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Nick Kunz wins NAIA national title for Northern

 

Courtesy Photo

Montana State University-Northern's Nick Kunz stand atop the 125-pound podium after winning an NAIA national championship Saturday night in Wichita, Kansas.

No matter how a season goes, no matter what the conference championships produce, under the guidance of Montana State University-Northern head coach Tyson Thivierge, the Lights' wrestling team always seems to strike gold at the NAIA national tournament.

And the 2020 NAIA national championships, which wrapped up Saturday night in Wichita, Kansas were no different, as Northern crowned a new national champion in Nick Kunz, and saw Isaac Bartel reach the 197-pound title match for the second straight year. The run for Northern, which sent just three wrestlers to the tournament, helped the Lights finish 12th overall with 40 points.

"So proud of these guys," Thivierge said. "We came here with three guys, scored big points, and finished in the Top 15. We beat teams that brought nine or 10 guys here. So it was a great weekend, and just a phenomenal job by these three guys. They fought their butts off all weekend."

No question Thivierge was proud Saturday night, and he should be, especially given what Kunz accomplished in two days inside the Hartman Center. A junior, Kunz was in his third national tourney, but had never reached the podium. And, coming off a third-place finish at last month's Cascade Conference Championships, Kunz, who sept much of the year at 133 pounds, was seeded just 10th when the tourney began on Friday morning. And yet, he wasn't phased as he knocked off seventh-seeded Austin Franco of Cumberlands in the second round, then beat Isaac Crowell of Southeastern in overtime in the quarters.

The win Friday night pushed Kunz into All-American status, but he wasn't done. In the semifinals Friday morning, he dominated CCC rival Riley Siason of Menlo, 11-4, punching his ticket to the finals. And waiting for Kunz there was defending champion Justin Portillo of Grand View, who was the No. 1 seed, and who hadn';t been challenged much all season long. But Kunz challenged Portillo and then some, as he controlled the match from start to finish in a 4-1 decision, and in the process, gave the Lights their first individual champ since 2017 when both Brandon Weber and Ben Stroh won titles. Kunz was also MSU-N's first 125-pound champ since Corey Borges won back-to-back titles in 2008-2009.

"I was nervous to start," Kunz, a Helena native said in his post match interview. "But I tried not to let the moment get too big for me. I just went out there and wrestled like I loved it. It was fun. This is a big venue. It was intimidating at first, just being in this moment. But I just went out there and did what I love to do.

"Nick is 10-1 since he went back down to 125," Thivierge said. "And in the semis, he avenged his only loss. Nick was just laser-focused. He took it one match at a time all the way through, and he just kept on winning.

"And the way he controlled the No. 1-ranked guys (Portillo)," he continued. "That match wasn't even close. He dominated that match to the point where, he looked up with 20 seconds left and thought: "Oh my god, I'm a national champion". It was just an outstanding tournament by that young man, it's hard to put into words. It's just amazing. It's special what he just accomplished."

It was a special moment for Kunz, and for a Light's squad that had plenty of special moments this weekend. But, for Bartel, it didn't quite end the way he'd hoped. For the second straight year, Bartel met Grand View's Evan Hansen in the final, and for the second straight year, Hansen prevailed. This time, he pinned Bartel in the closing period, and the win made Hansen just the eighth four-time NAIA national champion in the sport's history. And while the loss hurt, it won't diminish the tourney, and season Bartell had. He went a stellar 32-3, dominated two matches on Friday and beat third-seeded David Dow of Baker 6-4 in Saturday morning's semifinal, as he became a three-time All-American in the process.

"When the dust settled on last season, I posed a scenario to Isaac. I asked him if he wanted to redshirt this season, but Isaac wanted the challenge. He wanted another shot at Hansen. And that speaks volumes to who Isaac Bartel is as a wrestler, it speaks volumes to his character.

"Hansen is a stud," Thivierge continued. "And he had a great game plan for us tonight, and he executed it. So it hurts, we're hurting right now, but Isaac will be back. He's a beast. He's a phenomenal wrestler, and he'll bounce back from this."

Bartel's trip to the finals marked yet another year when Northern had multiple finalists, a mark of just how good the program is under Thivierge right now. And while Grand View won its ninth straight national title, the Lights, who also got a pair of wins from junior Chase Short at 174, aren't going anywhere, as they had one of their youngest teams in a long time, and still made their presence felt on the biggest stage in NAIA wrestling.

"Again, we beat three a lot of teams with three guys," Thivierge said. "And we have a phenomenal room coming back next year, so imagine what we can do when we punch nine or 10 of those guys to nationals. So next season for us starts tomorrow. I'm excited about what we just accomplished, but I'm already looking forward to getting after it with this group for next season. I think the sky's the limit."

 

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