Such is the prep sports calendar in Alaska that Nikiski just claimed back one title, and already people are trying to make away with another of the Bulldogs’ crowns.
On Oct. 19, Nikiski’s football team defeated Monroe Catholic for the First National Bowl small-schools state title after losing in the championship game the year before.
But at that time, wrestling teams were already practicing with designs on stopping the Bulldogs’ run of Kachemak Conference titles at four.
“There are pros and cons to it,” said Nikiski coach Adam Anders, now in his seventh year, of losing part of the wrestling season to deep runs in the football playoffs. “The positive side is our athletes come in with a wonderful attitude, work ethic and work habits from being part of an excellent football program.
“The downside is they miss out on a lot of mat time, practice time and competition, which can make it tough.”
While the Bulldogs return four state placers, some key losses mean some young wrestlers will have to step up.
“Conference will be tough,” Anders said. “Skyview has a great program and they’re looking tough.”
The Skyview wrestling program is in its last year because the school is preparing to close its doors in the spring. Neldon Gardner has been the coach for each year of the school’s existence, starting in the 1990-91 school year.
“We’ll do anything to motivate kids, so, sure, we’re using it,” Gardner said of the closure. “The theme is, ‘The Final Countdown.’
“I don’t know if it’s because of that, or because the kids are maturing from last year, but they’re working really hard and doing really well.”
Gardner said with programs like Seward, Grace Christian, Nikiski, Homer and Anchorage Christian Schools in the conference, it’s too soon to start making predictions.
He said the ACS Invitational this weekend is normally a good indicator, but Anders said Nikiski’s full team will not be ready for that meet yet.
The Panthers are lead by sophomore Seth Hutchison, the only returning state champion on the Peninsula. Skyview returns nine state qualifiers.
Seward coach Ronn Hemstock, approaching 20 years of service with the Seahawks, also said Houston will be part of the title hunt.
“When you look at the big picture, it’s teams with the thick lineups like Houston and Skyview that end up getting the title for the region,” Hemstock said. “You never want to count anybody out, though.”
Bethel and Kotzebue finished one-two at the Class 1-2-3A state meet last year, while Nikiski was third.
Coaches said Bethel and Kotzebue are looking good again this year.
“Both have really tough lineups,” Hemstock said. “I don’t know at this point, the world could come to an end and we could all fall off, but they both have really salty lineups.”
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula’s wrestling programs:
Homer head coach Chris Perk and assistant Bubba Wells are hoping experience plus a nice injection of youth can lead the program to rare heights this year.
“We hope for a top 10 finish (at state), something the Mariners have only done once in the past 13 years,” Perk wrote in an email.
The Mariners will be led by senior captain Calvin Johnson at 113 pounds. Johnson took fifth at state at 106 last season, and Perk wrote Johnson wants to make the finals this year and ran cross-country in the fall to make that happen.
Homer also returns state qualifiers in co-captain Pedro Ochoa at 152, Jordan Reynolds at 195/220 and Harley Wells at 145. Ochoa is currently battling a sprained foot, while Wells is currently not eligible.
The top freshmen are Timmy Woo at 132, Jared Brant at 106, Ravi Cavasos and Jaime Rios at 125, and Wyatt Lewis and Andrew Doughty at 145. Perk wrote that Woo and Brant are looking to achieve a state ranking this year.
Perk wrote freshmen Martin Welty and John Sarmiento will gain experience this year and look to make varsity next year.
The Mariners also will put three girls on the mat. Jadzia Martin returns at 98 pounds, where she might have qualified for state, except she missed weight at regions. Alicia Anderson (145) and Heather Harrington (220) are the other two girls.
Perk said seniors David Jack Woo (138), and juniors Antonio Ochoa (160) and Danny Rios (195), all were set to qualify for state last year, but got sick at regions.
If a program wants to stop the four-year run of the Bulldogs atop the conference, that program had better do it while it can.
Nikiski has just two seniors on the team this year.
“We’re trying to grow a good crop out there,” Anders said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. There’s a lot of tough programs out there.”
The Bulldogs return four state placers — senior Michael Stangel was sixth at 145, sophomore Luke Johnson was second at 195, junior Taylor Handley was fifth at 132 and sophomore TJ Cox was sixth at 106.
Sophomore Nathan Carstens, at 132 this year, and senior Mike Olsen, at 145, also qualified for state.
Anders also expects good things from sophomore Jon McCormick (182), sophomore Ruben Sepeda (heavyweight), junior Nick Olsen (182), sophomore Michaela Apted (145) and sophomore William Lynch (145).
“We’ve also got a big bunch of freshmen wrestlers and first-year wrestlers and there is no telling the contribution they will make,” Anders said.
Junior Nico Castro (132) is a first-year wrestler, but Anders said he is athletic and working hard.Freshmen expected to contribute are Andrew Pennison (138), Wyatt Carpenter (145) and Curtis Larson (126).
“I’d just like to thank the great coaching staff we have here, as well as the parents, Nikiski wrestling community and local businesses that support the program,” Anders said.
Nikiski’s assistants are Jesse Bjorkman, Dylan Hooper, Kyle McNally and Dave Brown.
The Seahawks return four that made the trip to state last season.
They are junior Terrance Annogiyuk (120), junior Howie Hubbard (285), junior Jonathan Kingsland (113) and senior Dakota Nickell (145).
“We have kind of an unusual team,” Hemstock said. “We don’t have that many kids — about 20 kids on the roster. Most are young and inexperienced.”
Leadership will come from senior captains Tannen Berry (160), Nick Zweifel (170) and Jeremy Bunch (145).
“Cohesion,” Hemstock said, when asked his goal for the team. “We want the team to be a family — to learn to get better and move forward.”
Hemstock is happy to have assistant Andy Davis, a college All-American, in his room, as well as assistant Andrew Scrivo.
There is a lot of talent in the Skyview mat room, which features 27 or 28 wrestlers led by a formidable coaching staff.
Gardner has been coaching for 31 years. Assistant Eric Willets has been with the program for 10 years, while Joe Cudd works with the heavyweights. Eli Hutchison, a four-time state champion who never lost in Alaska and is fresh off a career at Boise State, also joins the coaching staff.
The inevitable questions is, what happens to all this wrestling and coaching talent after this year?
Gardner said the season is not the time for that discussion.
“We’re in the moment of this year,” he said. “I’m not talking about where I’ll be coaching or if I’ll be coaching until the season is over.”
Seth Hutchison, who is Eli’s brother, is off to a solid start this season.
He lost a pair of matches to Brettlyn Reich, last year’s state champion at 113, at the Bush Brawl in Kotzebue, but came back to defeat Reich at the King of the Mountain tournament last weekend in Seward.
In addition to Hutchison, the Panthers return another conference champ in junior Austin Craig, who went on to finish fourth at state at 113.
State qualifiers also returning for the Panthers are juniors Ryan Winter (120/126), Bailey Blumentritt (145), Ashton Mahan (170), James Gallagher (182) and sophomores Sage Hill (195) and Taylor McCrae (220), and senior Grant Valiquette (120/126).
Gardner thinks he has two other state-caliber wrestlers in juniors Charles Gibbons (132) and Sean Turbin (145). Both did not wrestle last season due to concussions sustained in football.
The coach also is expecting solid performances from seniors Khelbie Miller (160) and Cajewl Musgrave (160/171).
“It’s a quick, short season and I’m looking forward to it,” Gardner said. “It’s a great group of hard-working kids.”
The Cougars will be led by Gavril Kalugin, who finished sixth at state at 138 last season.
“He has been wrestling since junior high,” said Voznesenka head coach Justin Zank told the Homer News.
“His strengths are his dedication, hard work and determination. We have a lot of things to work on and definitely need to polish some things. We looked pretty sloppy at times today, but Gav works hard every day we are in the wrestling room. He will be as good as he wants to be.”
Kalugin opened the season by taking first place at the Best Western Bidarka’s Round Robin Rumble.
Zank also told the Homer News his goal for the season is to lay the groundwork for the future of the program.
Voznesenka is located at the far end of East End Road and has not facilities for wrestling, so the Cougars drive to Homer for practice and use the Mariners’ mat room.