The Montana State University-Northern wrestling team is ranked No. 2 in the NAIA right now. And while the Lights are off to a strong start in 2013, they sure picked some heavy hitters from their home opener.
Tonight, the Lights host a double-dual, starting at 5 inside the Armory Gymnasium. Northern will host Northwest College first, followed by NAIA West Region rival Southern Oregon. And both teams come into tonight’s event with some similar credentials that the Lights have. The Trappers are the No. 1 team in the NJCAA, while the Raiders are ranked No. 8 in the NAIA.
So as far as home openers go, things don’t get much more challenging for the Lights.
“Our schedule isn’t getting any easier,” MSU-N head coach Tyson Thivierge said. “We are hosting the No. 1 ranked junior college team (Trappers) and also the NAIA national runner-up from last season. These are two very important duals for us. We have to be on top of our game in both duals, and we have to start each dual with high intensity.”
The Lights will get pushed by both teams tonight, but they’ve already been pushed early in the season. Northern opened the season with a tough dual loss at North Idaho, the team expected to contend with NWC for the NJCAA national championship. However, MSU-N bounced back from that loss in a big way, defeating arch rival UGF last Thursday night in Great Falls. And Thivierge wants to see that momentum continue tonight on the Lights’ home mat.
“At UGF, we stepped on the mat at 125 (pounds) and wrestled hard in every match through heavyweight,” Thivierge said. “That is what the goal is against Northwest and SOU. If we just get on the mat and control the pace and tempo we will be OK. Each individual knows the importance of wrestling their match and making sure they take care of their job.”
The Trappers bring plenty of firepower into tonight’s dual, including No.1-ranked Zac Loveless at 141 pounds and top-ranked Colby Kloetzer at 149. That will be a tough stretch for the Lights, but so will battles against No.1-ranked Diroian Coleman at 165 pounds and top-ranked Miles Nixon at 184 pounds. Those four matches will fall on the shoulders of MSU-N’s Cameron Niess (141), Hunter Azure (149), Ethan Hinebauch (165) and Kody Reed (184). In all, the Trappers have a nationally ranked wrestler in every single weight class tonight.
Meanwhile, the Lights could juggle their lineup a bit between the two duals. Aaron LaFarge or Duell Stadel can start at 125 pounds, while the other will go at 133. LaFarge is currently ranked No. 1 and Stadel No. 2 at 125. Northern might also opt to use Steve Conn at 184 pounds at some point tonight, while the rest of the MSU-N lineup is set with Mickey Cheff at 157 pounds, Jared Miller at 174, Toby Cheff at 197 and Jorrell Jones wrestling at heavyweight.
And while the Trappers will present a stern test in the opening bout, the dual against the Raiders will tell the Lights a lot about where they’re at heading into December. SOU has won two straight against the Lights, but the Raiders graduated a host of stars from last year’s second-place NAIA finish. Still, SOU is a wrestling powerhouse, and the Raiders have plenty of talent.
SOU’s lineup is paced by star senior Brock Gutches, the defending NAIA champion at 174 pounds. His bout with Miller will be the main attraction in tonight’s second dual. In all, SOU has just four ranked grapplers, with Jacob Abrams ranked No. 6 at 184 pounds, Lucas Randall ranked no. 12 at 149 and Jonathan Gay ranked No. 13 at 141. However, SOU is deep with up-and-comers, and after losing the national title to Grand View by just six points last spring, the Raiders will look to rebuild, and that process starts with tonight’s dual against the Lights.
Though the Lights are pegged as one of the premier teams in the NAIA this season, they too are still in a building process. While tonight’s duals are big, and last Thursday’s win at UGF was important, Thivierge insists his team is still striving to improve with each match, and at this point in the season, getting better is all that matters.
“I will repeat myself all season; for us, it’s not about winning and losing duals, it’s about how well each individual can perform and how they wrestle,” Thivierge said. “We just want to improve on each opportunity that we have to compete. It should be a busy night for us and also a busy weekend. Our number one goal right now is stepping on the mat and wrestling well against Northwest.”
Northern takes on the Trappers at 5 tonight, while MSU-N and SOU are set to square off at 7 inside the Armory Gymnasium. Tonight’s duals do indeed start a busy stretch for the Lights, who will head to Idaho for the Cardinal Duals on Saturday and the Spokane Open on Sunday.