Nikiski’s path to the small-schools First National Bowl crown got clearer due to reclassification before the 2011-12 prep season.
That same reclassification has made the Bulldogs’ path to a Class 1-2-3A state wrestling title more cluttered.
The football reclassification moved schools like Kenai Central, Soldotna, Homer and Skyview from small-schools to medium-schools football. The Bulldogs took advantage by taking their first small-schools football title since 2001.
The wrestling reclassification moved schools like Houston, Homer and Skyview from big-schools wrestling into Nikiski’s Class 1-2-3A Denali-Kachemak Conference.
The Denali-Kachemak Conference still only gets five berths to state this season. That means the Bulldogs, who won the conference last year before finishing second at state, will have a much tougher time getting enough wrestlers through the conference tournament to win state.
“It’s definitely a challenge having Skyview and Homer in the conference,” Nikiski coach Adam Anders said. “That’s definitely going to make it more challenging.
“It’s going to be a challenge to qualify a large enough team to win a state title. There’s not a lot we can do about it at this point. We’re going to set our goals and do the best we can.”
Anders said the goal is a conference and state title. Many of Nikiski’s wrestlers were a part of the football state title, but Anders said that hasn’t lessened the intensity in wrestling.
“For the most part, they’re chomping at the bit,” he said.
The Bulldogs will be led by Kaden Spurgeon, who won the state title at 145 last year. Nikiski also returns four other wrestlers who placed at state last year.
Skyview coach Neldon Gardner, who has been the head man at the school since it opened in 1991, agrees with the area coaches that Nikiski is the favorite to win the conference.
The Panthers do have seven wrestlers returning who went to the state meet last year, though.
“I think we have a stronger team this year than last year,” Gardner said. “In looking at depth, Nikiski definitely has an edge over us.”
Voznesenka coach Steve Wolfe also is impressed with the Bulldogs, although he said he is upset about the big schools getting moved into the conference without the conference getting more state berths.
“Nikiski gets all their kids out for football and wrestling,” Wolfe said. “That’s why they’re so tough.
“But it’s going to be tough getting to state in our conference unless you are a really good wrestler. Nikiski is going to have a tough time getting enough kids to state to win it like they should.”
Homer coach Chris Perk is looking forward to the move to small schools because it will allow his squad to be more competitive as a team. He said the individual competition will be just as tough.
He said the one thing he does not like is the overlap with football. Homer made it to the medium-schools First National Bowl on Oct. 15. Perk said if he gave his wrestlers a week off before they start practice, those wrestlers would miss almost half the season.
The following is a closer look at the Kenai Peninsula five small-schools wrestling programs. Ninilchik, which has qualified a wrestler for state for 10 straight seasons, will not have a program this year.
Perk has over 20 wrestlers out for the team this season. He is joined on the coaching staff by Bubba Wells, Dr. Andrew Peter and Dan Rios.
“It’s a rebuilding year, but with 16 freshmen and sophomores on the team, we are looking to place well in the next few years,” Perk wrote in an email. “The work ethic in the room is second to none, we just need mat time to get some experience in the sport.”
The team will be led by senior captains DJ Marsengill and Nick Wells. Marsengill has qualified for state twice.
Mark McGregor is looking to place at state this year after just missing a state placement last season. Perk also expects Harley Wells and Calvin Johnson to make the state meet.
He said cross-country runner Pedro Ochoa has looked good early and also could earn a state berth.
Sophomores looking for experience are Reilly Arambul, Weston Classen, David Greene, Chase Crauthers, Nahoa Jette and David Woo.
Freshmen Chris Peterson, Gage Flyum, Collin Maccampbell, Austin McGregor, Antonio Ochoa, Danny Rios and Zac Williams will be looking to work their way up into varsity slots.
The team also will get depth from juniors Drew Raymond, Joe Resetarits and Willy Deaver. All are football players looking for cross-training.
Tanner Kelley, Alex Clayton, Dylan Williams and Malachi Maura are all new to Homer’s team, but bring experience from other squads.
Seniors Tyler Wolfe and Ryan Josephson are wrestling for the first time.
Adam Anders starts his fifth year at the helm with about 28 wrestlers in the mat room.
“We have a good group of wrestlers dedicated to doing their best,” Anders said. “That’s something I am grateful for.”
Last year at state, Bethel won the title with 228.5 points while the Bulldogs were second at 169.5.
Spurgeon led the effort, but he had plenty of help from some returning state placers.
Trey Zimmerman was second at 103, Josh Brown was third at 135, Corey Green was third at 140 and Lincoln Johnson was second at 171.
The Bulldogs also get a boost from the return of Henry Eide at heavyweight. Eide was second at state in 2009.
Other returning state qualifiers for the Bulldogs are Morgan Sauve, Dakota Neely, Mike Stangel, Logan Harrison, Shawn Burdick, Floyd Armstrong and Walter Moore.
Anders also expects contributions from Zach Sanger, Orren Hyatt, Tyler Handley, Christian Riddall and Devan Barry.
Seward coach Ronn Hemstock enters this season with 21 wrestlers on the roster.
Hemstock does not like to single out wrestlers for a preview because he prefers to focus on the concept of the team.
The Seahawks lone returning state qualifier is Jed Wilde, who finished fifth at state at 125.
“We’re young, but we’re getting going,” Hemstock said. “They’re showing a lot of zest and effort.”
Hemstock said the program is looking forward to hosting the Denali-Kachemak meet.
After coaching wrestling in Alaska since 1983, Gardner is not about to let the new season throw him off stride.
“It’s changed so darn many times, that I just go with the flow anymore,” he said. “I think it’s fine that our kids will wrestle with the smaller schools.”
Gardner won two Class 4A titles and another two state titles during the awkward spring-fall split, but Skyview does not have that school size anymore.
The Panthers have 30 wrestlers signed up, and 24 regulars in the mat room.
The returning state qualifiers for Skyview are Hannah Hutchison, TJ Checketts, Sam Janorschke, Austin Cunningham, Alex Rodriguez, Cody Williams and John Alexander.
None of those wrestlers placed at state, but several came really close. Janorschke was able to win a conference title last year.
“I’m definitely encouraged by the work ethic,” Gardner said. “They definitely want to learn wrestling, and they’re picking it up pretty good.”
Adding depth for the team will be Auston Craig, Bailey Blumentritt, Shane Blumentritt, Frank Navarro, Kyle Zimmerman and Kajewl Musgrave.
Gardner said Navarro has put in a lot of hard work and it paid off with a victory at the Houston Invitational.
“We’re trying to win a state title, but we’d like to get up there in the top five again,” Gardner said. “We’d really like to be in the top three.”
Wolfe, the founder of the wrestling program, starts his eighth year at the helm. He has about 10 wrestlers in the mat room.
Sophomore Dennis Martishev is the lone returning state qualifier for the Cougars.
“This is a big rebuilding year,” Wolfe said. “Half of the team is freshmen.”
The only senior on the squad is Zenovei Martushoff. He didn’t make it to state last year, but Wolfe said he is probably the strongest wrestler on the squad.
Sophomore Avraam Kalugin showed his potential by winning at 145 at the Houston Invitational to start the season.
Wolfe also expects solid wrestling from freshman Gavril Kalugin and junior Ernie Kuzmin.