Eight local wrestlers are making the trip to the ASAA Class 4A State Wrestling tournament this weekend at Bartlett High School in Anchorage — two from Soldotna and six from Kenai Central.
Of the eight, two made it by capturing the Northern Lights Conference crown in their weight class — Ellery (138-pound class) and Hope Steffensen (106) from Kenai. The other six qualified by placing in the top five.
For Soldotna, a season that began with about 20 wrestlers on the roster has ended with only seven competing in the region tournament last week, and two moving on to state.
John Alexander (285) and Troy Streiff (182 pounds), both seniors, are showing the promise of a state championship bid.
“Practice has been going good this week, because there are teams that are taking 20 or 30 guys and we’re taking two, which is fine because there’s a lot of one-on-one time,” said SoHi coach Scooter Hackett. “They’re wrestling hard and working their butts off. They’re both progressing this week and I think they’re going to do really good.
“Troy’s still sore, but I think he’ll place, and I think John is going to place for sure. It’s mostly all mental. They just need to get past that mental aspect and they’ll be fine.”
Before the conference tournament last week, Streiff broke a bone in the top of his right foot in a nonwrestling related accident, which nearly ended his season right then.
“I try not to think about it when I’m wrestling, but I eventually do think about it when someone steps on it or grabs it,” Streiff said after a practice session on Tuesday. “I try not to let it get to me.”
Streiff competed in the tournament and ended up placing fifth by winning a 5-2 decision over Colony’s Andrew Knowles.
“I think I could’ve done better, but like I said, I’m not going to let it get to me,” Streiff said. “I’m still going to try my best, and try to win a state title.”
Streiff has built a 25-4 record this season, but is not fretting about what happened last weekend.
“I think last weekend he wasn’t 100 percent, and it was hard for him to drive and finish his shots with his leg hurt,” coach Hackett observed. “A lot of wrestling is with your legs, and it’s hard to stand up when that ankle is tweaked. He’s just hoping for the best and I commend him for going out there and giving it his best shot.”
For Streiff, it will be his second time going to the state tournament, while for Alexander, it will be his third.
“This is the biggest show of the season and one of last times we’ll probably wrestle in our lives, so we have a lot to prove,” Alexander said.
Alexander, known as “John-John” in the Kenai Peninsula wrestling inner circle, pinned Mitchell Daigle from Colony only 48 seconds into the third-place bout last weekend to earn his way to state.
Alexander said the fact that SoHi has only two contestants is a good thing, since the coaches can focus on more details. This week, the two athletes have been working on drills and one-on-one activities that have improved their technique.
“We have two coaches that are watching every good thing we do and every bad thing we do, and they put together all the stuff that we can improve on,” Alexander said. “It’s working really good.”
For the Kenai Kardinals, it’s a whole different story. Six Kards are making the trip to Anchorage this weekend, including the sibling pair of Hope and Ellery Steffensen.
Ellery, a sophomore, won the NLC title in the 138-pound weight division with a pin on Kamber Lucas of Colony only 1:14 into the final match. Hope, a senior, pinned Joel Valdez of Kodiak in 3:26 to win the 106-pound weight class, her second region title out of the four years she has competed in the NLC region finale.
“It’s kind of cool, I mean obviously I get a lot of attention for being a girl, but it’s fun to get accomplishments that even a guy would like to have,” Steffensen said. “It’s nice to be noticed for wrestling, not just for being a girl.”
Hope has piled on the achievements over an impressive high school career, including taking the most wins in one season (40 in 2009) and the most overall career wins (over 140, according to coach Steffensen). The previous career wins record was held by 1983 graduate David Boyle with 124.
“It’s been a great ride, and this tournament should be icing on the cake, and I’m ready to go out with a bang,” she said. “It should be fun.
“I’m ready (for this weekend). It’s been a long season, so I’m ready. It’s time.”
Along with the two Steffensens, Aaron Troxell-Tom (132), Dylan Carter (160 pounds), Matt Aho (also at 160 pounds) and Kyle Hunter (170 pounds) have earned spots on the state roster, and Steffensen said any one of them could put together a big performance at state.
“We’re feeling really good, ready to go have some fun,” coach Steffensen said. “We have a few bumps and bruises, but this team is ready.”
Steffensen, who compared the excitement of last week’s conference tournament to fireworks, had another interesting analogy this week.
“There’s probably some ladies in the community that would probably compare this to shopping, but I think it’s just as much fun as going up there to Nordstroms and some of those hot spots,” Steffensen said. “These kids are smiling just as much as some of the ladies do on the shopping sprees.”
In what he called a very successful year, Steffensen pointed to the Luke Spruill Memorial tournament back in December as the most important moment of the season.
“To win the Luke Spruill tournament back-to-back was a great moment,” he said. “It was a lot of fun, and it was great to see a lot of kids in the region wrestling.”
Kenai’s six state-bound wrestlers have been spending time in the school’s wrestling room, which is separated from the main building, and even the wrestlers that failed to make it past the conference tournament have been taking time to help out the remaining kids.
“Some people refer to them as the character kids,” Steffensen said. “We’ve been fortunate to have kids that make good decisions here, and these are hardworking students.”
The state tournament begins today with preliminaries, championship quarterfinals and consolation preliminaries from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., then championship semifinals starting at 6 p.m.
Saturday, the consolation rounds continue at 9 a.m., followed by the fifth-place and third-place matches at 2:30 p.m. Starting at 5 p.m. with the championship introductions and faceoffs, the championship finals will begin.