The beginning of the college wrestling season is somewhat quiet for the Montana State University-Northern Lights. But it’s about to get very loud and very intense.
Tonight, the No. 2 Lights travel to Great Falls to battle arch rival and sixth-ranked UGF in the first of two rivalry duals between Montana’s only college wrestling programs. The action kicks off at 7 inside UGF’s McLaughlin Center.
The rivalry between MSU-N and UGF has been heated since the Argos added wrestling over a decade ago. But in recent years, especially with former Northern national champions Tyson Thivierge and Caleb Schaeffer heading up the respective programs, it’s turned into an all-out brawl, a brawl Northern has triumphed in three straight times. Still, Thivierge says his troops will focus on nothing more than wrestling tonight, and that the Lights approach this dual just like any other.
“This is just another match, and it is just another building block towards our ultimate goal of winning a national title,” Thivierge said. “Nothing else matters. We are trying to block out all of the hype behind this dual and just focus on bettering ourselves every time we have the opportunity to wrestle.”
It’s hard to block out the hype though, simply because the dual pits so many of the best wrestlers in the NAIA against each other, and inside a rivalry setting.
Tonight’s dual will feature some great potential matchups, but the continued battle between MSU-N’s Ethan Hinebauch, ranked No. 2 at 165 pounds and UGF’s Shaun Lau, ranked No. 4 won't happen as Lau is out with a knee injury. Like so many wrestlers on both sides of the dual, Hinebauch and Lau are former Montana state high school champions.
In all, the dual could see as many as 18 nationally ranked grapplers tonight, and that doesn’t include UGF 184-pounder Kameron Jackson, who was ranked No. 1 to start the 2012 season, but was forced to miss almost the entire year because of an injury.
At 125 pounds, Havre’s Duell Stadel is ranked No. 2, and he’ll face off against former Conrad rival Luke Schlosser, ranked No. 7. Northern has junior Aaron LaFarge ranked No. 1 at 125, but he’ll move up to 133 tonight, squaring off against 10th-ranked Michael Ruiz. At 141, MSU-N will send out senior Cameron Neiss, currently the top-ranked 133-pounder in the country. Neiss could face off against UGF’s Kyle Wilson, ranked No. 11, though Wilson might not be able to go either. Northern expects Hunter Azure, a once-heralded four-time state champion from Poplar to make his season debut tonight at 149. Azure missed much of the last two seasons with knee injuries, while he’s slated to wrestle UGF star Ryan Martin, currently ranked ninth.
Big matches will also go down in the upper weights. At 157, Mickey Cheff is ranked No. 3 while UGF’s Chad Cebulski is ranked No. 7. At 174, MSU-N junior Jared Miller, ranked 11th will battle Brock Picard, ranked No. 13. Northern may send out star senior Kody Reed to face Jackson at 184 pounds or Steve Conn will go for the Lights if Reed can’t. Jackson could also move up to face either MSU-N No. 3 or red-shirt freshman Garrett DeMers, ranked No. 8 at 197 pounds. Garrett Wolfe, ranked No. 14 could also go for UGF at 184, while Dylan Lemery is ranked No. 12 at 197. The dual will conclude with Northern’s Jorrell Jones taking on UGF’s David Lopez in the heavyweight bout.
“The keys to us winning is just us believing in our abilities and our conditioning,” Thivierge said. “We have preached to them thus far that nothing matters other than wrestling our kind of match. Going hard is the key for us. If we can push people and control the pace of the matches we will be fine.”
Of course, hype aside, tonight’s dual is a big, big test for the Lights, who are ranked as high as they have been in almost a decade. It’s also big for both programs, which recruit many of the same wrestlers. Still, Thivierge is focused on his team keeping things in perspective.
“We have not really preached about the rivalry. I am sure they (Argos) are excited, but it isn’t something we get pumped up for,” he said. “They may feel a bit of the pressure about this dual, but we are trying to keep our guys low key and remember to compete at a level that they are capable of. This is big for both programs, it is very fun, very exciting and should be a good test for each program. Again, with our guys and our program, we are just focused on wrestling seven minutes to the best of our abilities and let the crowd get amped about the rivalry.”
Tonight’s dual between the Lights and Argos starts at 7 in Great Falls. The rematch will take place Feb. 6 in Havre.