The anticipation of a new season of wrestling for Class 4A schools has the Kenai Central and Soldotna teams excited for the year, and with it comes new expectations and new athletes.
For Soldotna, the biggest change will be the loss of two standout wrestlers, Kade Foust and Auston Tennis, both of whom graduated last spring.
Soldotna head coach Scooter Hackett isn’t one to mince words, but said that the current roster, while mostly inexperienced, holds a few gems.
“We have two or three wrestlers that are coming back from last year that will be pretty good,” Hackett said. “I think we have a young team, a lot of inexperienced wrestlers, so it makes it a challenge. We got to work on a lot of basic stuff.”
Last January, at the region championships in Kodiak, Soldotna had four grapplers qualify for state, but none won the title. Tennis was pinned by Wasilla’s Tyler Adams in the 145-pound class, Foust was defeated by Simon Root from Colony in the 160-pound division, and Troy Streiff lost to Charlie Johnson from Kodiak in the 182-pound weight class. Jared Chavez, then a freshman, also made the state team.
Streiff is the only returning member of that group this year, and as a senior, there is a state title for him to win in the 182-pound category.
“He should be a contender for the state championship this year,” Hackett said. “He was ranked number one in state last year at one time.”
John Alexander, a transfer from Skyview, will compete in the heavyweight class, and finished fourth at state last year. Sophomore Jared Briggs could be tough in the 220-pound division.
In the 138-pound class stands Eli Damon, another potential contender, according to Hackett. Overall, Soldotna has only been able to conjure up no less than 10 wrestlers on the team thus far.
“We have a number of other guys on the fence that could be good, but we have a lot to learn still,” Hackett said. “We’re behind, we’re definitely not conditioned enough to be wrestling against other teams that have been wrestling for such a long time already. Right now we’re just working on getting in shape, not getting gassed out, and basic moves.”
SoHi competed in a dual meet against Homer last Tuesday and lost 48-30, although Homer has been practicing and competing longer because their season starts earlier. A number of students also have just returned from fall sports, such as cross-country running, swimming and football.
“Wrestling is a lot different than football, the conditioning is different,” Hackett said. “It’s a lot harder. You’re out there using every muscle in your body for six or seven minutes in a match. It’s really tough and you need to do some live wrestling to stay in shape. It’s going to take us a few more weeks until we’re really ready.
“We have some of the toughest teams in our region. I mean, Wasilla are the state champions, Palmer has a really tough team, and the other schools, obviously their numbers are a lot higher than ours, so they have full lineups and they have practice partners. I know that Kenai is short on numbers like we are, and basically, we just need to get the numbers up.”
Kenai is currently standing with no less than 25 wrestlers on its roster, and also will bring along a few state contenders, such as Hope Steffensen in the 106-pound category. Steffensen wrestled at last year’s region tournament, only to be beat by Andrew Caballa of Kodiak in the 106-pound class, and competed at state, but as a senior this year, she returns to attempt to take hold of that title.
Her brother, Ellery, a sophomore this year, won the 132-pound class region title last year, pinning Cameron White from Kodiak, but came up short at state with a sixth-place finish.
“Right now we’re just trying to get in shape, working on basics, because we have quite a few young kids,” Kenai coach Stan Steffensen said. “For some of the kids it’s their first match.”
Senior Brad Smithwick is currently wrestling in the 170-pound class and could harbor state championship hopes, along with Jake Dragseth in the 285-pound class (heavyweight). In the 132-pound division, according to Steffensen, Aaron Troxell-Tom is looking strong, having seen past success wrestling for Kenai.
Junior Tyler Brown in the 182-pound division and senior Matt Aho in the 160-pound class both qualified for the state tournament last year, and coach Steffensen mentioned that they will only add to Kenai’s lineup.
“We have a team that’s excited to wrestle, they’re fun to be around, and they really represent their families and community,” Steffensen said.
Palmer, Kodiak and Wasilla are schools that wrestle with Kenai and Soldotna in the Northern Lights Conference, and Steffensen pointed to those three teams to give the Kards a tough time.
“They’ll be pretty tough in our region, but we can only do our best,” he said.
The 4A state tournament is slated for Feb. 1 and 2 at Bartlett High School in Anchorage.