Diehard wrestling fans probably thought they’d already seen it all heading into the latest battle between the Montana State University-Northern Lights and University of Great Falls Argos. But no one could have been prepared for what transpired Wednesday night at the Armory Gymnasium.
In what was already a wild and emotional dual, Northern 197-pounder Toby Cheff moved up to wrestle UGF monster David Lopez in the final match of the night. The Lights were clinging to an already improbable 21-18 lead, but Cheff was giving away close to 100 pounds, and found himself unable to gain any leverage on Lopez through two periods. However, with the Great Falls’ behemoth leading 1-0 at the start of the third, everything changed.
Cheff scored a couple of takedowns and nearly pinned Lopez at the start of the final stanza. And, less than a minute after the first near fall, Cheff got the much bigger Lopez into a cradle, earning the six points and preserving a spectacular 27-18 MSU-N win in front of a deafening crowd in Havre.
The win was the sixth-ranked Lights’ sixth straight over the fourth-ranked Argos, and the dual was perhaps the most exciting in what has become an amazing series.
“My strategy was, that I figured I was in better shape than he was,” Cheff, the sophomore who’s ranked No. 2 at 197 pounds said. “I was giving away a lot of weight. He’s a big guy. So I just had to try and wear him down.
“We really wanted to get this one,” he continued. “We wanted to get this one for the seniors. So I was a little nervous just knowing I was giving away a lot of weight. But I knew I could get it done. I had to go out and get it done.
“We knew Toby could win,” MSU-N head coach Tyson Thivierge added. “We believe in Toby and he believes in himself, and he deserved the chance to go out there and finish it for us. We just figured what the heck, he’s a funky guy against a big heavyweight. And really, he wrestled a flawless match. He didn’t hesitate for one second. He believed in himself and he knew he could go out and get the job done.”
Cheff’s win capped off a remarkable Northern comeback on a night that featured a little bit of everything.
Though MSU-N’s two seniors lost heartbreaking matches on senior night, the start was crazy as UGF’s Danny Luttrell, ranked No. 2 at 125 pounds, had to quit in the second period due to a shoulder injury in his match against Riley Miller. Miller was ahead 3-1 and was taking it to Luttrell, who clearly couldn’t go on. That gave Northern a 6-0 lead, but it was short-lived as UGF’s Michael Ruiz earned a pin at 133 pounds, then Cameron Neiss was upset by UGF’s Kyle Wilson, 10-7 at 141 and the Lights were open at 149, so the result was, UGF leading 15-6 heading into the 157-pound match.
But, as has been the Lights’ trademark this season, they would rally, and they did it in dramatic fashion, earning yet another win over their bitter rivals from Great Falls. MSU-N also beat UGF 26-15 back in November.
“Riley Miller is a guy we should be talking about,” Thivierge said, “because he really set the tone tonight. He was really aggressive and I don’t know what happened there, but he came out and was the aggressor in that match and even though we fell behind after that, I think that he really gave us a spark. Guys were fired up after that.”
Mickey Cheff also gave the Lights a spark, and as they’ve done so often this season, they got on a roll in the upper weights. Cheff worked his way to a grueling 3-2 decision over Nick Schmidt, and Ethan Hinebauch followed that up with an equally tough 12-8 win over Brock Picard at 165 pounds. Now the Lights were down only 15-12 and they were rolling.
The 174-pound match would be a crucial one as well. Junior Jared Miller, ranked No. 4 in the NAIA, dumped UGF standout Taylor Vaughn on his back in the second period and scored a momentous pin for the Lights. Miller actually trailed Vaughn 4-1 after the first period, but Miller found his power in the second and when he saw a slight opening, he took it.
“Coach just told us to wrestle smart,” Miller said. “Not to go for too much if it wasn’t there. So I just tried to stay patient and let my conditioning pay off. I just dug deep and came out on top. And it’s an awesome feeling. To win this dual, on senior night, in our gym, it’s an awesome feeling. The seniors lost two really close matches, so we really wanted to get this one done for them. And we believed we could. The guys in the upper weights have been able to get on rolls like this all season. And we did again tonight. It’s awesome.”
With Miller’s pin, the Lights had jumped to an 18-15 lead, but in yet another classic match in the Armory, UGF’s Kameron Jackson wasn’t going to be denied against Northern senior 184-pounder Kody Reed. Both nationally ranked wrestlers were tough throughout, each giving up one escape. But Jackson found the slightest of openings in the early seconds of sudden death overtime, and took Reed down to tie the dual back up at 18-18.
That left the night up to a swift coaching move by Thivierge. He put in red-shirt freshman Garrett Demers to face UGF’s Casey Park at 197, which meant Cheff would move to heavyweight. And DeMers came though. Ranked No. 8 in the NAIA, DeMers was determined and worked his way to a 10-4 decision, in what was his most important win of the season. It also gave the Lights a 21-18 lead and set the stage for Cheff’s heroics in the heavyweight match.
“It was important for us to win this dual,” Thivierge said. “Ultimately, our goals, and UGF’s goals go well beyond this. We want to improve each week and be at our best for regionals and nationals. But this dual was important to us tonight. You don’t want to lose your last dual of the season, against your rival on senior night. Our guys were hungry and they wanted it.
“And make no mistake, UGF came right out and fought us the whole way, and it made it a very exciting dual,” he continued. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard it as loud as it was tonight for a wrestling match in this gym. It was a great dual. Both teams wrestled really hard. There were some great matches. It was exciting, and we’re happy we came out on top.”
The Lights did come out on top in dramatic fashion, in a dual which really could have gone UGF’s way early on. But, in yet another comeback, the Lights once again showed heart, resilience and toughness, in what was undoubtedly one of the most exciting duals in the history of the rivalry with the Argos.
“We’ve overcome so much this season,” said Toby Cheff. “We’ve lost some guys, we’ve had guys hurt, guys quit and yet we keep rising to the occasion. These guys on this team really step up and we stepped up as a team again tonight.
“With what we’ve been through this season, these guys could have easily folded by now,” Thivierge added. “But they haven’t batted an eye at anything that’s happened to us. They really are a resilient group. They work hard and they believe in themselves. They believed they could win this dual tonight, they believed they deserved to win this dual tonight, and they went out and made it happen. I’m really very proud of all the guys on this team. It’s a really special group.”
Montana State University-Northern head coach Tyson Thivierge and the Lights react to Toby Cheff pinning UGF's David Lopez during Wednesday night's dual between the Lights and Argos at the Armory Gymnasium. MSU-N beat UGF 27-18.
The Lights will now have a week off before heading to Menlo, Calif., for the NAIA Western Regional Qualifer. The NAIA national tournament is set for March 7-8 in Topeka, Kan.
A Dual for the Ages
Lights 27, UGF 18
125 – Riley Miller, MSU-N inj. def. Danny Luttrell, UGF (Miller led 31 in 2nd period); 133 – Michael Ruiz, UGF pinned Doug O'Hara, MSU-N, 1:06; 141 – Kyle Wilson, UGF dec. Cameron Neiss, MSU-N, 10-7; 149 – Ryan Martin, UGF wins by FFT; 157 – Mickey Cheff, MSU-N dec. Nick Schmidt, UGF, 3-2; 165 – Ethan Hinebauch, MSU-N dec. Brock Picard, UGF, 12-8; 174 – Jared Miller, MSU-N pinned Taylor Vaughn, UGF, 3:46; 184 – Kameron Jackson, UGF dec. Kody Reed, MSU-N, 3-1 in OT; 197 – Garrett DeMers, MSU-N dec. Casey Park, UGF, 10-4; HWT – Toby Cheff, MSU-N pinned David Lopez, UGF, 6:47.