A season’s worth of hard work will be put to the test this weekend in Anchorage as the Kenai Peninsula’s small-schools wrestling teams will vie for the Kachemak Conference title. The tournament starts today at Grace Christian in Anchorage, and finishes off on Saturday.
For each of the 15 separate weight classes — ranging from 98 pounds to 285 pounds (heavyweight) — four wrestlers will qualify for the state tournament. That essentially includes the championship round participants and the third-place match participants.
Of the local schools, Nikiski stands the greatest chance of taking the team title, having done so for the past three years, and as the Bulldogs go for a fourth consecutive championship, Nikiski coach Adam Anders is hoping for the best.
“If these guys wrestle at their full potential, they’re ready to do that, and they’ve been practicing hard these last few weeks,” Anders said. “Our goal is to continue the streak, and we just have to show up and wrestle to our potential. We should be able to reach that region championship as long as we show up and have the tournament we should.”
The Bulldogs qualified 11 wrestlers a year ago for the state tournament, and have shown similar success this year with lesser numbers.
Currently, Nikiski has five athletes that are ranked in the top six on akmat.org. Freshman Nathan Carstens is ranked sixth in the 120-pound weight class, senior Josh Brown is ranked third in the 152-pound category, senior Morgan Sauve is ranked third in the 170-pound division, and both Johnson brothers — senior Lincoln and freshman Luke — occupy the top two positions in the 195-pound division, with Lincoln holding the top spot.
“They are absolutely ready, that’s where they’re at, and they could do that,” Anders said about the Johnson brothers. “If things go as hoped and planned, they’ll be in the finals together, and they both deserve it.
“They’re very talented, they work very hard and they have great sportsmanship.”
Anders also mentioned a few wrestlers not currently ranked that could qualify for state, including sophomore Tyler Handley in the 132-pound division, senior Trey Zimmerman at 120 pounds, junior Mike Olson at 138 pounds, and junior Michael Stangel at 145 pounds. John McCormick at 160 pounds and Nick Olson and Josh Crouse, both in the 182-pound class, could be wild cards, according to Anders.
“We’ve had a great wrestling community and great wrestlers the last few years, and it’s continuing to grow,” Anders said about a potential four-peat. “We’re looking forward to continuing that tradition. Skyview’s wrestling well and they have a great program too, so it’s not for sure.”
Skyview is one of the schools that could keep Nikiski off the top step of the podium this weekend. Coach Neldon Gardner has guided a determined group of athletes this year, and after bringing nine wrestlers to state last year, the Panthers currently have three that are ranked.
Freshman Seth Hutchison will attempt his first state berth as he is currently ranked first in the 98-pound division, Austin Craig is ranked third in the 113-pound class, and senior Sam Janorschke is ranked second at 132 pounds.
“We have 21 wrestlers on the team, and almost all of them are healthy, eligible and going to compete this weekend,” Gardner said. “I feel good with over 20, and our goal is take 12 to 15 kids this year. The team is working hard, practicing hard, and obviously some weight classes are tougher in our region.”
Gardner said the toughest schools in the Kachemak Conference should be Houston, Anchorage Christian, Nikiski and Grace.
“I think we’ll be right in there as a team battling for the championship,” Gardner said. “Nikiski and Houston will be right there just because of the numbers. Other schools are down on numbers.
“It’s a cycle, and sometimes it’s not always the best kids that end up in the top four. The top two or three are usually pretty solid all-around kids, but you can’t predict injuries, and I’ve had kids battling 101-degree temperatures and miss out.”
Gardner said a combination of injuries and ineligibility problems have cut down the roster in past years, but the team has been lucky this year, as no wrestlers were cut due to the recent grade-check procedure that all schools comply with.
From here on out, Gardner said it’s mostly up to the athletes themselves that dictate how well they will perform in the tournament.
“I say the first phase is the coaching and training throughout the season that they get,” he said. “Second is nutrition, and third is proper sleep. Today you have so much technology that kids stay up and don’t prepare enough for the tournament. I ask them, ‘Were you up late?’ and they say, ‘Yeah I was on the computer or cellphone.’”
Joining Skyview’s three ranked athletes that are looking competitive are 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.
After bringing five wrestlers to the state tournament last year, the Homer Mariners are looking to build upon that number, as they currently sport three students who are ranked.
In the 106-pound division, junior Calvin Johnson holds the second spot, junior Harley Wells occupies the sixth spot in the 145-pound class, and senior Mark McGregor is ranked fourth in the 170-pound category.
“We’re hoping that all three of those ranked guys come through and have some others as well,” Homer coach Chris Perk said. In total, Perk is hoping to qualify six or seven wrestlers to state.
Perk said that some members on the team are battling a slight flu, and is hoping that it is cleared up by this weekend.
“Hopefully we’ll have it healed up by Friday, go to the tournament and put together some six- and seven-minute matches,” Perk said. “It’s hard to tone it up too much, because I want those guys to make it to state, so we’ve been focusing on technique, lots of drilling, and just making sure our moves are crisp and our strategy is good.”
Along with their three ranked teammates, junior Pedro Ochoa at 152 pounds and freshman Jadzia Martin in the 98-pound class look to be contenders.
“(Calvin) has beaten a lot of guys below him in the 106-pound class, but it’s all a matter of if he’s been training harder than the guys around him,” Perk said. “When he gets to state, he’ll definitely have a tougher road there, and Pedro is only in his second year as a wrestler, so he’s really coming together as an athlete. He’s not ranked yet, but I think he’s going to crack the top six.”
Junior David Woo at 132 pounds and junior Dick Perez at 220 pounds have seen success this year as well, and need to be mentioned in the state-bound athlete conversation.
Finally, the Seward Seahawks will be traveling up to Anchorage on Friday morning, and with them the hopes of qualifying numerous wrestlers for state. Last year, the Seahawks took four wrestlers to the final competition.
“This is a tight-knit group of kids, it’s a young team, but I’m hoping we’ll bring half a dozen to state,” Seward coach Ronn Hemstock said. “They’ve learned a lot so we’ll see how it pans out.”
There are two current wrestlers that are ranked for Seward and both occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. Jonathan Kingsland is ranked fifth in the 98-pound weight class, and Howie Hubbard is ranked second in the 285-pound division.
“They are both rookies so we’re excited about that and we’ll see how they work it out,” Hemstock said.
Hemstock, like the others, noted that the team has been afflicted with the flu for the past few weeks, but the sickness is all but gone now, and looks toward the region tournament with the biggest group of wrestlers that Seward has furnished in years, with 25 on the roster.
“By this time of the year, it’s definitely about honing your skills, because you can only put so much into a kid’s head for eight weeks,” Hemstock said. “This is it. This is the one that matters.”