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George Ferguson Column: Success in 2018 is added fuel for the Light's bright future

From the Fringe...

 

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The Montana State University-Northern wrestling team poses for a photo before the start of the 2018 NAIA National Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. The Lights had a big weekend at the national tournament, but are already hungry for even more next season.

Last month, the Montana State University-Northern wrestling team came home from Ashland, Oregon, with a fourth-place finish in the Cascade Conference Tournament. Sure, the Lights were within three points of winning the whole thing, but it was still fourth place in the end.

And for that reason alone, few pundits, and probably few coaches at the NAIA national tournament probably gave much thought to the Lights making a serious run this weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Lights themselves, however, they clearly didn’t care what anyone else thought. They knew how well they wrestled in Oregon, they knew the momentum they had started to build when they won their final two home duals, wins over rivals Embry-Riddle and the University of Providence. And, above all, they knew just how good they were and what they were capable of.

In other words, rankings, seeds, predictions be damned. The Lights were going to succeed in Iowa.

And succeed they did.

Northern comes back to Havre from the 2018 NAIA national championships with its second trophy in three years, having finished fourth this weekend. They come home with five NAIA All-Americans, none of which finished worse than fourth place. And, while that’s a lot in and of itself, they come home with something even greater.

Yes, after what the Lights achieved this weekend in Iowa, including finishing way in front of Cascade rivals Providence, Menlo and Southern Oregon, they’re coming home with hunger. A hunger for more.

“We talked all last week about what we did at the conference tournament, and that we need to build off of that,” Northern head coach Tyson Thivierge said after leading his team to their fourth NAIA trophy in the last six seasons. “We talked about having that chip on our shoulder. We talked about proving everybody wrong. That was our mentality going into nationals, and the guys kept that mentality all the way through the tournament.”

Northern did wrestle with a chip on its shoulder, and it comes straight from the top. The fiery Thivierge has profoundly turned around the MSU-N wrestling program during his time at at Northern, where he was once a national champion himself, as well as part of legendary teams they won titles and routinely brought trophies home from the national tourney under then head coach David Ray.

Thivierge, who is one of the best to ever suit up at Northern, and who will go into the Northern Hall of Fame next month, has instilled a toughness back into the Northern program, and that toughness was on full display this weekend.

None of Northern’s five All-Americans, Matt and Brandon Weber, Andrew and Isaac Bartel, and Chris Nile, were seeded better than fifth this weekend in Iowa. That meant, at some point in each of their draws, the odds were going to be stacked against them, at least on paper. And yet, thanks to Thivierge’s mentality and the toughness and talent of his wrestlers, paper, seeds, draws, none of it mattered. Time and time again, the Lights went out and won huge matches, like, Matt Weber knocking off Grand View’s defending champion, Josh Wenger, in the 141-pound semifinals Saturday morning. Northern won so many matches like that this weekend it’s too many to count. And while they didn’t win them all, the Lights showed exactly what they’re made of.

And what these Lights are made of is, heart, grit, character and pure toughness. Yes, every wrestler on Northern’s national tourney roster is talented. They’re all very, very good. But sometimes, talent isn’t enough. You need more. You need an edge. And these Lights have it, and it comes from their head coach, who has successfully returned Northern wrestling to its rightful place, as one of the best programs in the NAIA.

But these Lights are nowhere near done. Remember that hunger I spoke of earlier? The Lights are coming back to Havre with a hunger to do even more next winter. They don’t have a single senior on their roster, they have young talent in the pipeline, and there will be new recruits coming in, too. In other words, this Northern team is already built for bigger things to come. It’s something Thivierge didn’t want to necessarily talk about leading up to the national tourney. No, he was focused on this year, and he knew his team could be special, not just in the future, but right now. And the Lights did indeed prove to everyone they were special now.

Now 2018 is over. Now, the next season begins. It’s a season that will be fueled not only by the values and philosophies that Thivierge will continue to instill in his team, but it will be fueled by what just happened in Des Moines, Iowa, Friday and Saturday. It will be fueled by all the spectacular things the Lights accomplished at the national tournament.

And guess what? They’re ready to pour gasoline all over that fire already. The next season is eight months away, but after the fire that was lit this weekend in Iowa, the Lights are ready to explode now.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited for the next season, like I am right now,” Thivierge said. “Every one of these guys is already talking about next year. What they need to do, what they need to work on, the goals they’re going to set. They are all saying, ‘We’re going to make a run next year. We’re ready to do that.’ As a coach, that’s so exciting. They want to take what they learned this weekend and build on it. They want to work hard and go forward. So I’m as proud of them for that as I am for everything they did this weekend. And I just can’t wait until it’s time to get back to work.”

Tyson, you might not be able to wait, but with the great team the Lights have coming back next year, and with how the Lights put the rest of the NAIA on notice this weekend, the rest of the field better not wait to get back to work either. Because, while it might be a year away, guess what NAIA, these Lights are coming for ya in 2019. And with how hungry they are, the rest of the NAIA better be ready. Because the Lights already are.

 

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