Rebuilding the wrestling program at Montana State University-Northern has been a challenge former Northern NAIA national champion Tyson Thivierge accepted from the moment he was hired as MSU-N's head coach.
Now, entering his sixth season at helm of the Lights' program, Thivierge is really starting to see the fruits of his labors pay off. Last spring, Northern rose back to its rightful place, among the NAIA elite. The Lights finished third at the national tournament, and brought home a stellar seven All-Americans.
And with the dawn of a brand new season, the Lights could be even bigger and better this winter. Six of those seven All-Americans return to the MSU-N lineup, a lineup which is deep, talented and motivated...motivated to take the 2013-14 season even farther than the last.
And that motivation has helped not just fuel the Lights, but put last season's accomplishments in the past, something Thivierge said was important as Northern got to work earlier this month.
"Last year was last year," Thivierge said. "It was a great season. But we're not going to live off what we accomplished last year. Yes, we have a lot of really good returners, and a lot of depth. We have some firepower. But we need to be hungry again.
"There are plenty of things we have to improve on in order to be where we want to be" he continued. "We're starting over. We need to start faster this season, we need to score more points, we need to get tougher, both mentally and physically. There are plenty of things we have to overcome in order to get to where we want to be, and that's to win a national championship. And even if last season hadn't have happened the way it did, our goal would still be to win a national championship this year."
While a national championship is firmly in the Lights' sights this season, Northern is now in the cross hairs of its foes. Defending national champion Southern Oregon lies within the same region and will be strong again this winter. And the intense rivalry with Great Falls will only be more heated this season, considering the Lights swept the Argos a year ago, and have won the last three duals.
"We opened some eyes last year," Thivierge said. "These guys have to know they have a target on their backs now. They need to be hungry, they need to want to get better in the room every single day."
Getting better shouldn't be a problem with all the talent Northern houses in its own room. The Lights are deep enough that they could almost field two dual teams. And while MSU-N was strong in both duals and tournaments a year ago, Thivierge feels the Lights can still improve in both areas.
"I feel great about us as a dual team," Thivierge said. "We have some big guns and those guys are pinners, so we know where we're going to get big points from. Our tournament teams did well last season, but I think that's an area we can do better. We can score more points. We need to wrestle out in front better in tournaments. Start matches faster.
"We have good depth, we have some holes in the lineup too," he continued. "We return a bunch of All-Americans, and we have guys coming up we believe we can get there too. It's all a matter of how hard these guys work. And they have worked hard. Our room is as competitive as it's ever been."
Northern's returnees will light the way this winter. Junior Ethan Hinebauch returns after a third-place finish at the national tournament at 165 pounds. He'll be a heavy favorite to win at 165 this season after a remarkable regular season a year ago in which he led the NAIA in pins. Also back is senior Cameron Neiss. He's a two-time All-American and finished runner-up at 133 pounds a year ago. Neiss will wrestle at 141 early in the season, but will eventually go back to 133. Fellow senior Kody Reed is back at 184 pounds. Reed was ranked No. 1 for much of the 2012-13 season, but was upset twice at the national tournament, and he'll get back on the mat hungrier than ever.
"Ethan is just a beast," Thivierge said. "He'll be our lone wolf again at 165. I expect him to have a great year. He's healthy, experienced and hungry. Kody (Reed) is on a mission. He knows it's down to his last year. He knows exactly what he's got to do this season. He's really eager to get started."
The Lights return a pair of All-American 125-pounders in Aaron LaFarge, who finished fifth a year ago, and former Havre Blue Pony Duell Stadel, who placed sixth. The 125-pound class used to be a struggle for the Lights, but now it's one of their deepest weights, as sophomore Riley Miller also returns after red shirting last season. MSU-N also gets back All-American Mickey Cheff at 157. The junior finished fifth a year ago, and pulled off some dramatic wins for the Lights in the second half of the season. That weight will be one of many the Lights are at least doubled up at, as freshman Tommy Cooper is also expected to be a stalwart.
"The 125 pounders will battle all year," Thivierge said. "They are all very good, they are all very tough. We're going to be really competitive there. I like our options at 157 too. Mickey had a great season last year. And he and Tommy are very competitive every day."
The Lights' depth is bolstered by even more returnees, and some fresh faces.
After yet another knee injury sidelined him a year ago, star Hunter Azure returns to the lineup at 149 pounds. He'll be joined at 149 by junior college transfer Bryan Barocio. Thivierge said Azure is healthy and ready to go while Barocio is a tough competitor who is explosive and athletic. Sophomore Toby Cheff, who placed an outstanding third in his first national tournament appearance, returns to man the 197-pound spot for the Lights, and like many of the other returnees, he'll be looked at as a national title contender this season.
A familiar face returns to the 174-pound class for the Lights as well. Junior Jared Miller took his redshirt a year ago, and will likely man the spot alone as two-time All-American Max Payne decided to forgo his senior season. Two years ago, Miller reached the national tournament.
"We're excited to get Jared back," Thivierge said. "Physically, he's just one of the meanest, toughest kids in the room. And he's really excited to get back out there."
At 197 pounds, freshman Garrett DeMers is an exciting redshirt who will make his official debut this season. DeMers is much like Toby Cheff, and together, they'll create a formidable tandem at 197.
The 184-pound class is also deep behind Reed. Northern added Clackamas College transfer Steve Conn, as well as redshirts Jake Leinwand and Colby Roberts, two former Montana state champions.
"We're probably the deepest at 184," Thivierge said. "We've got four guys who get to go at each other every day. They have some real good battles and they'll all make each other better."
MSU-N also has depth at 133-141 in transfer Justin Gardner, while the heavyweight spot has two powerhouse of different styles. Former Chinook star Jorrell Jones has moved up to the heavyweight spot, and will use his quickness and speed to his advantage, while Clackamas transfer Rico Paz is a monster at in size and strength.
While Northern's roster is loaded with depth, talent, experience, youth and potential, one name missing from the lineup this season will be familiar to Lights' fans. Eli Hinebauch, a former Havre Blue Pony state champion was set to make his full-time MSU-N debut this fall, but he'll miss the entire season due to injury. Hinebauch red-shirted a year ago, and when he wrestled unattached, he had a stellar record in his first year of college. He was set to wrestle at either 157, or join his brother Ethan at 165, and would have had a huge impact on the Lights right away.
"It's going to hurt not having Eli," Thivierge said. "He progressed really fast last year, I believe he was ready to be one of our big guns right away. Not having him in our lineup definitely hurts.
"So we do have some holes at some spots, some areas where we just didn't land the guys we went after last spring," he continued. "But we have depth in a lot of other weights and that will make up for it. I love our roster. I feel like we're built for another great season."
A season which starts in Idaho against North Idaho College, and also features two duals against rival UGF, the first being Nov. 14 in Great Falls and the rematch set for early February in Havre. The Lights have a double-decker home dual against Northwest College and Southern Oregon Nov. 21, and also host Embry-Riddle Feb. 1. As usual, MSU-N has a tough tournament schedule, and it all culminates with the Western Regional in Menlo, Calif., and the NAIA national tournament March 7-8 in Topeka, Kan.
And at that national tournament, the Lights hope to again leave their mark, but only this time, they're shooting for the ultimate prize.
"Getting to the top has always been our goal, it's our goal every year," Thivierge said. "We have the talent to get there. We have a group of guys who are hungry and dedicated. But we also understand we have to take it step by step. We have to improve every time we step on the mat. We can't get ahead of ourselves. And we have a lot of challenges to overcome before we get there."
The Lights open their season with a dual at North Idaho on Saturday afternoon.
Oct. 26 at North Idaho
Nov. 2 at Cowboy Open
Nov. 9 at Trapper Open
Nov. 14 at UGF
Nov. 21 vs NW College
Nov. 21 vs S. Oregon
Nov. 23 vs Doane College
And Simon Fraser
At Cardinal Duals
Nov. 24 at Spokane Open
Dec. 6 Battle of the Rockies Duals in Great Falls
Dec. 7 Battle of the Rockies Open in Great Falls
Dec. 22 Reno Tournament of Champions
Jan. 11-12 NAIA Duals
Jan. 18 vs Western Wyoming
Northern junior Mickey Cheff is one of six returnign NAIA All-American wrestling for head coach Tyson Thivierge this season.
Jan. 24 at Northwest College
Jan. 25 at Western Wyoming
Feb. 1 vs Embry-Riddle
Feb. 6 vs UGF
Feb. 22 at Western Regional
In Menlo, Calif.
March 7-8 NAIA Nationals
In Topeka, Kans.