(Editor’s note: MTN Sports began recognizing some of the best wrestlers in Montana history on Jan. 16 with the launch of the #MTTop20. Athletes will continue to be featured until Friday, Feb. 10 when No. 1 is unveiled.)
Top 20 rankings: No. 20 – Jarrett Degen; No. 19 – Luke Weber, No. 18 — Ben Stroh, No. 17 — Curtis Owen, No. 16 — Chris Currier, No. 15 — Chris Nedens, No. 14 — Kyle Smith, No. 13 — Jade Rauser, No. 12 — Scott Barrett, No. 11 — Gary Albright, No. 10 — Turk Lords, No. 9 — Larry Quisel, No. 8 — Tyrel Todd, No. 7 — Reese Andy., No. 6 — Matt Ruppel.
No. 5 – Emmett Willson, Shepherd
Montana wrestlers have fared particularly well on the national scene, winning championships and numerous awards. From the prestigious Gorrarian Award for most pins, to the outstanding wrestler of the national championships, the Treasure State has an impressive resume. But only one Montana grappler has captured the elusive Dan Hodge Trophy, college wrestling’s version of the Heisman Trophy: former Shepherd star Emmett Willson.
Emmett Willson stat sheet
Willson didn’t have the quickest path to success of the athletes listed on the #MTTop20, but he did break onto the scene as a freshman by having an impressive state tournament. A 112-pound frosh, he finished sixth in the Class B/C ranks after falling in a 3-1 decision in the fifth-place match.
The following season, Willson bettered his finish by a single place, topping future teammate Dustyn Azure of Wolf Point 3-2 in the fifth-place match in the 125-pound class.
In 1998, Willson jumped four weight classes to 145 pounds and cruised through the first two matches of the state tournament, earning an opening round pinfall in 50 seconds, before a quarterfinal technical fall of 18-3 pushed him into the final four. A hard-fought 4-2 decision in the semis set up Willson’s first state championship appearance, which he won 2-1.
Leaping two more weight classes to 160 pounds as a senior, Willson again dominated his first two matches at state, winning each by fall. Following a slight scare in the semifinals, his 7-5 decision placed him back in the finals, which he won in a convincing 5-0 victory to end his prep career as a two-time state champion and four-time placer. The Mustangs finished second in the team standings his senior season.
Though he wasn’t a highly recruited athlete out of high school, Willson wound up at MSU-Northern, which was the three-time defending NAIA national champion.
Willson continued the momentum from his final two seasons of high school, earning a third-place finish and all-American honor at the NAIA national championships while wrestling at 174 pounds. The Lights finished fifth in the team standings with Turk Lords winning his fourth and final national title.
In 2002, Willson wrestled at 197 pounds and posted an incredible 43-5 record after winning the NAIA national championship. Teammate Tyson Thivierge would also win a national title, helping the Lights to a runner-up finish in the team standings.
Willson had no trouble defending his title in 2003, improving his record to 45-3 and another national championship. He was named the outstanding wrestler and joined teammate Matt Carter as individual titlists as the Lights finished third in the country. He also finished third at the Las Vegas Invitational during the regular season.
Willson’s senior season remains one of the greatest in NAIA history. The 197-pounder won numerous tournaments including the Cowboy Open at the University of Wyoming. Willson would occasionally wrestle in the heavyweight class, toppling such opponents as two-time junior college national champion Tyler Rhodes of North Idaho and University of Mary’s Jon Madsen, who had won a national title at South Dakota State. Willson won the daunting Las Vegas Invite with a 4-2 decision over Arizona State’s Ryan Bader, who finished fourth at the NCAA Championships. Three weeks later he captured a title at the Midlands Championships, arguably the strongest competition tournament in the nation. His 9-6 decision over Matt Monteiro of Cal-State Bakersfield put him on the national map and he was invited to the all-star classic, becoming the first NAIA wrestler invited to the typically all-Division I event. Willson won that match, a 7-3 decision over Northern Iowa’s Sean Stender.
Later in the season he became a three-time national champion and capped his collegiate career as a four-time all-American. He, Kyle Fisher, Stryder Davis and Anthony Haulkenberry all won individual titles as Northern won the sixth team championship in program history.
Willson finished his senior season with a 50-0 record, with 24 of the victories coming by pin. He was named the 2004 winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy, the wresting equivalent of college football’s Heisman Trophy, becoming the first NAIA winner of the award. He beat eight NCAA qualifiers throughout the year, including grapplers who finished third, fourth, sixth and seventh at the NCAA Championships.
Following a career record of 163 wins, 59 of them falls, and only 16 losses, Willson was inducted into the MSU-Northern athletics hall of fame in 2014. This past September he joined Coach Ray and Lords as members of the 2017 NAIA hall of fame.
… on Emmett Willson:
Former MSU-Northern teammate and current University of Great Falls coach Caleb Schaeffer:
“You wouldn’t look at his (high school) credentials and say, ‘Wow this guy is going to have a stellar college career.’ But he got around amazing practice partners like Turk Lords, Tyson Thivierge and Lee Fullhart from Iowa; David Ray got him in there and he flourished. He just had the best attitude, it didn’t matter what it was, he was going to go at it 110 percent and do the best he could.
“He had a gas tank that would never end with his will to score points on the best competition. It didn’t matter who they were and he probably didn’t even know who they were. His wrestling knowledge probably wasn’t the same as a lot of other guys because he didn’t care about that. He just wanted to go out there and beat everyone up.
“He was definitely the leader in a lot of ways. He was the first one out there to get the pin the quickest and he was placing at the biggest tournaments. We all wanted to be like Emmett and place at Midlands and place at the Las Vegas Invite and we were trying to ride his coattails really.
“I better be careful with what I say about Emmett Willson because he was crazy. He had a pet porcupine and brought it into the bar with a leash on it. The story goes a little bit farther than that but he was absolutely a crazy individual and he lived life to the fullest and he still is.”
Former MSU-Northern wrestling coach David Ray: “Who’s the better (wrestler) between Turk Lords, a four-time national champion or Emmett Willson, a three-time national champ who was a Dan Hodge Trophy winner and won the Midlands – but (Emmett’s) competitive spirit was unmatched by any other athlete. He was not afraid to compete against anyone, he looked for the challenge. Even the best athletes, the Division I kids, it didn’t bother him who they were. He thought, ‘Man, this is an opportunity for me to go out and battle. We both tie our shoes the same way,’ and that’s how simple it was for him. He broke it down to the very simplest thing, ‘We both tie shoes. There’s no difference, I don’t look at this person being any better than me in life.’
“You do have to have ability, but once you have that ability to compete at the highest level it really comes down to believing in yourself. Emmett had that belief that when he stepped on the mat, he could compete and win against anyone.
“First he wins the Cowboy Open down at the University of Wyoming, then he wins a couple more and we go to Las Vegas and he wins that one. The year before he took third so we were confident he could win, it was the way he did it. Once he won that tournament you went, ‘Alright, it’s another big milestone, but now we go to Midlands.’ Then he wins Midlands and that was a great achievement, that was huge. Winning Midlands was very, very big. But that wasn’t it. There was the all-star dual which is usually Division I wrestlers but we got a call and they selected Emmett to wrestle in the 197-pound weight class. We thought, ‘Alright, he’s going to get to wrestle against Minnesota’s (Damion Hahn) who got beat in Vegas, didn’t wrestle at Midlands and he chose not to wrestle against us in the national duals. They were held at the University of Northern Iowa which is only a couple of hours from the University of Minnesota. … So Emmett wrestled in that one and dominated the match and he was actually sick during that time. But he performed well and still dominated, I think the final score was 7-3.
“The (Dan Hodge Trophy) committee, which consists of sports writers, athletic directors and wrestling Division I coaches around the nation – there are no non-Division I coaches – after they looked at the criteria and looked at Emmett Willson’s record of 50-0, with 25 or 30 pins that year and 18 of his wins against Division I wrestlers – he was 18-0 against Division I. When you looked at that and his dominance, I mean it was pretty neat. It was a great honor for myself, the school, the wrestling program and the state but it meant a lot because it showed it didn’t matter what level you were wrestling at. There are coaches out there saying, ‘If you’re going to reach the highest pedestal of wrestling, making the Olympics or whatnot, you have to go to a Division I wrestling program.’ That proved that wasn’t true. You have to go somewhere with good workout partners where everyone is on the same page about training hard and everyone believes they can win Midlands and place at that level of tournaments. That’s what he had and that’s what made the difference.”