Lights aim for fifth NAIA national title
Everything that the Montana State University-Northern wrestling team has endured this season was preparation for this weekend.
Every drop of sweat lost in the wrestling room, every mile traveled on the endless road trips, every pound shed trying to make weight, every nagging injury iced, every win celebrated, every loss agonized over, all culminates at the NAIA National wrestling tournament in Great Falls.
The Lights will begin their quest for a fifth NAIA national title on Friday morning at the Bison Fieldhouse.
It's not impossible quest by any means, if anything, it's quite attainable. With six wrestlers seeded number one in their respective weight classes, the second-ranked Lights are considered to be favorites along with top-ranked Lindenwood College, third-ranked Southern Oregon and fourth-ranked Missouri Valley College.
"It comes really comes down to the top four teams," said head coach David Ray. "If we were to add up the individual rankings according to placement points, we have more people ranked and would win the tournament. But that really means nothing."
Indeed, as the cliche goes, records get thrown out during tournament time. Looking down his lineup, Ray is still confident about adding some more hardware to an already packed trophy case.
"I feel very confident in our team," Ray said. "But it doesn't matter how much confidence I have. It doesn't matter how positive I am. It doesn't matter how much I believe they can win, they have to believe it themselves.
Confidence in sports is always a key, but in wrestling it is vital to have the belief that you are simply better than your opponent.
"When that first whistle blows on Friday, they need to believe that they are the very best in their weight class."
It wouldn't be a stretch for Northern wrestlers to feel that way since they have people capable of becoming All-Americans and capturing individual titles at every weight class.
125 - Senior Andy Thompson (20-6) is considered one of the contenders for the title. After having his ups and downs this season, Ray believes Thompson can be a factor.
"Andy should be an All-American and could contend for a title," Ray said. "But he has to pull the trigger and be ready to go. He has to pick up the pace and be very aggressive. Standing around and pushing a guy around doesn't score points, he needs to score points.
Thompson opens the tournament against Nate Engle and could meet fourth-ranked Isaac Pumarejo of Menlo in the second round.
133 - Junior Caleb Schaeffer (39-7) has been one of Northern's most consistent performers all season. After finishing fifth last year, Schaeffer is primed to make a run for national title.
Schaeffer has a tough draw with Brant Brunner of Lindenwood and Jordan Ottow of Southern Oregon on his same side of bracket. The two wrestlers finished second and third last year while Schaeffer finished fifth. However, he has defeated both wrestlers this year.
"Caleb just has to keep doing what he's been doing all year," Ray said. "If he does that, he'll be fine."
141 - Freshman Anthony Haukenberry (22-16) will get his first taste of national championship competition this weekend and he's certainly hungry.
At the beginning of the year, 141 looked to be one of the weaker weight classes. But that has changed considerably, it is now a very deep weight class filled with quality wrestlers.
Haukenberry goes into the tourney seeded fifth and placing anywhere in that area would make Ray more than happy. But it wouldn't make Haukenberry happy.
"He thinks he can win it," Ray said. "That's good. The way he's been wrestling in the room, he could certainly be there."
149 - Northern could realisitcally have two wrestlers in the finals at this weight. Seniors Bobby Mantle (31-10) and Dustyn Azure (31-7) will both be competing and are on opposite sides of the bracket.
"They are both very capable of getting to the finals," Ray said. "They're solid individuals and great wrestlers. Wouldn't that be great?"
Mantle, who dropped down from 157 at regionals, is seeded second and could face a tough quarterfinal match against Waylon Alsbury of Southern Oregon.
Azure is seeded sixth and appears to be recovered from a dislocated elbow suffered over a month ago.
"He looks to be about 95 percent healthy," Ray said. "He'll make up the other five percent with his mental toughness."
157 - Junior Neil Samoy (8-7) and freshman Lance Nelson (20-11) come in as unranked competitors. But that doesn't mean that either can't place. In fact, Ray expects it.
"Those two can definitely place," Ray said.
Samoy will face top-seeded Chad Smith of Lindenwood in his first match while Nelson will face sixth-seeded Kenny Taylor of Bacone College.
165 - Freshman Aaron Jensen gets the pleasure of wrestling in possibly the toughest division in the tournament.
"It's a loaded, deep weight class," Ray said. "Aaron's going to have to wrestle very hard to get in there and place. Is he capable of doing that? I think so."
Jensen will face David Rivera of Embry-Riddle in his first match.
174 - Junior Kyle Fisher (26-12) will look to improve on his runner-up finish at last year's national tournament. Fisher hasn't had the greatest of years according to his own expectations, still he has favorable draw in the tournament and has been wrestling well lately.
"Kyle is looking good right now," Ray said. "If he can go out there and wrestle like he's capable of, he can beat anyone in this weight class and place. And we need him to place."
The big thing with his Fisher is confidence and with his draw as the sixth seed, he has plenty of it. Last year's situation was similar in that Fisher saved his best wrestling for the national tournament. He opens with a familiar opponent in Art Castillo of Dana College.
184 - Senior Mike Lester (25-7) is definitely eyeing an individual national title. After being bothered by injuries the last two years, Lester is finally fully healthy and fully capable of winning it all.
"He is just solid," Ray said. "When he gets going, he is very tough."
Lester, seeded third, opens against Marcus Andy of Menlo College.
197 - Senior Emmett Willson (43-3) returns to defend his national title. While nothing in wrestling is guaranteed, Willson winning another title is about as close as you can get. He has not lost to an NAIA opponent this season, with all three of his losses coming to NCAA Division I competition.
"He's such a competitor," Ray said. "You can see it in his eyes. He's ready to get out there and dominate. His opponents know that he hasn't just beaten them, he's beaten plenty of Division I opponents."
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was Willson drawing a first round bye, both he and Ray were looking for a first round pin to help team scoring.
HWT - Senior Matt Carter (22-5) has been through more this season than most people experience in a lifetime. If anything, wrestling has been the easy part after losing his mother and grandfather in the span of a month.
But the wrestling will be far from easy at this tournament. Carter will most likely face Southern Oregon's Mike Whitehead in the quarterfinals which should be a good match.
"Whitehead's solid and it should be a touch match," Ray said. "Matt's been through so much, you can't help but want him to win."
Overall, Ray knows that winning a team title comes down to how each individual wrestler reacts to their own situation.
"We control our own destiny," Ray said. "These guys have to make their own breaks. They have to go out and pick it up a few notches."
Ray's biggest concern isn't getting the championship, it's the first round.
"The first round is so important," Ray said. "We have to be mentally prepared to win right away. You see plenty of guys choke and lose in that first round because they aren't mentally ready. We have to go out there with the attitude that we are going to dominate. You don't take anyone for granted, you don't overlook anyone, you just go out there and go to work on them.
The National tournament begins Friday morning with the opening round matches and ends with quarterfinal matches on Friday night. The consolation rounds and semfinals take place Saturday morning with the finals taking place Saturday night at the Bison Fieldhouse.
Fans can check updated results at http://www.NAIA.org.