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Quality not Quantity

Lights taking their big guns to NAIA national tourney

 

February 28, 2019

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Montana State University-Northern senior Matt Weber, right, is already a two-time NAIA All-American and a national runner-up at 141 pounds. This weekend in Des Moines, Iowa, Weber will take his lost shot at winning a national title, when he and the Lights compete in the NAIA national tournament. For full coverage of Northern in Iowa, stay with the Havre Daily News.

Seven MSU-N grapplers take their shot at glory in Iowa

Quantity has never dictated the goals for the Montana State University-Northern Lights when it comes to the NAIA national tournament. No, it's always been quality that matters.

So, while the Lights may not have had the tournament they were looking for two weeks ago at the Cascade Conference Championships, that performance changed nothing.

The Lights are still going to Iowa hunting for trophies and national championships.

And that hunt begins Friday morning in Des Moines, Iowa, as seven Lights take to the mat for the 2019 NAIA national championships. And again, head coach Tyson Thivierge says, it's about quality, not quantity.

"That's exactly right. It's about the quality of the guys we have going to nationals," Thivierge said. "And I believe these seven guys are still a top three team. We did under perform in Great Falls (conference tournament), but the way these seven guys are wrestling right now, the way they've practiced the last two weeks, I have all the confidence in the world in them."

Indeed. Northern may not have qualified 10 wrestlers like it was hoping to, and chasing down defending national champion Grand View was always going to be a herculean task, but nothing has changed for the Lights. They are going into Des Moines to compete for a championship, and individual titles, and they have the big guns to do it.

"We have a lot of experience in this group of guys," Thivierge said. "Four All-Americans, senior leaders, and some of the very best wrestlers in the country. So we are confident we can do damage this weekend. No doubt in my mind."

MSU-N will inflict damage on the rest of the field.

Seniors Brandon Weber (157), Matt Weber (141) and Andrew Bartel (165) are all returning All-Americans, with both Webers having been to the finals a year ago, and Brandon winning a national title in 2017. Add to that group, sophomore Isaac Bartel (197), who placed third a year ago, and is poised to fight Grand View's Evan Hansen for a national championship this weekend. Nick Kunz (125) is also making his second straight trip to nationals, giving the Lights an experienced foundation of grapplers this weekend, all of who will compete for championships and All-American honors.

Northern also has two national tournament rookies on board, too, but neither Chase Short (174) or Jase Stokes (285) are ordinary rookies. Both have had strong seasons, both reached the finals of the Cascade tourney, and both are tough competitors.

So, add it all up and the Lights are taking plenty of firepower into Des Moines.

"All seven guys can do damage in this tournament," Thivierge said. "All seven of them are wrestling at a really high level right now. They've prepared for this, they've worked hard for this. At this point in the season, we tell them, now is the time to be selfish. Now is the time to worry about yourself and your matches and don't worry about the team scores and all of that. These guys need to just go out and be confident and wrestle to the best of their abilities, and the rest of it will take care of itself."

If the Lights do take care of business individually, the team points will certainly add up. Grand View is a heavy favorite to win once again this weekend, but beyond the Vikings the field is wide open, with the likes of Indiana Tech, Cumberlands of Kentucky, Menlo, Providence, Missouri Valley, Lindsey Wilson, Embry-Riddle and the Lights all within striking distance of a podium finish going into the weekend.

And once again, that's what it's about for the Lights, who finished fourth at nationals a year ago. Trophies and podiums have been the goal since Northern started conditioning all the way back in September, and for the seven Lights going to nationals, and for their head coach, again, nothing has changed.

"Again, I'm very confident in this group," Thivierge said. "These seven guys are a top-three team, no doubt in my mind. And they're ready. As coaches, we've helped them get to this point, and now it's time to just sit back and watch them do their thing. I'm really excited. I'm looking forward to watching these guys go out and perform. It's going to be a lot of fun, and I believe they're going to do a lot of damage this weekend."

The 2019 NAIA national tournament runs Friday and Saturday inside the Jacobson Exhibition Center in Des Moines, Iowa. Fans can follow the Lights all weekend with updates from the Havre Daily News. The finals will be broadcast live on ESPN3 at 6 p.m. Saturday.

To get you ready for all the action in Iowa, here's a breakdown of each of Northern's seven wrestlers entered in this year's national tournament.

125 - Nick Kunz (27-12)

Kunz is making his second straight trip to nationals. He got into the field via a wildcard after finishing seventh at the Cascade Tournament. Still, Kunz holds a No. 9 ranking coming into the tourney and has had a big season in spite of injury problems. Kunz has national tournament experience, but, he's in a field that includes defending 125-pound champion Hayden Lee of Cumberlands (Ky.), as well as top-ranked Justin Portillo of Grand View, and teammate Trevor Murano. Eastern Oregon's Mharr Caballa and Indian Tech's Sawyer Miller are also ones to watch at 125. Kunz opens against Murano, the No. 5 seed.

Thivierge said: "Nick took the long road to get back to nationals, and I'm so impressed by that. He got upset in the first round (of the Cascade Tournament), and he came all the way back and got himself to nationals. And he's going to wreak havoc in that bracket."

141 - Matt Weber (12-4)

It's been a roller coaster season for Weber, the two-time All-American, and 2018 runner-up at 141. The Northern senior was cruising along and held the No. 1 ranking at 141 for almost the entire season. But a January injury set Weber back and he needed a wildcard entry into this week's field. Still, if Weber's health holds up, he's easily one of the favorites this week. Midland's David Berg, ERAU's David Salazar and Grand View's Eric Clarke are also top contenders, but if Weber is wrestling at 100 percent in Iowa, he'll be very tough to beat. Weber begins his tourney against sixth-seeded Nick Henneman of Lourdes.

Thivierge said: "Matt's the best in his bracket in my opinion. The seed doesn't dictate who Matt is. He had an injury and he got through it. Now he feels good and ready to go, and he's the guy to beat as far as I'm concerned."

157 - Brandon Weber (25-5)

Weber has been to the mountain top at 157, winning the national title in 2017. He came very close again last year in Iowa, losing a tough match to Life's Nosomy Pozo in the final. Weber now comes back to Des Moines on a mission, and he's peaking at the perfect time after winning the Cascade title two weeks ago. Of course, the draw is loaded again, headlined by Poso, Weber and Grand View's Renaldo Rodriguez-Spencer. Add to that two of Weber's biggest rivals in ERAU's James Williams and Providence' Casey Dobson, and the 157-pound bracket is brutal. But Weber has seen it all before, and he's certainly one of the ones to beat this weekend. Weber, the No. 2 seed, opens against Marcus Thompson of Missouri Valley.

Thivierge said: "Brandon is on a mission. He's so focused, and he's determined to go out on a high note. This is his last go, and he's going to make the most of it. He's wrestling better right now than he did even when he won the national title, too. This last month, he's just been phenomenal."

165 - Andrew Bartel (36-9)

It's been a huge senior season for Bartel, who finished fourth at 165 last year. He's won huge matches, he got engaged and he's been a driving force for the Lights all year. Bartel was also ranked No. 1 for a portion of the season, so, he's certainly got the attention of the rest of the bracket. And it's a talented but wide-open bracket, with UP's Adrien Lyons-Lopez ranked first, who Bartel holds a win over this season. Grand View's Ryan Niven, EOU's Drake Randall and Menlo's Alejandro Garcia are also top contenders, but again, it's a wide-open field, and Bartel has a great chance to win a national title in his home state. Bartel is the No. 6 seed and has a bye in the first round.

Thivierge said: "Bart is one of the guys to beat in this bracket. He has so much experience, he's so tough. He's a leader in our room, and this is his time. He knows this is his last opportunity to go out on his terms, and he's going to make the most of it. And he's wrestling the best I've ever seen him wrestle right now."

174 - Chase Short (25-13)

Short is making his first appearance at the national tourney after storming his way to a second-place finish in the Cascade qualifier. He's been rock steady for the Lights all season, splitting time with the injured Chris Nile. Of course Short is in the draw with defending champion Lucas Lovvorn of Baker, as well as Grand View star Lawton Benna among others. But Short has been coming on strong the second half of the season and could certainly make a push for All-American honors. Short has a bye in the first round.

Thivierge said: "Chase is shining right now in this role. He's really taken it to another level. He's a rookie at the national tournament, but he's going to perform. He's a gamer, and I expect him to push to get on the podium."

197 - Isaac Bartel (41-3)

Back in his home state, the Northern sophomore star has some unfinished business this weekend. Bartel was upset in the quarterfinals as a freshman before battling back to finish third. He comes into this weekend's national tournament as a top seed and Cascade champion, and also a heavy favorite to get to the final. Defending champion Evan Hansen of Grand View, the top overall seed, would likely be waiting for him there, while the bracket also includes Baker's David Dow, Southern Oregon's Tanner Fisher and Providence' John Hensley among others. But this field is about Bartel and Hansen, and they appear to be on a collision course for each other. Bartel is the No. 2 seed and has a bye in the first round.

Thivierge said: "Isaac is like Brandon, he's seen them all at this point; he knows exactly what's in front of him. He's a hammer, he's just so hard to beat, no matter the situation, and he might be a sophomore, but he's wrestling like a veteran. He's just been so impressive to coach."

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Montana State University-Northern senior Andrew Bartel is one of four returning All-Americans the Lights are taking to this weekend's NAIA national tournament in Des Moines, Iowa. Bartel finished fourth at 165 pounds a year ago and is one of the favorites in the 165-pound draw this weekend. The national tournament starts Friday morning and runs through Saturday night.

285 - Jase Stokes (26-13)

The former four-time Blue Pony state champion is heading to nationals in his first year with the Lights. Stokes took half year off from wrestling to play football at Montana Tech, before red-shirting for the Lights last winter. Now, in his first full season, he's on the big stage, and, thanks to really finding his stride the last two months, Stokes will be very dangerous this weekend and could certainly push for All-American honors. Lindsey Wilson's Brandon Reed, Providence' Matt Hopkins and Missouri Valley's Jesse Gomez are favorites this week, but with the way Stokes is wrestling right now, no one on the heavyweight bracket really wants to face him. Stokes takes on third-seeded Korey Walker of OKC in the first round.

Thivierge said: "I'm not surprised Jase has come this far. He's a competitive beast. He's composed and calm no matter the situation, and he always rises to the occasion. He's going to be tough to beat for everyone in that bracket."

 

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