The moment Neldon Gardner stepped into the brand new Skyview High School in 1990, he did not quite envision that he would leave as the only wrestling coach the school ever knew.
Of course, he also didn’t envision the school would only be open for 24 years.
“Well I knew I was going to do it for a long time,” Gardner said at the Luke Spruill Duals at Kenai on Tuesday. “This is 31 years of coaching for me. When I graduated college, that’s what I wanted to do, was coach. I love it.”
Gardner, a former wrestler himself, is preparing his team for one final shot at glory before Skyview closes its doors when this year is up.
On Saturday, the Panthers close out the regular season with a home dual against the Homer Mariners, with matches starting at 1 p.m. The meet will also be a celebration honoring Gardner and the Skyview wrestling program.
The Kachemak Conference tournament will be contested at Nikiski on December 7, which seeds the top grapplers into the 123A State tournament at Anchorage Christian School the following weekend.
It would only be fitting to end Gardner’s reign at Skyview with at least one more state champion.
“It started out as, hey this is the final year, it’s the final countdown, as a little motivation,” he said. “But it’s working out to be just like any other year, we’re prepping for regions next week and then state.”
For a coach that has produced a staggering 20 state champion wrestlers at Skyview — including four-time state champion Eli Hutchison and his younger sister, Michaela, who became the first girl to win a state title in boys wrestling in 2006 — one last champion would be worth it.
Gardner has always followed the logic that people — athletes, parents and fellow coaches — come first. If you ask his contemporaries, they have nothing but good things to say.
“Neldon is a classy, wonderful guy,” said Kenai coach Stan Steffensen. “It’s such a fitting thing, his alumni year, his name is up on the wall. He’s a state champion. To be around someone that nice, that dedicated, it’s an honor to be in the same room.
“When I first moved here, he was one of our first guest speakers when I was coaching before, and at the end of the year we had our awards ceremony, and I asked him if he would be our awards speaker at our banquet. With Neldon, he says, you bet. And that’s the kind of guy he is.”
Nikiski coach Adam Anders added that, “Skyview’s always a well-coached team, and Neldon always has a ton of knowledge and experience, so every time we know we got a fight on our hands.
“It’s about willing to work hard at it. He knows his stuff, so he knows how to build a program.”
After winning two Alaska state titles at Kenai Central High School — at the 98-pound division in 1974 and the 132-pound division in 1977 — Gardner competed in the college ranks before landing back in Alaska in the early 80’s. In 1983, Gardner took an assistant coaching position at Kenai Central, which led to a head coaching job at Soldotna Middle School.
When the new school opened up in south Soldotna in the summer of 1990, Gardner took the opportunity to be a head coach of a high school team.
“We got a good group of kids that first year, and we set some goals and started climbing the ladder,” Gardner recalled. “Every year we’d look at something and think, OK we took some kids to state and placed this many, next year let’s try and do a little better, and we just did that, and in 1997 we won our first title.”
Sarge Truesdell, the current Soldotna Middle School principal, became Skyview’s inaugural champion in the 1994 state tournament, and 19 others have followed in his footsteps.
“You want to coach kids to the level that you wrestled or better, and if you never coach a kid to be a state champ you have to wonder what’s going on,” Gardner said.
Skyview took overall state titles in 1997, 1999, and the fall seasons of 2000 and 2001. That first state championship in 1997 proved to be one of the highlights of Gardner’s coaching career, but it wasn’t the most successful. That honor goes to the fall 2000 Skyview squad, which racked up 288 points that was easily enough to capture the state crown over Juneau. The team title was made possible by a school-record five Skyview athletes winning state championships that year, from Cody Phipps in the 103-pound division to Chris Rice at 152 pounds.
“It was a good climb and we had a lot of success over there, and then we hit down on a couple of low years too. You got the highs and lows of it,” Gardner said.
That successful year led to another state title in 2001, but the best grappler to step onto a mat at Skyview High was still to come. From 2002 through the 2006 4A State tournament, Eli Hutchison did not lose a single match in Alaska.
Hutchison comes from a strong family of champion grapplers. His older brother, Zeb, won two state titles in 1997 and 1999; his younger sister, Michaela, won a state title on the same day he won his fourth in 2006, the first girl in the nation to win a boys wrestling state championship; and Seth, the second-youngest in the family, became the fourth Hutchison to win a state title last year as a freshman.
“They’re like family,” Gardner said about the Hutchisons. “All wrestlers become like family, so it’s been a really good time here at Skyview.”
Mike Hutchison, the patriarch of the family, said he recalls first meeting Gardner in 1996, as his sons began their tutelage under him, and said Gardner was perhaps a little harsher then as a coach.
“I saw the competitiveness and the fire in him. He was younger and, perhaps, less reserved,” Hutchison said. “He was younger and his expectations of his wrestlers were different. He expected them to work hard as he did.”
Without a leader like Gardner, who knows if an athlete like Michaela would have ever had the opportunity to become the first girl to beat the boys.
“He’s so passionate about the sport,” Hutchison said. “He cares about the wrestlers, he cares about the kids, and he’s concerned not only with them becoming better wrestlers but better people too. His moral standards are very high, and he expects them to act like young gentlemen, and ladies.”
After Eli graduated in 2006, it was a tough go for Skyview at the state meet. Eli’s act was a hard one to follow up, and the Panthers went every year without an individual winning at state, until last December, when Seth Hutchison captured the 98-pound division. But the dry spell did not mean Gardner’s coaching skills were on the decline.
“He kind of has a photographic memory of matches,” Mike Hutchison said. “He can remember positions, and it’s like a scene from a movie. Most people can remember certain scenes from a movie, well he can remember moves in a match.”
When the athletes take the mat on Saturday at Skyview, it will mark the final time the Skyview mats will be used for competition, but the lasting impact will remain in the students that were shaped to be not only successful wrestlers, but successful people.
“I had kids that, when I see them as seniors, I’d say let’s get it done, let’s go,” Gardner said. “And after the season, I’d be talking to them at the banquet or something, and they’d say, coach do you remember I didn’t win a match my freshman year? And I’d say, nope, I don’t remember that.
“They’d say, you always believed in me and thought I was a winner and kept me going. Those are the memories that I’ll remember the most.”