With the 2011 Class 1-2-3A Denali/Kachemak Conference wrestling tournament set to begin at 9 a.m. today at Seward High School, expectations are high for central Kenai Peninsula squads.
“We’re going to have to be on our game,” Nikiski coach Adam Anders said. “But our goal is to win the region championship.”
Nikiski joins Skyview, Homer, Voznesenka and the host Seahawks as five berths to the state championships are on the line at each weight class. The event concludes Saturday.
The Bulldogs, who last season placed second as a team at state, are front-runners to win the team trophy.
Anders said the squad should get at least 12 wrestlers to state, and possibly 14.
Leading the charge is Kaden Spurgeon, who won a state title in the 145-pound weight class last year and will wrestle at 152 this weekend.
Spurgeon is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in his weight class for the state’s small schools.
Teammate Lincoln Johnson holds the state’s top mark at 182 and is favored to win a conference crown, after placing second at state at 171 in 2010.
Anders said Josh Brown, who is ranked third at 145, has a good shot at winning a conference title, as does heavyweight Henry Eide, who is ranked No. 2 in the state.
Also expected to reach state, the coach added, are Shawn Burdick (106), Dakoda Neely and Tyler Handley (113), Trey Zimmerman (120), Greg Brown (126), Mike Stangel (138), Patrick Sterling (152), Corey Green and Morgan Suave (160), and Orry Hyatt (220). Green is No. 2 at 160.
The Bulldogs will be without Floyd Armstrong, who suffered a season-ending injury this week. Armstrong held the state’s No. 5 slot at 152 when he went down.
But if the healthy athletes wrestle to their potential, Nikiski figures to compete with Valdez, Skyview and Houston for the team crown.
“Nearly all of our guys have a good opportunity to make it to state,” Anders said, thanking the community and his assistants for their support this season.
The Panthers have a strong contingent, too.
A pair of 106-pounders — Austin Craig and Hannah Hutchison — could meet in the finals if the bracket cooperates and each wrestles well, coach Neldon Gardner said.
Hutchison is ranked No. 4 in the state and Craig is an emerging freshman.
At 120, Grant Valiquette is hitting his stride at the right time and is a state contender.
“He’s been wrestling extremely tough the past couple weekends,” Gardner said. “If he keeps it up, he should make it to state with no problem.”
Returning state competitor TJ Checketts is expected to advance at 126, and teammate Brenner Musgrave has a shot in the same division, Gardner said.
The coach expects Sam Janorschke, who is ranked fourth at 132 and was a 2010 state participant, to reach the finals. Fellow 132-pounder Shane Blumentritt could crack the top five if he wrestles well, Gardner added.
At 138, Bailey Blumentritt and Cajel Musgrave give the Panthers a pair of state-caliber athletes, while junior Kyle Zimmerman should make it at 145.
Gardner said senior Cody Williams, who has wrestled tough against Spurgeon this season, is nearly a lock at 152.
Also expected to reach state — and compete for a conference crown — are Alex Rodriguez at 182 and John Alexander at heavyweight. Jacob Lawson will be in the mix at 220, Gardner said.
Gardner said the Panthers should get 10 wrestlers through and perhaps as many as 14, though that will be difficult.
One key will be the matches for fifth and sixth place, since only five athletes advance.
“You just hope none of your kids meet there,” Gardner said. “But a lot of times, if a solid kid loses a match they are supposed to win, they get paired up with one of their teammates in the bracket. We’re hoping that doesn’t happen.”
Meanwhile, Seward’s top grapplers are Jed Wilde, who is ranked sixth at 126, and Sam Rininger, who is fourth at 182.
Homer is led by Mark McGregor, who is third at 160, and Joe Resetaritis, who is sixth at 195.
Voznesenka doesn’t have any ranked athletes.