GREAT FALLS — With no Cascade Conference tournament this year, selection criteria for the NAIA national wrestling tournament came down to a variety of factors.
Due to limited participation opportunities and two teams opting out of the 2021 season, the league chose to identify the 2021 qualifiers through a combination of rankings and selection by head coaches. Athletes who ranked in the top 15 in the last national poll were automatic qualifiers, while the other qualifiers and alternates were nominated and voted on by the head coaches of each program.
“We had to make the allocations for nationals based on their body of work,” said Providence head coach Steve Komac. “Normally we would go compete in the conference tournament and the winners would earn those allocations. So it was a very similar process, but without the wrestling matches. So the the contested issues were amongst coaches and based off the kid's body of work, how they did their matches throughout the season. But it's a very short, limited season. So it was definitely challenging.”
While there were a few disagreements among coaches and some deserving wrestlers perhaps staying home, there’s no arguing that the wrestlers selected from the Cascade Conference were more than qualified and deserving of a trip to Park City, Kansas.
Providence led the way with six selections, while MSU-Northern has five wrestlers heading to the midwest.
Leading the way for the Lights is defending NAIA national champion Nick Kunz at 133 pounds, who will be the No. 4 seed in the bracket. Last year, Kunz entered the tournament as the No. 10 seed but put together a remarkable run on the way to a title.
At 197 pounds, Isaac Bartel will be the No. 1 seed for the Lights and a championship favorite. Bartel ended the regular season undefeated after finishing runner-up at the national tournament in each of the past two seasons. As a freshman, he placed third.
No. 15 Chase Short (175 pounds), Conner Harris (149) and Carl Hansen (184) will also represent MSU-Northern at nationals.
The University of Providence sends a conference-high six wrestlers to Kansas, led by Jordan Komac at 165 pounds. Komac enters the tournament as the No. 6 seed in his bracket after ending the season with a 7-0 record.
Joel Avila (125 pounds), Eli Walston (133), Chris Mesa (141), Brock Rodriguez (149) and KC Buday (HWT) have also qualified for the tournament, which will begin on March 5.
There are a few other Montana connections making the trip to NAIA nationals. Keegan Mulhill, a Bozeman native, will represent Eastern Oregon at nationals after qualifying as the No. 7 seed at 174 pounds.
The Mountaineers' coach is Dustyn Azure, a Poplar native.
The tournament does throw a wrench into the normal recruiting schedule for Montana’s college wrestling coaches. Normally they’d be mat side at the Montana High School Association state tournaments, scouting and recruiting athletes for their programs. But with the MHSA tournament split into three locations on the same weekend as the NAIA tournament, coaches will have to keep track of the event from afar.
"For me personally it’s the first state tournament I’ve missed in over 30 years,” Komac said. “And it's going to be like the other states, it's going to be picking up the computer and the mouse and watching videos afterwards and following brackets and stuff. And then communicating with coaches, which is very important."
The NAIA women’s wrestling national invitational will be held the following weekend in Jamestown, N.D., starting March 12.
Preliminary brackets won’t be released until Friday, but qualifiers have already been selected.
The University of Providence sends nine wrestlers to nationals.
Ivy Navarro (101 pounds), Ira Navarro (101), Lana Hunt (109), Kaelyn Siaison (123), Brooke Cicerski (130), Jenna Awana (143), Emily Lorring (143), Anastasia Hardin (155) and Sabrina Perez (170) will make up the Argo contingent.
Southern Oregon’s Glory Konecny, a Billings West graduate, has also qualified at 123 pounds.