The Kenai Peninsula is represented by only two wrestling teams in the Northern Lights Conference — Kenai Central and Soldotna.
But, when dealing with such schools like Colony, Kodiak and Wasilla, it’s not as easy as it looks to place a wrestler in the top five at conference in order to lock up a state berth.
The Class 4A state high school wrestling tournament is scheduled for Feb. 7 and 8 at Bartlett High School in Anchorage. That only leaves about 10 weeks for athletes to work up their strength and technique and be ready to peak at the right time.
For the Kenai Kardinals, a current roster of about 25 kids is enough to satisfy the expectations of third-year coach Stan Steffensen.
“We’re eager for the season to be here,” Steffensen said.
Steffensen has seen a lot of student-athletes in his time, as his coaching days go back to the late 1980s.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of things going well,” Steffensen said. “Things went well last year, but it’s about having fun, and we’re blessed with great community members. Business people support us, so we’re really blessed that way too, and parent support is getting better. The booster club is more developed.”
The season will begin to hit its stride this weekend at the Lancer Smith Memorial tournament in Palmer.
Kenai will then be hosting the Luke Spruill tournament on Tuesday at Kenai, where they are the two-time defending champions, starting at 5 p.m. The duals will pit Kenai, Soldotna, Skyview and Nikiski against each other.
This year, Kenai’s biggest chance of winning a state title lies with junior Ellery Steffensen — Stan’s son. Ellery captured the 138-pound state championship last year by winning a 4-2 decision over South’s Kraig Hammond.
As an upperclassmen this year, Ellery will be looking to capture a second crown as well as helping his fellow teammates to challenge for additional honors.
“He’s a leader and outstanding technician, and very helpful in teaching kids different techniques,” coach Steffensen said.
The Kards had six wrestlers go to state last year; Ellery in the 138-pound division, Aaron Troxell-Tom (132 pounds), Dylan Carter (160), Matt Aho (160), Kyle Hunter (170), and Hope Steffensen (106).
Hope, who is Ellery’s older sister, was in position to also capture a state crown after winning her weight class in the conference tournament, but was upset in her bracket and relegated to sixth place. Steffensen, Jake Dragseth (285-pound division) and Aho are all gone after graduating in the spring, but a third Steffensen is waiting in the wings.
Paul, a freshman this year, has already begun winning matches, taking the 126-pound division on Saturday at the Peninsula Duals in Nikiski. He combined to go 5-0 against his competition.
Paul has won state titles in all three of his years in middle school at the Tanana state tournament, which, according to coach Steffensen, makes him the 12th wrestler in almost 40 years to do that.
Along with Steffensen, there are a host of other younger contenders, including freshman Keyshawn McEnerny at 138 pounds, sophomore Carlos Caballero at 113 pounds, sophomore David Beck at 220 pounds, and a transfer student from Colony at 132 pounds, junior Matthew VanderMartin.
Sophomore Zach Koziczkowski (220 pounds), senior Dustin Everitt (126), sophomore Andrew Welborn (152) and sophomore Corbin Streiff (145) all also figure to be strong contenders during the season.
Coach Steffensen also mentioned that he takes pride in the other honors his Kenai squad has taken, such as the academic award the last two years at the state tournament, given to the school with the highest average GPA.
“We’re looking for a three-peat,” Steffensen quipped. “It’s early in season, but the teachers and kids really rallied for their academics. It’s above and beyond expectations.”
On the other side of town, the Soldotna Stars are also getting going, but are suffering with low numbers, a problem that hit their squad last year too.
“The goal now is to keep building,” said SoHi coach Scooter Hackett. “We don’t have any goals except to just improve from where we’re at.”
Hackett had to recruit two other assistant coaches this season because of a broken leg he suffered at a wrestling tournament in May that has kept him from properly coaching his squad.
One of those assistants is Steve Dickinson, a two-time NCAA All-American wrestler. Jake Savely joins him as well.
“This tournament this weekend will tell us a lot,” Hackett said. “It’s one of the bigger tournaments of the year.”
Gone this year are the two state wrestlers from last year — Troy Streiff and John Alexander. Both graduated in May.
Streiff notched a 25-4 season record in the 182-pound division entering the state tournament last year, but lost in the quarterfinals while nursing a foot injury. Alexander was a heavyweight wrestler that finished fourth in state last year.
Right now, coach Hackett said there are around 15 athletes on the mats, but only six will be making the trip to Palmer this weekend.
Hackett believes some of the potential contenders this season could be junior Eli Damon in the 145-pound class, Jared Briggs in the 285-pound class, and Jared Chavez, a junior that didn’t wrestle last year, but returns after qualifying for state as a freshman in the 126-pound division.
Among the freshman class, Hackett said he thinks Marshall Cameron (132 pounds) and Wesley Jackson (145) hold potential.
“What I’m hoping to teach these kids is to overcome adversity,” Hackett said. “It’s kind of hard working in the offseason, because a lot of them play football, and they won the state championship this year.”