The Northern Lights Conference will see an end to the wrestling season this weekend when the Kenai Kardinals and Soldotna Stars travel up to Palmer for the Northern Lights Conference tournament that will determine the state contestants.
Five berths from the NLC are available Friday and Saturday, and so the competition will be fierce among teams. Only two central Kenai Peninsula teams are making the trip — Kenai and Soldotna, as former 4A school Skyview has since dropped down to the 3A level.
At this point in the season, Kenai coach Stan Steffensen and SoHi coach Scooter Hackett are most concerned with the health of the wrestlers.
“Number one thing you fight is the flu,” Steffensen said. “We’re down three kids from yesterday, so things go in a hurry.
“Micro-organisms can be tougher than the 200-pound heavyweights.”
According to Steffensen, there are sixteen Kenai wrestlers healthy and ready to go, while Hackett said the SoHi team is down to seven guys from an original 22 on the roster in the opening weeks of the season. Most of that is due to eligibility checks and injuries.
“It’s kinda tough with injuries, we’ve lost a lot of guys on that,” Hackett said. “Numbers are down, and we’ve lost three of our better wrestlers this week. But, the team’s working hard and we expect the best.”
One of the bigger losses Soldotna has suffered recently is that of senior Troy Streiff, who recently broke his foot, according to Hackett. Streiff is currently ranked second in the 182-pound class and has had a great senior year, building a 23-2 record. Along with Streiff, sophomore Jared Briggs (220 pounds) and Eli Damon (145) are apparently on the sideline with injuries for the time being.
The only other ranked SoHi wrestler is John Alexander, ranked sixth in the 285-pound division.
“Everybody goes through struggles,” Hackett said. “Guys like Troy have a good chance to be state champion, but things happen, so we’ll battle back.”
Hackett said if half of the team qualifies for state, he’ll be thrilled. Along with Alexander, Hackett says sophomore Hunter Bourgeois (138 pounds), Dillon Ackerman (132), Gaeden Ames (145) and Daniel Rosin (195) are all potential placers at the NLC tournament.
“We’ve just been doing basic drills and moves this week, and the guys we have left are all working hard,” he said. “Our goal isn’t to win state championships, it’s just to make it. If we can make it, then we’ll think about championships.”
The Kardinals have seen a bit of a resurgence this season and as the region tournament draws nearer, coach Steffensen is preparing the team for some of the toughest competition in the state.
“In our region, we have four teams that are very hard to beat,” Steffensen said, listing Kodiak, Wasilla, Palmer and Colony. “Each of them have been successful, and Kodiak are the returning champs. Colony won the dual tourney in Nikiski to open the season, and Wasilla won the North-South dual.”
Steffensen made similar projections as Hackett, saying Kenai is not looking to win championships, but looking to get as many athletes to the state tournament as possible.
The most recent rankings list two Kenai wrestlers — coincidentally, siblings. Sophomore Ellery is the top-seeded wrestler in the 138-pound category, while his older sister, Hope, is ranked third in the 106-pound class.
Last year, Ellery won the 132-pound division at the region tournament with a pin on Kodiak’s Cameron White. He also grabbed Outstanding Wrestler honors in the tournament, and almost capped his freshman season off undefeated, but fell ill and didn’t make it to the state final, ending up with a 33-1 season record.
This season, he holds an 8-0 record, having missed some tournaments, but is primed to make a run at the state title at 138 pounds.
Hope, a senior, could also be holding a region title in the 106-pound class, but if she doesn’t, she can at least be proud of something else.
According to coach Steffensen, Hope now holds the Kenai Central record for most wins in a high school career, which he believes to be 132, surpassing 1983 graduate David Boyle’s 124 wins.
“The end of the season is a bit of a celebration for me that way,” coach Steffensen said. “It’s pretty cool for a young lady. If she feels good, look out.”
Kenai’s Dustin Everitt is also standing tough in the 120-pound category and holds aspirations of a state berth, along with Aaron Troxell-Tom at 132 pounds, Andrew Welborn at 152 pounds, Dylan Carter and Matt Aho at 160 pounds, Kyle Hunter at 170 pounds, Tyler Brown at 182 pounds, Zach Koziczkowski at 195 pounds and Jake Dragseth at 285 pounds (heavyweight). Steffensen said all those wrestlers stand a chance of qualifying for state.
“There’s no shoo-in for any weight class,” he said. “It’s all very tough, but I can’t wait.
“The region and state tournaments for me are like fireworks.”
Steffensen also mentioned his appreciation for the community support for the entire season.