Five Kenai Peninsula Class 1-2-3A schools will feature wrestlers hoping to win a state championship this weekend at Nikiski High School.
Nikiski, Skyview, Homer, Seward and Voznesenka will each have one or more athletes representing them when the weigh-ins start today at 9 a.m. at Nikiski High School. Preliminaries and championship quarterfinals follow that from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and championship semifinals start at 6 p.m.
On Saturday, consolation matches will take place from 9 a.m. to noon, and the third-place and fifth-place matches start at 2:30 p.m. The state championship finals will begin at 5:15 p.m., right after championship introductions.
Only one week removed from its fourth consecutive Kachemak Conference crown, the Bulldogs seem to pose the biggest threat in taking down the reigning state champions, the Bethel Warriors. Nikiski qualified 10 wrestlers to state, one less than last year, but are looking just as strong this time around, with region titles being earned last week by Mike Olsen in the 138-pound weight class, Josh Brown at 152, Morgan Sauve at 170 and Lincoln Johnson at 195. Nikiski finished third last year as a team at the state competition.
“We have a lot of possibilities. Every kid on our team has a chance of placing,” Nikiski head coach Adam Anders said. “We have a small number of wrestlers, but they are some of the best in the state. It’s special to have it at home again, and to have our community behind us. For the seniors it’s their last time doing this.”
Along with the four region champions, Nikiski has the chance to score points with six other wrestlers, which include TJ Cox at 106 pounds, Nathan Carstens at 120, Tylor Handley and Trey Zimmerman at 132, Michael Stangel at 145 and Luke Johnson at 195.
“(Bethel) has a great program, they have good wrestlers and a lot of them,” Anders said. “We have great wrestlers, but don’t quite have the numbers as they do. We need to build our numbers. It helps to have a big program, and we’re competitive and we have a shot at it, but we need to wrestle at our potential.”
Of course, sleeping in your own bed at home helps, and since the tournament is in Nikiski, that extra focus could go a long way.
“There’s no doubt there’s an advantage, because we don’t have to travel, and we have the administration and community support to make it happen,” Anders said.
Anders, along with the other Kenai Peninsula coaches, is aware that the seeding system and the tournament bracket could make things interesting this year. Because there are five regions competing in the tournament (Kachemak, Northern, Great Alaska, Southeast and Denali conferences), and the champion from each conference is automatically seeded into the top portion of the bracket with the elite wrestlers, it means that the Nos. 1 and 2 seeded wrestlers could face each other before the title rounds, or even the semifinals.
“That really makes the seeding more random, and takes away some of the advantage,” Anders said.
Seward coach Ronn Hemstock added that the 16-man bracket doesn’t add any relief to the system.
“The top half of the bracket is exponentially harder than the bottom,” Hemstock said.
Nevertheless, Anders thinks that the seeding won’t hurt Nikiski, since there is no weight class that holds more than one Nikiski wrestler except in the 195-pound division, which has brothers Luke and Lincoln Johnson as the top two seeds.
Skyview finished second to Nikiski in the team standings in last week’s region tournament by a mere eight points, and head coach Neldon Gardner is hoping to better the Panthers’ performance this weekend.
“We’re looking at three kids that are ranked right now, because if you didn’t win your region championship, you’re not ranked,” Gardner said. “We’ve got two or three other kids we’re hoping to see have a good state tourney and maybe get on the podium.”
Skyview qualified 13 wrestlers, the most of the local schools, including three conference champions — Seth Hutchison at 98 pounds, Austin Craig at 113 and Sam Janorschke at 132.
“We have been fighting a little of the flu bug, so let’s hope that’s cleared up by this weekend,” Gardner said. “It’s going to come down to the kids wrestling at their best and hope they reach their peak at state. If you wrestle a month from now it might be totally different. We didn’t lose anybody to grades but we’ve had a couple kids injured.
“Our three kids that are ranked are looking healthy.”
In addition to the three region champs, Skyview qualified Ryan Winter at 106 pounds, Grant Valiquette at 120, Bailey Blumentritt at 145, Kyle Zimmerman at 152, Frank Navarro at 160, Ashton Mahan at 170, Sage Hill at 195 (alternate selection), James Gallagher and Taylor McCrae at 220, and Josh Uei at 285.
“Grant has lost to a few of the top-ranked kids by only one or two points this year, so he’s right on the edge of winning it,” Gardner said. “Bailey could possibly get in there too.”
Gardner echoed Anders’ words in that the road to the state championship will go through Bethel.
“I recall that one year at Chugiak, five of their kids placed in the finals, all the top three and one was in fifth, and they finished third at state with five kids,” he said. “It’ll come down to the luck of the draw, and I don’t mean to say we’re lucky, because there are strong teams out there, but if we get a win or a pin out of that, that’s big because it’s two points for advancing and two for a pin.”
Hemstock was enthusiastic about Seward’s chances, after qualifying eight state wrestlers, including a region champion in the heavyweight division in Howie Hubbard, a first-year wrestler. A year ago, Seward took four wrestlers to state.
“We’re peaking at the right time and we did better than I thought we would at regions,” Hemstock said. “It was a good time, going overtime in the 113-pound match with Terrance (Annogiyuk) and Austin (Craig) and others. I was real happy with our finish.”
Hemstock noted that at one point in the region tournament, Seward was trailing Skyview by 20 points, and a 12-point swing from the 113-pound match helped get the Seahawks closer than he thought.
Along with Hubbard in the 285-pound class, Seward is taking Jonathan Kingsland at 98 pounds, Terrance Annogiyuk at 113, Dakota Nickell at 132, Misha O’Leary and Savannah Fackler at 138, Tyrone Anderson at 160 and Sam Rinninger at 170. Hemstock said the team is dealing with the effects of flu symptoms, although it seems to have cleared up.
“Jonathan (Kingsland) was actually on the sideline before his final match feeling the effects, so he really toughed it out,” Hemstock said.
One thing that could hurt Seward, but hasn’t so far, is the experience of the state qualifiers. Hemstock said three of the five finalists at the region competition were rookies.
“It was a good weekend, all in all,” he said. “They really came to life at the right time. We’re hoping the fire is still there this weekend.”
The Mariners qualified seven athletes to state this year, one season after bringing five wrestlers. Homer head coach Chris Perk holds a lot of confidence in his grapplers, all of which have a realistic shot of making their way through the brackets and into the finals.
“We’re pretty excited, we have some experienced guys that are going to do well,” Perk said. “We have two conference champs that are looking good.”
Calvin Johnson won a region title in the 106-pound division last week, and Mark McGregor did the same in the 160-pound class.
“Calvin had the nerves last year so hopefully he’ll do well this year,” Perk said. “Mark actually holds a 7-0 record, and dominated everyone last week, but we’ve had a great week in practice, everyone is really focused and they have matured a lot this year.”
Along with Johnson and McGregor, Homer sports Austin McGregor at 120 pounds, Harley Wells at 145, Pedro Ochoa at 152, Jordan Reynolds at 182 and Dick Perez at 220.
Homer took fourth-place honors last week, only 15 points behind Seward in the team standings, and Perk wants that spot from the Seahawks.
“I’ve got a feeling that we can pass Seward,” he said. “The caliber of athletes we have might be better, even though they have more.”
Finally, Gavril Kalugin wrestled his way to a third-place finish at the region tournament last week, and therefore will be making an appearance at state for Voznesenka, which is situated near Homer. Kalugin will be wrestling at the 113-pound weight division, having pinned Christian Wheeles of Grace Christian in the third-place match at the region tournament last week.