Emmett Willson, 2004 Hodge Trophy winner

3-time NAIA champ Willson second non-Div. I wrestler to win Hodge Trophy
(Originally published April 2004)
By Bryan Van Kley, W.I.N. Publisher
Football has the Heisman Trophy. Wrestling has the Dan Hodge Trophy.

Emmett Willson

And for the first time in the ten-year history of the award, an NAIA wrestler will claim the sport’s most prestigious prize. Montana State University-Northern standout Emmett Willson beat all-comers in all divisions this year and has been named the 2004 Dan Hodge Trophy winner.
Willson won his third straight NAIA title at 197 and recorded a whopping 50-0 record with 24 pins in the 2003-2004 season. Willson also won three top-level national events: the Las Vegas Invitational, the Midlands Championships and the All-Star Classic. In the process, Willson downed the Division I wrestlers who finished third, fourth, sixth and seventh as well as four other Division I qualifiers. He also placed ahead of national champion Damion Hahn at Vegas and runner-up Ryan Fulsaas at the Midlands.
Despite not wrestling a full Division I schedule, Willson was chosen as this year’s winner because he and his Northern Light team actively sought out the best competition in the land. This task is even more significant since the wrestling team from the small NAIA school of 1,400 students drives to all road events; averaging around 15,000 miles each wrestling season.
Willson did not face Hahn, the 197-pound Division I champ. But Willson did win the only event where they could have met, the Las Vegas Invite. Hahn lost to Cal State-Bakersfield’s Matt Monteiro in Vegas. Willson beat Monteiro three weeks later, 9-6, in the finals of the Midlands. Iowa’s Fulsaas finished eighth at the Midlands.
In addition to Monteiro, Willson also downed Arizona State’s Ryan Bader (fourth at NCAAs), 4-2, Nebraska’s B.J. Padden (ranked as high as No. 2), 6-5 and Ohio State’s J.D. Bergman (third at the NCAAs), 9-4 at Vegas.
At the Midlands, Willson knocked off Cornell’s Matt Greenberg (seventh at the NCAAs), 6-1, in the semis and Lock Haven’s Morgan Horner (ranked No. 9 at the time), 12-5, in the quarters.
Willson also became the first NAIA competitor to receive an invitation to the NWCA All-Star meet where he handled Northern Iowa’s Sean Stender (sixth at the NCAAs), 7-3, on the Panther’s home campus.
During the year, Willson also periodically moved up to heavyweight if a better competitor was there. The two-time Montana state champ easily handled North Idaho’s two-time national JUCO champion Tyler Rhodes (HWT) twice. Willson also dominated the University of Mary’s Jon Madsen, who won a Division II national title at heavyweight for South Dakota State University in 2000.
For his career, the two-time NAIA Outstanding Wrestler was 163-16 with 59 falls.

The decision on this year’s Dan Hodge Trophy winner was possibly the toughest choice the committee has had to make since the award’s inception. There were two strong undefeated Division I wrestlers who were being compared against Willson from the NAIA. The committee decided not to consider the numerous one-loss wrestlers since dominance has always been the No. 1 criteria for the award. It’s also hard to justify choosing a one-loss wrestler when there were individuals who were undefeated.
Virginia’s Scott Moore was the front-runner to win the award until the semifinals of the NCAAs when the senior lost 14-2 to Iowa’s Cliff Moore. Since so much emphasis in winning the award is placed on pinning, Moore’s nation-leading 34 pins was very impressive. He finished the season in third placed with a 54-1 record.
Stanford’s Matt Gentry (157) and West Virginia’s Greg Jones (184) then became the only two Division I finalists for the award with no losses.
The Cardinal junior finished this year with a 41-0 record and the school’s first NCAA title. But Gentry only recorded six falls on the year, adding three technical falls and four majors.
Gentry opened the NCAAs with a first-round pin but never had any other bonus-point wins the rest of the tournament. He also finished third at the prestigious Midlands Championships, losing only in the semifinals to post-collegian Chris Bono, 8-7. For his career, he is 128-21 with 11 pins.
Jones racked up his second NCAA title in St. Louis. The Mountaineer ended his unblemished season with 26 wins but like Gentry, only had six pins on the year. Jones was out the first semester with a shoulder injury and didn’t compete until he won the Midlands. He moved his career record to 101-4 with 19 pins.
He too did not dominate at Nationals like most previous Dan Hodge Trophy winners. Jones grabbed a first-round tech fall and then also had four straight decisions on his way to the NCAA title.

MSU-N coach David Ray was thrilled as the first person informed that Willson had won the sport’s top award.
“This is great for Northern, for Emmett and for wrestling. It’s the Heisman of college wrestling! It’s so prestigious. Words can’t say how much it means in terms of magnitude,” Ray said. “This shows you don’t have to be Division I to do things in life.”
Ray said the award means even more because of what kind of person Willson is, a humble ranch kid who has succeeded in life because of his love for hard work. Willson is quick to point to his parents, Larry and Bea, as the ones who showed him the value in a hard work ethic growing up on a ranch near Shepherd, a small town in south-central Montana.
“It’s a real good feeling. I want to thank everyone who helped me along the way to get to be the wrestler that I am,” he said, listing his parents, coaches and past workout partners as key people in the process.
A two-time champ and four-time placer in high school, Willson wasn’t highly recruited. And after his recruiting trip to MSU-N, he wasn’t sure college wrestling was for him.
“All the guys kicked the crap out of me on my recruiting trip so things looked pretty bleak,” Willson said. But he decided to attend MSU-N and kept wrestling. He’s made dramatic strides ever since. Willson said the competition in the room was the key to his progress.
“Getting beat up all the time makes you either want to quit or get tougher,” he said. “Coach Ray recruits kids that are tough. The ones that stick with it end up being pretty good.”
Willson, a Broadfield Social Science major, said he can count the number of takedowns he got his first year on one hand. He also is quick to point out that in two years he never scored a point on former Northern Light star Turk Lords, who won four national titles (1998-2001) at 197.
Ray said Willson’s aggressive, offensive approach to the sport made him fun to watch and great to coach. Willson felt he owed it to the fans.
“I go out there and try make it a dogfight every time. Those fans came a long ways to see guys going after each other and going after the pin,” he said.
Ray said both Ohio State’s Russ Hellickson and Michigan’s Joe McFarland came up to him in Vegas complimenting him on how much Willson keeps shooting.
“He attacks more than any big guy I have ever seen. He thinks you compete until there is no time left on the clock,” Ray said.
Willson, whose off-season training secrets are as simple as “bucking bales and pounding fence posts”, has aspirations of owning his own ranch some day, not continuing his wrestling career. Ray said this award and the right sponsor could cause him to reconsider ending his wrestling career.
The Dan Hodge Trophy is awarded annually to the nation’s most outstanding collegiate wrestler. It is presented by the International Wrestling Institute & Museum and W.I.N. Magazine. It is named after University of Oklahoma star Dan Hodge who won three national titles (1955-57). Hodge was a prolific pinner who never surrendered a takedown in his three collegiate seasons.
Hodge, who votes on the committee, wholeheartedly felt Willson should win the award.
“This just proves that the most dominant wrestler can come out of any division and that anyone is eligible to win the award,” he said.
The only other non-Division I wrestler to win the award was Simpson’s Nick Ackerman. Ackerman was the remarkable double amputee who won a Division III title and was named co-winner of the Hodge Trophy with Cael Sanderson in 2001.
The criteria for the award are: dominance, number of pins, record, past credentials, quality of competition, sportsmanship, citizenship and heart.

The following is a breakdown of Wilson’s career statistics at Montana State-Northern:

Season School Year of Eligibilty Bouts W L T Falls W Pct. All-American Weight
2001 Montana State Northern Freshman
2002 Montana State Northern Sophomore 48 43 5 0 89.5 1st 197
2003 Montana State Northern Junior 48 45 3 0 93.8 1st 197
2004 Montana State Northern Senior 50 50 0 0 24 100.0 1st 197
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