The Montana State University-Northern wrestling team is ranked sixth in the NAIA right now. But that poll came out before the Lights dismantled the Great Falls Argos back on Feb.6.
In reality, Northern is wrestling like the best team in the country at the moment. And the Lights will get a chance to prove that when they return to Great Falls for Western Regional Saturday at McLaughlin Center.
The format for qualifying for the NAIA national tournament is new this year, with automatic qualifying now gone. That means Saturday’s regional, which features the Lights, second-ranked Southern Oregon, third-ranked UGF, 19th-ranked Menlo College and Embry-Riddle will be a true qualifier, with four NAIA national tournament spots in each weight class on the line.
And make no mistake, the Western Regional will be the most difficult to get out of in all of the NAIA. Every team is loaded with nationally-ranked wrestlers, and every weight class will be tightly contested. But with Northern as healthy as it’s been all season, and with the Lights wrestling better than they have in several years, head coach Tyson Thivierge is very optimistic about 10 grapplers he’s sending into Saturday’s tournament.
“I feel as if we are ready for this opportunity,” Thivierge said. “We have been improving every outing and we just need to focus on wrestling one match at a time. This is a very different situation for all programs. You can only get to nationals by placing in the top four at our national qualifier this Saturday, or by receiving an at large bid voted on by the coaches in the region.”
The Lights have some big guns in a tournament loaded with big guns. Junior Ethan Hinebauch is ranked No. 1 at 165 pounds, and not only has he not lost to a Western Regional rival this year, he’s yet to lose a match to an NAIA opponent. Hinebauch also has 31 pins to his credit. At 184 pounds, Kody Reed is ranked No. 1 in the NAIA and has been dominant all season long. Reed’s toughest opponent this weekend might very well be teammate Toby Cheff, who’s ranked No. 6 at 197, but is dropping to 184 for the postseason. Junior Max Payne is also a favorite this Saturday, ranked N0. 2 at 174 pounds. But he’s also No. 2 in the Western Region so he’ll have a battle to capture gold in Great Falls.
The Lights’ are also doubling up at 125 pounds, with ninth-ranked Aaron LaFarge and former Blue Pony Duell Stadel, The 125-pound weight class might be the toughest in the region as SOU has top-ranked Mitchell Lofstedt as part of the group. Lofstedt hasn’t lost in NAIA competition in nearly three years. At 133 pounds, Northern will send out Cameron Neiss, who’s ranked sixth and is looking to get back to the national tournament for the third straight year. At 141 pounds, Hunter Azure is ranked 14th and will battle with UGF and former Havre great Myles Mazurkiewicz, as well as Argo teammate Ryan Martin. Mazurkiewicz is a heavy favorite to capture the regional title, as he’s in the midst of a spectacular senior season. Trevor Goss and Mickey Cheff round out the Lights’ lineup at 149 and 157 pounds, respectively.
Other top grapplers in Saturday’s tournament include, SOU’s Prescott Garner, ranked No. 1 at 133 and Menlo’s Angel Garcia, ranked right behind him, UGF’s Mike Vasser and SOU’s Jimmy Eggemeyer, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 at 149 pounds, respectively, SOU’s Brock Gutches, ranked No. 1 at 174, SOU’s Charles Johnson, ranked No. 2 at 197 and UGF’s Siers Tiernan, ranked No. 3 at heavyweight.
“The pressure will be there to perform and I feel like we have done a great job keeping our feet firmly on the ground,” Thivierge said. “We will be ready and we are very excited to get back on the mat.”
The 2013 Western Regional wrestling tournament will be held Saturday in Great Falls. The top four grapplers in each weight class, and any wildcards will advance to the NAIA national tournament March 1-2 in Des Moines, Iowa.