GREAT FALLS - Saturday night marked the final time Montana State University-Northern will host the NAIA national wrestling tournament in Great Falls for the foreseeable future. And the Lights weren't about to let the show head out of town without capturing a national championship.
The team gave head coach David Ray his fourth national championship and Northern its sixth title overall by placing six wrestlers in the finals on Saturday night and capturing an unprecedented five individual national championships at Swarthout Fieldhouse on the campus of Great Falls High School.
"This is very special for our team and for Northern, as well all of the fans and students in Havre," Ray said. "It takes a lot to put an event like this on, and the last two years we had chances to win it and it didn't happen. So we are really happy that we got this one and it is really nice to win it in front of our fans."
MSU-Northern finished the tournament with 169.5 team points. Menlo College of California was second with 133.5 points, and defending national champion Missouri Valley College was third with 116. Missouri Valley was expected to compete for the team title, but its chances were dashed Friday night when top-ranked Tyson Biddle was disqualified from competition at 141 pounds for unsportsmanlike conduct. Missouri Valley was forced to forfeit all of Biddle's points and carry on without the defending champion.
When the tournament concluded, Emmett Willson, who continued his undefeated streak at 197 pounds this year, was named NAIA wrestler of the year and the tournament's most outstanding wrestler. Ray was named NAIA coach of the year.
The 2004 national championship was the fourth during Ray's tenure at Northern. The Lights won three consecutive national titles from 1998 to 2000. They also captured titles in 1991 and 1992.
The Lights finished second when the national tournament came to Great Falls in 2002. Last season, Northern finished third.
After a very successful three-year run in Montana, the tournament is moving to Iowa.
"This is just as special as all the others and it is really nice to win it here in Montana," Ray said. "It is also nice because we had some kids do some great things this weekend. We had four kids win their first national championships and that is pretty special. There are a lot of kids on this team that had never won a team title at any level before, so it was nice to get this one for them."
Despite the wide margin of victory, it wasn't easy, he said.
"We had some ups and downs in this tournament," Ray said. "There are a couple of guys that should have been All-American this year and for whatever reason it didn't happen. There were also some great teams here and this is a tough tournament to win."
When Saturday morning's semifinal round began, the Lights had a half-point lead and were in a dogfight with Menlo. But the Lights began to distance themselves from the pack by advancing six wrestlers to the finals and placing two others in consolation rounds. Freshman David Waters finished eighth at 174 pounds and Jesse Juarez managed to recover from a semifinal loss to finish fifth.
When the finals round began, Northern had all but locked up the team title. The magical night began at 133 pounds where senior Caleb Schaeffer captured his first individual title by defeating freshman teammate Chris Smith 7-5.
At 149 pounds, sophomore Anthony Haukenberry thrilled the crowd of more than 3,000 by pulling off a dramatic 11-9 win over Danny Castillo of Menlo. Haukenberry was down late in the match when he pulled off a flurry of points to overtake Castillo. In a span of just 10 seconds, Haukenberry took Castillo down and got a two-point near fall while Castillo was trying to get out of bounds to pull off the win.
Although the night may have belonged to the Lights' seniors, Ray said Haukenberry and Smith were huge reasons why the team was able to capture the national championship.
"We had some young guys really help carry the load this weekend," Ray said. "Chris Smith wrestled a tremendous tournament and he got us a lot of points. He won some really tight matches and he just came up big. And Haukenberry really wrestled smart. He wrestled like a veteran, and we couldn't of done it without those guys."
Following Haukenberry's match, the Lights' roll continued with junior Stryder Davis capturing the 157-pound title by earning a hard-fought 7-5 decision over Rocky Vercher of Lindenwood University. Davis, who transferred this season from North Idaho Junior College, capped off a tremendous first season in NAIA with his first-ever individual championship at any level.
"Stryder wrestled really well all year for us," Ray said. "It shows a lot about what kind of a wrestler he is to come in here his first time and win this tournament."
Northern finished off the night with a pair of highly anticipated titles at 184 and 197 pounds. Havre native Kyle Fisher, wrestling the final match of his career, gutted out an 11-9 win over David O'Brien of Southern Oregon to finally capture the national title he had wanted for so long.
"It couldn't possibly get any better than this," Fisher said. "I was second two years in a row, so to win this one in front of your hometown fans and to win the team title, it is just a perfect ending for me."
The capacity crowd witnessed history in the making in the 197-pound title match when MSU-Northern senior Willson capped off a perfect season with a 21-6 dismantling of Niko Koliastasis of Bacone College. The championship was Willson's third in a row and it marks the end of one of the most prolific careers in NAIA history.
"What can you say about Emmett Willson that hasn't already been said?" Ray said. "He only lost 16 matches in his entire career and the run he had this year was very remarkable. He is a very special wrestler. To go undefeated this season against the competition he faced is just amazing, and I am really proud of him and very happy for him."
Said Willson: "My goal was to go undefeated last season and to win a team title. That didn't happen, and this year the coaches just really pushed me hard to get it done. I have to give a huge amount of credit to the coaching staff for a lot of my success. This was a great way to finish off my career."
The tournament will move to Sioux City, Iowa, in 2005. While Ray has enjoyed the last three years in Great Falls, he said he is looking forward to getting back to just being a coach.
"It takes a lot of work to put something like this on," he said. "None of this could have happened without Walt Currie and the people around him. We owe a huge thanks to Walt and everyone who worked hard to put this on the last three years.
"We are really proud to win the national championship in Great Falls this year, and I am really proud of all of our kids," Ray added. "This was a great way to end the tournament being held in Montana."