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LIGHTS STORM INTO IOWA

 

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Montana State University-Northern's Brandon Weber, right, is the defending NAIA national champion at 157 pounds. He and the Lights are in Des Moines, Iowa this week for the 2018 NAIA national championships, which start Friday morning. In all, eight MSU-N grapplers will be in action for head coach Tyson Thivierge's team. For full coverage, stay tuned to the Havre Daily News.

In wrestling, having a chip on your shoulder is a good thing. Having an edge is vital. The Montana State University-Northern Lights have had that all season long, and now, they're taking it with them to Des Moines, Iowa.

Eight Northern grapplers will be in Des Moines Friday and Saturday for the 2018 NAIA national championships, and the Lights, of longtime head coach Tyson Thivierge, a former national champion himself, are on a mission - a mission to prove everybody wrong.

The Lights are coming off a great season in which they went 9-2 in duals, and scored 117 points at the Cascade Conference Tournament two weeks ago, which was just three points out of first place. And yet Northern feels it's been overlooked this season. The Lights are ranked just 13th in the last NAIA Coaches Poll, and when it comes to the national title discussion, the Lights are probably overlooked there, too.

And that's exactly what has been fueling Northern, and continues to fuel the Lights heading into the final weekend of the season.

"Our mentality, especially since Christmas break, has been, prove them wrong," Thivierge said. "This team has had a great season, in duals and in tournaments, but they feel they've been overlooked, or people say we're too young. So they're hungry. They're out to prove people wrong."

The fact of the matter is, the Lights shouldn't have been overlooked in the regular season, and they definitely shouldn't be this weekend. Northern is taking a great mix of talent to nationals led by veterans Brandon Weber (157), Matt Weber (141) and Andrew Bartel (165). Transfer Chris Nile (174) also may be making his first trip to nationals, but he's a stalwart and knows what it's like to compete at the highest level.

"Our captains, Brandon, Matt and Bart, they've led us all year," Thivierge said. "They've helped create a great culture in our room. This team really has each other's backs. They're really close. They push each other hard and they care about each other. And those guys have led that. This team really is a family."

That family has welcomed in newcomers too. True freshmen Nick Kunz (125) and Isaac Bartel (197), and sophomores Landon Bailey (133) and Steeler French (184) are also part of Northern's young core of tourney qualifiers, but, like the older guys, those three are also wrestling at an elite level and are poised to do big things this weekend in Iowa.

And Thivierge believes all eight of his wrestlers can achieve big things this weekend, but especially his trio of captains. Brandon Weber stormed his way to the 157-pound national championship a season ago, and while he's had to battle a knee injury to get back to nationals, he's ready to go and motivated to go get another national title.

"I've talked to Brandon a lot about this," Thivierge said. "He's not going down there to defend anything. He's going down there to win another one. That's his mind-set. Last year is last year. And he's back to form. He's ready to go."

Thivierge said all his Lights are ready to go. With a week in between the conference tournament and nationals, he noted that it was a long seven days, as his wrestlers were more than ready to get on the plane to Iowa.

"Our guys have been wrestling at a really high level," he said. "We actually had to hold them back some last week, because they were so fired up, and we didn't want them to peak too early. So they're ready, they're excited. They're hungry and they're looking forward to getting down there and getting on the mat."

Northern is indeed ready, and bringing plenty of firepower to Des Moines. Both Webers are already NAIA All-Americans, and for the Bartel brothers, this week is a homecoming, as they hail from Mason City, Iowa. Nile comes in on one of the hottest streaks in all of the NAIA, while French has national tourney experience, and Kunz and Bailey have really bolstered the lower portion of Northern's lineup.

Of course, the Lights also know the national tournament is tough, especially with four-time defending champion Grand View loaded for another run. Cumberlands, Missouri Valley and Southern Oregon are also strong trophy contenders, while Menlo, Lindsey Wilson and Providence bring strong teams as well. But, the Lights know they're strong too, and they're setting out to prove that this weekend.

"We've talked a lot seizing this opportunity," Thivierge said. "We want to not get ahead of ourselves. Just focus on one match at a time, and focus on going out and dominating that match. Not just winning, but dominating every match we wrestle. We have talked about leaving nothing to chance, because you just don't know when this opportunity will come again. It's not about next year or the future, it's about now."

Indeed. With no seniors in Northern's national tournament lineup, it would be easy to look ahead to greatness in near future. But this group has no intentions of doing that. They want to succeed now. They have their goals and they're going to Iowa to achieve them, and one of their biggest goals is, to prove everyone who doubts the Lights wrong.

"I've told the guys, and they know, the national tournament is tough, every single match is tough, everybody's good, just like they are," Thivierge said. "All these kids are there for a reason. But, at the same time, the rankings don't matter anymore, the seeds don't matter anymore, it's just about how well you wrestle in every match, every period. So that's what our guys need to do. They just need to focus on the match in front of them, the opponent right in front of them, and they're ready to do that. They are ready to go out and make the most of this opportunity, and prove people wrong."

The 2018 NAIA national tournament starts Friday morning and runs through Saturday night's finals. The tournament is held at the Jacobson Exhibition Center in Des Moines, Iowa. Northern fans can stay tuned to the Havre Daily News for updates from Iowa, as well as a full wrapup of all the action in Monday's Sports Roundup.

Here's a breakdown of each Northern wrestlers upcoming national tournament.

125 – Nick Kunz (24-18)

Kunz has had one heck of a season for the Lights. He cracked the lineup as a true freshman, but he's truly exploded in the last three months. The former Helena grappler will be a bit of an underdog this week in Iowa, but he's wrestling at an extremely high level, as evidenced by his performance in Northern's final two duals, and at the Cascade Conference Tournament. Cumberlands' Hayden Lee and Menlo's Mikel Perales are the top contenders, while Grandview's Matthew Nyguen is a returning All-American at 125 and teammate Justin Portillo is a seed. Kunz, ranked 13th, opens the tournament against un-ranked Ray Porter of Lourdes (Ohio).

Thivierge Quote: "Nick is wrestling really well. He's part of a special group we have right now in the lower weights. He's just gotten better and better as the season's gone on. It's been a lot of fun to watch his progress."

133 – Landon Bailey (22-19)

Like Kunz, Bailey has come on especially strong in the back half of the season. And, he's wrestling at an elite level despite being un-ranked coming into nationals. Bailey has some recent big wins to his credit, including at the Cascade Tournament, and, with 133 being a fairly wide-open bracket, there's no reason why Bailey can't do some real damage this weekend. Jake Cinkovics of Cumberlands is the top seed and an undefeated favorite, while Jordan Pitt of Reinhardt and Enrique Early of Indiana Tech are also highly ranked. Former Sidney star and Dickinson State standout Gresch Jones is also lurking at 133, but Bailey, who opens with 12th-ranked Ethan Owen of Southeastern Florida, is a grappler no one should want to see across from them the next few days.

Thivierge Quote: "Landon spent the first semester knocking the rust off, but we've always known what we had in Landon. It just took him a while to get back to form. But he's peaking right now. He's right where he should be and he's going to have a big week."

141 – Matt Weber (30-10)

Weber burst onto the Northern season two years ago, finishing third at the national tournament. Last year, he battled, but was hampered by injuries all season long. Now, though, as Weber approaches his third national tournament, he's not only healthy, he's a legitimate national title threat. He's had a ton of pins this season, and has been dominant down the stretch. He's certainly in a tough bracket with Josh Wenger (Grand View) the defending national champion, as well as Southern Oregon rival Deven Poppen, returning All-American Tyler Fraley (William Baptist) and undefeated Jaedin Sklapsky of Campbellsville. But, Weber belongs on the big stage with all of the favorites, and he'll be a force this weekend. Weber, ranked fifth, opens the tourney in the second round against 15th-ranked Alex Gomez of Benedictine.

Thivierge Quote: "Matt has had a great year. He's a captain, he's led us on the mat and in the room all season long. He's a force. He knows exactly what he needs to do this week. He's going to do big things."

157 – Brandon Weber (22-7)

One year ago, Weber was standing atop the NAIA podium at 157 pounds, after a remarkable run to the national championship. Now, he's back for more. But his goal isn't to defend his title, it's to win a second one. Weber was absolutely dominating NAIA competition until a knee injury sidelined him for almost all of January. He's worked his way back, and while he's slipped in the rankings, he won't be overlooked this weekend. And Weber is in a draw that he knows well. Lindsey Wilson's Cam Tessari, whom Weber beat in the final last year, as well as SOU rival Hunter Hodges, are returning All-Americans, while Eastern Oregon standout Drake Randall and Life's Nosomy Pozo are the top two seeds. But with Weber healthy again, there's no one in the draw he fears this weekend, and he's once again ready to go. Weber, currently ranked 8th, 17th-ranked Wyatt Gerl of Hastings in the first round.

Thivierge Quote: "The injury slowed Brandon down, and he didn't have the conference tournament he was hoping for. But he's getting back to form. He's worked the rust off back, and he's ready to go. Brandon knows, it's not about the rankings or the seeds or the brackets. It's about going out and wrestling your best, one match at a time. He's ready to do that. He's ready to get after, and knows exactly what to do in this tournament."

165 – Andrew Bartel (36-10)

Bartel made it to nationals as a freshman, but missed out as a sophomore. Now, as a veteran for the Lights, he's not only back at nationals, he's one of the big guns at 165. Bartel has had a remarkable season, and one that probably should have seen him ranked even higher than he is, which is currently sixth. But, rankings aside, Bartel is wrestling so well right now, he's one of the guys to beat at 165. The draw is a tough one with defending champion Grant Henderson (Grand View) back, as well Warner Pacific rival Blake Cooper seeded second. But, like the Weber's, Bartel will fear no one this weekend, and he's ready to take the next step in what has been a strong career so far.

Thivierge Quote: "Bart's had a phenomenal season. He's been driven all year by not qualifying last year. So he's right where he needs to be. He's developed into a true all-around wrestler this season. Bart can do it all and he's excited and ready for this opportunity."

174 – Chris Nile (17-7)

Nile may not be ranked or seeded, but, he's arguably the hottest wrestler in the country right now. The Boise State transfer won a bunch of big matches toward the end of the season, and, while he may be flying into Iowa under the radar, he's a true contender at 174. The bracket does feature returning national champion Lawton Benna of Grand View, as well as returning All-American Anthony Orozoco of Menlo. But, like Bartel, Nile shouldn't be overlooked this weekend, because he's wrestling as well as anyone, not only in his bracket, but in the entire tournament. Nile will face Baptist's Keion McVay in his first match in the second round.

Thivierge Quote: "Just like Landon, Chris took some time to get back into wrestling form. He was out of it for two years. And while I thought he's been consistent all season, he's finally now back in true form. He's wrestling great. And he's been great for us all season. His leadership and unselfishness has been huge. When we would go to him and say we were gonna wrestle Chase (Short) in certain duals, he was right there supporting Chase and the team. He's been so great for our team, and he's going to do some damage this weekend."

184 – Steeler French (18-16)

It's been a roller coaster of a sophomore season for French. He's had a ton of close losses, but has also wrestled well enough to remain ranked all season. French comes into nationals ranked No. 14, but, he will still be in an underdog role in the 184-pound bracket, which features undefeated Cameron Jones (Cumberlands) as well as second-ranked Chuck Sharon (Campbelsville), who finished runner-up to Ben Stroh a year ago. Providence's Randy Keesler will also be a tough opponent at 184, but, so will French, who may not have a ton of big stage experience, but, who has the toughness to battle for a place on the podium. French opens his national tournament against either UP's Tyler Webley or Doane's Zach Linton in the second round.

Thivierge Quote: "Steeler can beat anybody. I think he's a real dark horse this week. For him, it's all about confidence. We know what he can do, but the key for Steeler is for him to believe in himself. When he's confident in himself, he can beat anybody. So that's what he's got to do this week, just believe in himself."

197 – Isaac Bartel (34-8)

Bartel is one of four first-timers for the Lights this week in Iowa. But he isn't, and hasn't, wrestled like a true freshman. Going back to his native Iowa, Bartel has the capabilities of winning a national championship in his first try - he's been that good this season. Of course, like every draw, his won't be easy, with returning national champ Evan Hansen (Grand View), last year's runner-up Dalton Bailey (Life) and third-ranked Tanner Fisher (SOU) all in the loaded 197-pound bracket. But, Bartel is right there with all of the favorites, and no one should be surprised if he makes a huge splash back in his home state this weekend. Bartel, ranked sixth, has a first-round bye, and will face either Life's Diallo Matsimella or Menlo rival Jovan Villalobos in the second round.

Thivierge Quote: "Isaac is going to do extremely well. The thing with him is, he just needs to relax and go have fun. Isaac has it all. He can do whatever he wants out there on the mat. He's going to have a huge weekend."

 

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