The Alaska high school small-schools wrestling season has quietly crept upon us, and the small-schools division is rolling with both returning talent and fresh faces in the Class 1-2-3A Denali-Kachemak Conference.
The King of the Mountain tournament in Seward on Friday and Saturday allowed most of the teams a chance to really see who will be competitive this year.
Nikiski is the only school that will be returning a state champion athlete from a year ago, with senior Lincoln Johnson looking to repeat as state champion in the 182-pound division, but other schools have returning students who made it to the state competition last year, and are looking stronger than last year.
The ’Dawgs return one of their two state champions from last year — senior Lincoln Johnson in the 195-pound division. The other state champion, Kaden Spurgeon, has since graduated, but Johnson produced an undefeated season last year, going 34-0.
“He’s not just a great wrestler but a great leader,” Nikiski head coach Adam Anders said. “He’s positioned to have a great season.”
Anders said the bulk of the team has finally returned, having just traveled to the small-schools state football championship.
“It’s great to have our wrestlers back,” Anders said. “We have a great group of athletes in the room right now, a lot of really good wrestlers that came back this year.”
Anders said that although the loss of Spurgeon hurts, he thinks this year’s squad is primed for similar success.
“It hurts, we lost some great wrestlers, but I don’t think we’re going to lose anything,” Anders said. “If anything, we’ll pick up speed.
“If the kids do what they’re capable of and are hitting on all cylinders, we should do as good or better than last year. We have the potential to do better than last year.”
Senior Trey Zimmerman looks to lead Nikiski in the 120-pound division, sophomore Tyler Handley at 132 pounds, junior Michael Stangel at 145 pounds, senior Josh Brown at 152 pounds, and freshman Luke Johnson (Lincoln’s brother) in either the 195- or 220-pound category.
Also, senior Morgan Sauve in the 160-pound division, sophomore Greg Brown at 126 pounds, freshman Nathan Carstens at 126 pounds, and freshman T.J. Cox at 106 pounds should be contenders, according to Anders.
“We’re really pleased with the kids that make up our program,” Anders said. “They want to be there and they’re committed to what they’re doing and they’re having fun.”
Anders also thanked the wrestling community in Nikiski for the support they have gotten.
Longtime Alaska wrestling coach Neldon Gardner will be returning as the only wrestling coach Skyview has ever seen, guiding the team since the school’s inception in 1990.
Gardner said there are around 20 to 25 athletes unofficially on the roster, enough to prepare for this weekend’s tournament in Seward.
“We just went through our eligibility check, and we’ll find out who will be on the team for sure, as well as in November,” Gardner said. “I’ve had kids in the past that could have won a state title that haven’t passed eligibility. Also, we want to stay injury-free. There’s a lot of variables out there, as there is in any sport, but if they’re healthy, then it’s just a matter of teaching the right moves and getting in the best physical condition they can.”
Senior Sam Janorschke returns as a state qualifier from last year, wrestling in the 138-pound category. Janorschke placed fourth at state last year in the 132-pound division.
Freshman Seth Hutchison is ranked No. 1 at 98 pounds, according to Gardner, and is joined by sophomore Ryan Winter at 106 pounds, junior Grant Valiquette in the 120-pound division, sophomore Brennar Musgrave at 126 pounds, junior Kyle Zimmerman at 152, senior Frank Navarro at 160, junior Kajewl Musgrave at 171 pounds and senior DJ Tourtelot in the 182-pound division.
Gardner said the team is looking forward to the Seward tournament this weekend, where the top athletes will likely remain as the best in their weight class throughout the season.
“Wrestling is a sport that the top four are the same throughout,” Gardner said. “Usually a kid doesn’t come out of nowhere. Once in a while, there will be an upset, and there will usually be a kid who places fourth or fifth last year that will be the top dog this year.”
Gardner said he looks forward to a successful year for Skyview, one of the bigger schools in the conference.
“All of these kids, with the right circumstances, can do really well, they can all possibly make it to state,” he said. “Some of these kids are showing a lot of promise. Best case scenario, almost all these kids could place at state.”
The Mariners return one state finalist from last year, Mark McGregor, who finished fourth in the 160-pound category.
“We’re really young and inexperienced, but very dedicated to getting better, and every week it looks that way, so hopefully by the end of the season we can have some state wrestlers and improve on some things,” Homer coach Chris Perk said. “Being such a short season, and some kids don’t do club wrestling, they kind of come in at the same level that they left last season, so we have some work to do for some of them.”
Perk said the 152-pound weight class is Homer’s strongest division, although the same can be said for many teams around the state. Juniors Harley Wells and Pedro Ochoa currently lead that lineup for Homer, as both are undefeated early in this season.
According to Perk, junior Calvin Johnson should be a contender in the 106-pound category, having been a state qualifier last year, as well as freshman Jadzia Martin in the 98-pound division, junior David Woo at 132 pounds and junior Dick Perez at 220 pounds.
Perk also mentioned a wrestling clinic that Homer hosted two weeks ago that featured United States wrestler Coleman Scott, a bronze medalist from the London Olympic games this summer.
“We’re doing our best to raise the level of interest in wrestling in Alaska, we’re doing our part to help keep the sport alive, and the kids are into it,” Perk said.
Seward is the host of this weekend’s King of the Mountain tournament, and the host school sports a large group of athletes this year.
“It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest bunch of kids I have seen during my tenure here,” Seward head coach Ronn Hemstock wrote in an email. “At times, there were as many as 28 students on the mat during the first two weeks of practice. However, that number has been stabilized to a solid 20-24 wrestlers that make up a diverse mix of returning veterans, new blood from the middle school program, and a healthy crop of rookies out on the for the first time.
“There’s great energy this year,” Hemstock writes. “A real fun group to coach.”
The Seahawks graduated a few varsity athletes who made it to state last year, but the returning members have picked up where they left off, and Seward finished second as a team at Valdez’s Throwdown in Snow Town tournament earlier this year, with Jonathan Kingsland and Howie Hubbard taking the championship in the 220-pound category.
Seward will be going on the road to Anchorage Christian Schools for their annual rumble in Anchorage, which often serves as a prelude to the 1A-2A-3A state tournament.
SELDOVIA SEA OTTERS
The small school across Kachemak Bay will be fielding one wrestler this year — sophomore Devin Chissus in the 152-pound weight class.
Coach Justin Derks will be coaching for the first time in Seldovia, and shows a lot of confidence in Chissus.
“This is a big year for him. Last year they didn’t have a team, and we had a couple of commitments that fell through for us,” Derks said. “Obviously there’s some rust to shake off, but this is the first year for him in a while, and he’s a good, strong wrestler.”
Chissus wrestled four times on Friday in Seward, getting pinned twice in his first two matches, but getting the pin in his second two matches.
“Our goal has been to get better every day,” Derks said. “We’ve been committed to consistently getting better every day, and representing Seldovia well.”
Eight-year head coach and team founder Steve Wolfe relinquishes the top coaching spot to Justin Zank this year, saying Zank has what it takes to take control.
“It’s a 50-mile round trip from where I live to the school,” Wolfe said. “It’s become just a bit too much for me.”
Although Wolfe will not be coaching anymore, he said he knows of at least two wrestlers from Voznesenka who could be tough to beat — the Kalugin brothers.
Junior Avraam and sophomore Gavril Kalugin will be competing in the 145- and 120-pound weight classes, respectively.