing for two days. If all nine guys do that, we’ll be in pretty good shape on Saturday night.”
The 2013 NAIA national tournament will run Friday-Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa. The Havre Daily News will have live bracket updates all weekend at www.havredailynews.com and on Twitter at Twitter/Havredaily.
Below is a look at each of Northern's nine wrestlers competing in this weekend's NAIA national tournament in Des Moines, Iowa.
125 — Aaron LaFarge
LaFarge only spent half the season in the Northern lineup, but he’s had a major impact and he’s certainly an All-American candidate this week in Iowa. He went 21-9 for the Lights and is ranked 10th coming in. His bracket is overshadowed by Southern Oregon’s Mitchell Lofstedt, who is a two-time defending national champion, while Embry-Riddle’s Sean Silva is ranked No. 2. But there’s no reason why LaFarge can’t make plenty of noise in his first national tourney appearance.
“Aaron has done a great job and has really stepped it up at the end of the season,” Thivierge said. “We fully expect him to go out and make noise this week because he’s already been up against the best guys in his bracket. He has the experience against the best 125-pounders in the country.”
125 — Duell Stadel
Stadel had to knock off two nationally-ranked opponents in order to get through the Western Regional qualifier. Never-the-less, the former Havre Blue Pony state champion has had a strong first season at Northern, splitting time in the starting lineup with LaFarge. Stadel has a 14-16 record, but has come on really strong in the second half of the season. Like LaFarge, he’ll have to contend with Lofstedt and Silva.
“Duell has grown and improved every time he steps on the mat,” Thivierge said. “And we expect him to do well at nationals. He just gets tougher and tougher every time he wrestles.”
133 — Cameron Neiss
Neiss is a returning NAIA All-American, he has lots of national tournament experience, and as a junior, he’s now a veteran for the Lights. But he’ll enter this week’s tournament in Iowa in new territory, as the No. 1 133-pounder in the nation. After a huge performance at the Western Regional, Neiss (30-8) is a top seed this week. I his chase for a national title, he’ll have to contend with Western rivals Prescott Garner of SOU and Angel Garcia of Menlo, along with Indiana Tech’s Travis Barroquillo, but nice has now beaten them all, and it appears the 133-pound weight class his for the taking.
“We’ve always known Cameron could do this,” Thivierge said. “It was just a matter of him going out and wrestling his best. And he did that at regionals. He’s really on a roll right now.”
149 — Trevor Goss
Goss is making his first trip to the national tournament, and he was a surprise contender at the Western Regional. He went 16-26 during the regular season, but after his performance earlier this month in Great Falls, he appears to be peaking. The 149-pound bracket features Western region stars Mike Vasser of UGF and Jimmy Eggemyer of SOU, a defending national champ. But Goss will be one of the Lights hoping to score points wherever he can.
“Really proud of what Trevor Goss did at regionals,” Thivierge said. “He was a big surprise for us and he really stepped up and wrestled well. And I think he can continue that.”
157 — Mickey Cheff
Cheff has a wealth of NAIA tournament experience after making a solid run in Iowa a year ago. And though he’s had a season filled with ups and downs, he always seems to rise up in the biggest moments, and he’s certainly the type of wrestler who can go on a run to All-American status this week. Cheff (10-13) will be in a bracket which features top-ranked Conor Young of Campbelsville, as well as stalwarts from Grand View and Oklahoma City, but 157 also looks to be somewhat wide open.
“Mickey is tough,” Thivierge said. “He’s won a lot of big matches for us, and he also has national tournament experience. He’s a streaky wrestler and when he gets going, he’s really tough to beat.”
165 — Ethan Hinebauch
Hinebauch isn’t just a national title contender this week in Iowa, he’s the favorite. He’s seeded No. 1 and hasn’t lost to an NAIA opponent in a junior season in which he’s gone a dominating 35-4 with 30 pins. He’s also motivated this week, having finished sixth at nationals a year ago. A pair of Grand View wrestlers, as well as UGF’s Shaun Lau and SOU’s Derek Mestrovich will try and stand in Hinebauch’s way this week, but he’s certainly on a mission to become the second NAIA national champion Hinebauch to wrestle for Northern.
“Ethan has been focused all season long,” Thivierge said. “He’s had a great season. He’s been dominant the whole way, and I know what he expects of himself at nationals. One thing is for sure, he’ll go out and wrestle as hard as he possibly can in every match.”
174 — Max Payne
Payne is one of the Lights’ four returning All-Americans. But after a dominating 2012-13 season, he’s certainly ready to improve upon an 8th-place finish a year ago. After going 20-6 this season, and holding the No. 2 ranking for much of the year, Payne is certainly planning on winning a national title this week. He’s also another of Northern’s pinners, and he’ll go after big bonus points this week. Payne’s main rival is SOU’s Brock Gutches, who’s been ranked No. 1 most of the season. The two are heavy favorites to meet in the title bout Saturday night, but the likes of Grand View’s Thomas Moman and Dickinson State’s Cameron Schrempp will try and stop that from happening.
“Max has really grown as a wrestler this year,” Thivierge said. “He’s always been strong and powerful, but he’s really improved his technique and his focus this season. He’s had a big year for us and we expect him to have a big national tournament.”
184 — Kody Reed
Like Niess and Hinebauch, Reed is ranked No. 1 and a favorite to capture the 184-pound national title. Reed might be the most improved wrestler in the country this season, after going a stellar 28-3 for the Lights. He’s been dominant all season, and he knows how to win big matches. He’s also had the experience of preparing for the big stage by working with former national champion Evan Hinebauch his first two seasons at MSU-N. And while he’s a favorite this week in Iowa, Reed will have to watch out for defending champion Brian Block of Morningside, as well as Lindsey Wilson’s Joseph Stevens and teammate Toby Cheff.
“Kody has come so far,” Thivierge said. “But we’ve always known what we have in him. He just wrestled behind a great one in Evan Hinebauch for a couple of years. But Kody has really taken this opportunity and worked hard to get to where he is. He’s going to have a great national tournament.”
184 — Toby Cheff
Cheff could have been a title contender at 197, even this season, but he dropped down to 184 to give the Lights more firepower this week in Iowa. And yet, he’s still a national title contender. Cheff went 21-9 in his redshirt-freshman season, mostly at 197, but he reached the regional final where he and Reed didn’t wrestle off. But he, and Thivierge are hoping that match materializes Saturday night in Iowa.
“Toby is a tough competitor,” Thivierge said. “And if he and Kody meet up like we’re hoping, it will be a great match. They are both wrestling with a lot of confidence and they both have a great chance to get there. And if they do, there will be some great fireworks there.”