HAVRE — Nick Kunz knows who is in control when he’s on the wrestling mat.
“He just exudes confidence,” said Montana State-Northern wrestling coach Tyson Thivierge. “He knows what he’s capable of, and he knows that when he slips up, it’s on him. He doesn’t point fingers at anybody, he’s mad at himself.”
Kunz’s performance in March didn’t leave much to be angry about. The Helena Capital High School product stormed through the 125-pound weight bracket at the NAIA national championships, becoming the fifth Lights wrestler in Thivierge’s tenure to earn a national title. That performance — combined with how he got there and where he’s headed — made Kunz the 2020 MontanaSports.com male athlete of the year.
There was stiff competition for the award, but not much beats a national champion, especially when the title seemingly comes out of nowhere.
Kunz never won even a state championship at Helena Capital and still hasn’t won a Cascade Collegiate Conference crown. As steady as he’s been for MSU-Northern — Kunz has advanced to the NAIA national championships all three years of his career — his junior season in 2020 took a different path. Kunz started the season at 133 pounds and battled to a 15-10 record at the heavier weight, including a 10-4 mark against NAIA competition.
“He approached me in January or late December and said, ‘Coach, I'm going to go (125 pounds),’” Thivierge recalled. “… It was Nick’s decision and he benefited from it.”
“Nick’s a big kid — tall, lanky, thick legs,” the Lights' 13th-year coach added. “The biggest benefit to him was not having to commit to that weight cut all season. … He didn’t have that struggle all season long of the weight cut, that’s half the battle right there, and he was able to have a little bit more fun and the weight came off really nice. And, yeah, he just kind of flew in under the radar.”
Once Kunz was comfortable at 125 pounds, the switch flipped. He piled up win after win at the lighter weight, going 10-1 the rest of the season. He placed third at the Cascade Conference championships after losing to Riley Siason of Menlo (Calif.) in the semifinal round.
That gave Kunz a No. 10 seed at the national tournament, and he capitalized with a big performance. He defeated the Nos. 7, 6 and 1 seeds on his way to the national title, earning a little redemption in the process.
Siason, who finished second at the conference championships, was seeded sixth in the national bracket. Kunz scored a strong 11-4 victory over Siason in the semifinal round, avenging his conference semifinal loss and clinching a spot in the national championship match. There, Kunz earned a 4-1 win over top-ranked Justin Portillo of powerhouse Grand View (Iowa).
“Nick’s always been a pretty quiet, mature kid, but in the wrestling world, development is everything,” said Thivierge, who was a national champion wrestler himself for the Lights back in 2002. “You start developing a little more strength, more patience. Nick game-planned a lot better: He knew where he was good and he would make people wrestle him at his strong points. … He just grew into himself and put a hell of a tournament together.”
Wrestling at 133 pounds early last season certainly helped Kunz prepare for battles at 125, but he’s now looking to replicate that dominance at the heavier weight. Kunz has started this season at 133 pounds and went 2-0 at the Concordia Duals, where the Lights went 4-0 and Thivierge recorded his 100th career win.
How the rest of the 2020-21 wrestling season unfolds is anybody’s guess. MSU-Northern was supposed to host the Cascade Conference championships in February, but the league canceled the tournament and will instead send an “allotted 46 qualification slots to nationals,” which are scheduled for March 5-6. Thivierge is working on building a schedule for his team, but a home dual with Providence on Feb. 11 is the only thing on the slate so far.
With the uncertainty of the shortened season, the NAIA has announced athletes will not use any eligibility this season, leaving Kunz with potentially two more shots to add to an already impressive resume.
Regardless, he will prepare as he always has: With a national title in mind.
“He’s not defending anything,” Thivierge said. “He’s going out to win another one.”
And there’s only one person controlling that outcome.