With the departure of two schools and the arrival of a prominent head coach, the landscape of Class 4A wrestling assumes a new look on the central Kenai Peninsula in 2011-12.
Skyview and Homer leave the 4A ranks to join Nikiski at 1-2-3A because of a reclassification put into place by the Alaska School Activities Association, leaving Soldotna and Kenai Central as the lone Peninsula schools in the large division.
And while Scooter Hackett returns to lead the Stars, the Kards welcome a new leader in coach Stan Steffensen.
Both teams open the season this weekend at the Peninsula Duals hosted by Nikiski.
“I’m having a great time,” Steffensen said. “I’m definitely enjoying it. The kids are having fun and are ready to have a good season.”
Not that Steffensen, 51, is a stranger to Peninsula wrestling.
He coached at Kenai Central during the 1990s and for the past 20 years has been the head man for Kenai’s middle-school program.
Now, after juggling middle-school coaching and family responsibilities, Steffensen returns to the high school in a full capacity.
Steffensen’s daughter, Hope, won a state title last season and returns with a chance to repeat. His son, Ellery, is a junior national champion and joins the Kards as a freshman.
That means the coach, who replaces Steve Schoessler, already feels right at home.
“I’m thankful I’ve been around for a long time,” Stan Steffensen said. “Hopefully I can help some of these kids.”
The Stars and Kards both feature about 20 wrestlers, making it nearly impossible to compete with fellow large schools for a state title.
But the respective coaches said their squads feature talented individuals, some of whom figure to be on the grand stage when the postseason arrives.
Here’s a closer look at SoHi and Kenai Central:
Hackett said he lost about 85 percent of his athletes from last year’s squad, which sent eight wrestlers to state.
Chief among the departures were state participants Taylor Hanley, Dakota Elsey, Cody Warfield and Logan Patrick.
Dusty Poole, now a senior, also qualified, but Hackett didn’t know Thursday whether Poole would join the team in 2011-12.
But the Stars return at least three state participants in Tim Price, Kade Foust and Auston Tennis.
Tennis, who will wrestle in the 145-pound weight class, leads the charge. The senior was 30-2 last season and won a state title at 145.
Hackett said the multisport star — Tennis also plays football — is primed for a repeat.
“He’s looking real good,” Hackett said. “Auston is looking really tough. Hopefully, he can go undefeated and win a second state title.”
The coach said Foust, who will wrestle at 160, has a good chance of placing at state along with Price. Price will wrestle at 126, which is a new weight class. The state did away with 125.
Freshman Jared Chavez, who won an individual title at 110 at the 2010 Peninsula Borough Championships as an eighth-grader, figures to be a force as well, Hackett said.
Chavez is among a slew of athletes new to the program.
“Our team is real young, but they are eager to learn and enthusiastic about listening and working hard,” Hackett said. “In the years to come we are going to have a good team, but this year we are kind of in the situation where we are building. We are going to have some struggles, but we’ll get through it.”
The competition at Nikiski is the Stars’ first true meet of the season, meaning the focus in practice has been on conditioning and improving technique.
Hackett said it’s difficult to gauge how many of his wrestlers compare to their counterparts across the state because he has yet to see the competition.
“Right now our focus is to get in shape and do a lot of live wrestling,” the coach said.
Kenai Central Kardinals
The Steffensens give the Kards a wrestling pedigree rarely seen at the high school level, but Stan Steffensen said the team’s talent doesn’t stop there.
“You get excited about all the kids,” the coach said. “I guess everybody gets goals as teams and individuals. Our team has been working hard each week and they are cooperating and getting exercise. We have some kids that should be making some noise.”
But the noise starts with the siblings.
Hope won state in 2010-11 at 103 and will look to win another one this season at 106, which replaces 103 as the lightweight class.
Brother Ellery, a six-time junior national champion, will be difficult to beat regardless of his weight.
Stan Steffensen expects the newcomer to grapple at either 132 or 138.
“It will be hard to keep him out of the state finals,” he said. “He’s looking forward to it.”
Devon Carter, a senior, returns after qualifying for state a year ago and will wrestle at 138 or 145. Kevin Hunter, a fellow senior, figures to be in the state mix in the heavyweight division.
Stan Steffensen also holds high hopes for Brad Smithwick, Jake Dragseth and Kyle Daugherty, although Daugherty won’t be eligible until later in the season.
One of the early season challenges for the new coach, he said, is getting kids eligible. Athletes are required to log 10 practices before they can compete in matches.
Entering the weekend, Stan Steffensen wasn’t sure if the Kards would even have 10 grapplers ready.
“It’s hard to make that commitment,” he said of the athletes taking the time to fulfill practice duties.
The coach’s message during the preseason has been to work hard and represent the team with pride — on and off the mat.
“It’s improving each day and challenging yourself and working hard and having fun with your peers, and representing your community and school and your family,” Stan Steffensen said. “The kids seem to be really enjoying that and the community has been super.”