By George Ferguson
GREAT FALLS - It was a bitter-sweet weekend for the Montana State University-Northern wrestling team.
For the second straight year, the Lights fell short in their bid to capture their sixth NAIA national wrestling title on their home-away-from-home turf.
However, the Lights did have two individual national champions and had seven All-Americans at the national wrestling tournament in Great Falls.
The Lights, under the direction of veteran head coach David Ray, finished in third place behind first-time national champion Missouri Valley College and 2002 national champion Lindenwood.
While finishing in third place means that the Lights finished ahead of 16 other teams, after the tournament was over Ray was left reflecting on what might have been.
"We were close the entire tournament," Ray said. "We were in third place after the first day and we had opportunities to push ahead of other teams, but it didn't happen. It was like we could touch the trophy, but we could never hold on to it."
According to Ray, a major factor in the Lights finishing in third instead of at the top was the performance by some of his wrestlers in the consolation rounds.
"One of our problems is that we did not have our whole team step up and score for us," Ray said. "Basically we had seven guys score all our major points and when you're trying to win a championship you have to have all of the guys score points. That didn't happen for us this weekend.
"It is somewhat frustrating because we're a good team and we scored 134.5 points," Ray added. "We're capable of scoring much more than that. If we had our whole team wrestle well instead of just seven, we would have been right there at the end."
Despite the Lights' shortcomings in the team standings, the weekend was a major success for several Lights individuals.
Junior Emmett Willson successfully defended his national championship at 197 pounds. Willson opened the tourney with a win by fall in the quarterfinals over Cumberland College's Jess Alford on Friday nigh and scored another win by fall over Fritz Dorsica of William Penn in the semifinals.
In Saturday night's championship match, Willson completely dominated second-ranked Niko Koliastasis of Bacone, 12-0. Koliastasis stalled the entire match trying to keep things close, but was in no position to handle Willson's aggressive style.
Willson, who was named the tournament's most outstanding wrestler, was able to reflect on what he had accomplished by backing up a national title.
"There is more pressure to repeat," Willson said. "There is no doubt about it. I felt it a little bit during the year. I tried to block it out, but some slips through. But it feels even better the second time around."
Said Ray: "Emmett got a little nervous in his last match, but he dominated the whole tournament. He scored a lot of points and he broke guys down. He was just really dominant."
Also capturing a national title for the Lights on Saturday night was senior heavyweight Matt Carter.
Carter had the tournament of a lifetime, including a dramatic overtime win over the division's top-ranked wrestler in Mike Whitehead of Southern Oregon in the quarterfinals. Carter followed up his Friday night heroics by making quick work of Ben Flores in the semifinals, scoring a fall at the :57 mark of the match. In Saturday night's final, Carter technically dominated Lindenwood's Roger Miller, doing all of his scoring in the second period en route to a 7-2 decision.
For Carter, it has been a tumultuous season of highs and lows following the death of his mother to cancer and his grandfather a month later. His run to the national championship put a happy ending to his trying season.
"Winning the national championship is definitely the icing on top of the cake," Carter said. "It has been a very difficult year for me, but to know that I am going out on top is a very satisfying feeling.
"My mom was a big inspiration to me before she passed away and she never missed a match," Carter added. "And I feel like she was here with me in a way. She will always be an inspiration to me."
Also on Saturday night, 174-pound junior Kyle Fisher again came up short in his bid for a national championship. After a dominating performance in the first two rounds, Fisher earned a thrilling 7-6 decision over second-ranked Thelton Detry of Cumberland College in the semifinals. Fisher scored a two-point reversal with 21 seconds remaining in the match to take the lead and Detry could not counter Fisher's final score.
In the championship on Saturday night, Fisher ran into Dickinson State's top-ranked Larry Johnson. Johnson scored key takedowns in each period and held a two- or three- point edge throughout the match that Fisher could not overcome.
Disappointed in not being able to capture a national title, Fisher was still proud of how he competed over the weekend.
"I put all of this season behind me," Fisher said. "I know I came out and wrestled really well in this tournament. I probably should have taken some more shots against Johnson and that cost me, but I know I gave everything I had and I left it all on the mat in this tournament."
Ray was also proud of the way Fisher competed against some very stiff competition this weekend.
"One thing about Kyle is that he never gives up, he keeps fighting," Ray said. "He faced a great wrestler in the semifinals and he pulled off a great win and he never gave up in the championship match. He had a great tournament."
At 184 pounds, senior Mike Lester also came up short on Saturday night. Lester cruised to the semifinals with a major decision over Marcus Andy of Menlo College in the first round and a 7-1 win over Aaron Schmidt of Northwestern College in the quarters.
In the semifinals, Lester came back from three points down to defeat Nathan Augustone of Embry Riddle. In the championship match, Lester fell behind second-ranked Joe Evano of William Penn, 9-6, after two periods and could not score enough to overtake Evano in the final two minutes of the match.
The Lights also placed three other individuals in the tournament. Senior Andy Thompson ended a fine career with a third-place finish. Thompson reached the semifinals with victories over Nate Engel of William Penn and Isaac Pumarejo of Menlo. However, Thompson's national title hopes came to an abrupt end on Saturday morning when he was pinned by defending 125-pound champion Justin Portenier of Dakota Wesleyan at the 1:51 mark. He rebounded to pick up wins over Ricky Augirre of Menlo and Ricky Guzman of Lindenwood to capture third place.
"Obviously, I came here to win a national title and it didn't happen," Thompson said. "But I came back and wrestled well and tried to score as many points for the team as I could. It is weird to think that it is all over for me, but I am glad I didn't end my college career without getting All-American."
Second-ranked junior Caleb Schaeffer suffered a fate similar to Thompson's. Schaeffer was upset in the semifinals in sudden death overtime by Brant Bruner of Lindenwood. He then lost his consolation semifinal match by fall to Jose Sanchez of Menlo College after leading 12-3. Schaeffer rebounded by defeating Nolan Harris of Southern Oregon to capture fifth place.
Bobby Mantle earned fifth- place honors at 149 pounds. Mantle came into the tournament ranked second, but was knocked off in the quarterfinals on Friday night. He bounced back to win two matches in the consolation round before falling to Shane Cristelli of Missouri Valley on Saturday morning. Mantle then came back to win his fifth-place match with an 11-6 decision over Chad Dolt of Missouri Valley on Saturday afternoon.
Besides the aforementioned seven All-Americans, the Lights did not get much scoring from their other wrestlers. Freshman Aaron Jensen tallied two wins at 165 pounds and Neil Samoy also picked up two hard- fought victories at 157 pounds. Freshman Anthony Haukenberry also picked up one win at 141 pounds.
Despite the fact that Ray was disappointed with the third-place finish, he is also proud of the fact that his team competed hard, and he is already looking forward to next season, when MSU-Northern will again host the national tournament.
"I am proud of our team," Ray said. "They wrestled and competed very hard. But we will go back to the drawing board. We have to have our young kids get better and really focus on their weaknesses because those weaknesses got exploited this weeke