Nikiski’s four-year stranglehold on the Kachemak Conference wrestling tournament will be put to the test on Friday and Saturday as nine opposing schools hope to knock them off the top spot in the team standings.
The Bulldogs hold a shot at winning their fifth straight team title at home, starting in the final events tomorrow at 1 p.m. at Nikiski High School, but a lot of fingers are being pointed at other teams that could break their current streak.
The Skyview Panthers, competing in their final region meet in school history, have been strong all season long and a conference championship would certainly be the best way to cap the 24-year tenure of head coach Neldon Gardner.
Last December, Nikiski took the conference title by eight points over Skyview, but several graduating seniors left the Bulldogs with holes in their roster, giving other schools the opportunity to pounce.
“We should be really good for the team title,” said Gardner. “We definitely have the most kids at the tournament, but the equalizer is they only count the best scorer for each weight class.”
Nikiski coach Adam Anders said he believes his squad has the ability to make it five in a row, but they will have to bull their way through a tough Skyview team.
“I think Skyview’s going to be tough to beat,” Anders said. “They’re looking strong right now, and I’m not sure if it’s going to be a race for second or not.
“We’re going to throw everything we have at it. There’s some good teams out there and the focus is on each individual performing at their best.”
According to Gardner, Homer and Houston also bring strong squads that could win the title, although Houston may not even get the chance to compete.
Because of the Matanuska-Susitna and Anchorage borough school districts cancelling classes on Thursday due to icy road conditions, there is a chance the same could be done today, which would mean the Houston wrestling squad would not be allowed to travel to Nikiski High School to compete for the weekend.
Nikiski athletic director Dylan Hooper said that if Houston is unable to show this weekend, then the tournament will go on as scheduled. Hooper said the call will be made at 8 a.m. today regarding whether or not the Hawks will be making the trip.
If school is cancelled on Friday, there is still a possibility the team would be given an exception on Saturday, but Hooper said that is for the Mat-Su school district to decide.
For now, however, athletes are focused solely on making it through the preliminary rounds and into the top four spots that represent the Kachemak Conference representatives at the Class 123A State tournament at Anchorage Christian School next weekend.
One of the leading Skyview wrestlers is sophomore Seth Hutchison in the 113-pound division, the only returning Class 123A state champion on the Peninsula. Skyview returns a total of nine state qualifiers.
Hutchison became the fourth in his family to capture a state crown last year in the 98-pound weight class, and will begin his journey towards a second one on Friday.
Gardner said there are a couple Skyview wrestlers that can win the finals in their weight class, including Austin Craig at 106 pounds, Ryan Winter at 120, Grant Valiquette at 126, Bailey Blumentritt at 145, Cajewl Musgrave at 170, James Gallagher at 182, Sage Hill at 195, and Taylor Macrae at heavyweight (285).
“We’ll try and gain some conditioning for some of the kids, but mostly we’ll be dialing in the moves for each kid,” Gardner said. “Some of the kids can do certain things and some can’t, so we’ll be working with each one individually. We’ll see what they’re doing right and wrong and go from there.”
With the influx in technology in recent years, the ability to track each team’s progress in scoring points during the meet has become much simpler. Today, individuals can know right away how many points a team needs in order to clinch a team championship as soon as each match ends. Gardner said that doesn’t change how his athletes wrestle, since he and previous assistant coaches have done the math on paper in past years, so that strategy has not changed.
“Maybe (today) you don’t pay attention as you should,” Gardner said. “But we’ll tell each kid, if you don’t think you’re going to pin your opponent, you need to try for a major decision or something because it’ll be worth more points.
“The good wrestlers, they know if they won by major decision or not.”
The Bulldogs return four state placers — senior Michael Stangel at 152 pounds, sophomore Luke Johnson at 195, junior Taylor Handley at 138 and sophomore TJ Cox at 106. But they’ll need more than that to take the title. Coach Anders said Nathan Carstens in the 132-pound class could easily join that list this weekend.
“It’s certainly attainable, and they’re all in shape, we’re making sure they are,” Anders said. “Their conditioning will be as good as it can be.”
Last year in the conference finals at the 195-pound division, then-senior Lincoln Johnson won by forfeit over his brother Luke, which was a win by design. The next week in the Class 123A State finals, the two brothers finally got the chance to wrestle for all the glory, and Lincoln came out on top of a 3-0 match.
“Luke should do well, he’s in good position to win regions and state,” Anders said.
Anders said most of his team currently takes the SST strength and conditioning class at Nikiski, which is taught by Ted Riddall, which has helped a lot.
Head coach Chris Perk said he believes Nikiski’s reign at the conference tournament is over, and it’s a race for second place between his Mariners, Houston and Nikiski.
“Everybody on our team is excited and our guys have had a great week of practice,” Perk said.
Senior Calvin Johnson returns to defend his conference championship from last year in the 113-pound division, but he’ll likely need to go through Skyview’s Seth Hutchison to do so.
“I’m sure (Johnson) and Seth will tangle in the finals this year, and it’ll be fun,” Perk said. “We made a few adjustments this week in practice, mostly to build confidence.”
Skyview beat Homer 60-17 in a dual meet on Saturday, but Perk said many of his top wrestlers were not there.
In addition to Johnson, Perk said he believes there are a few more Homer grapplers that could win, such as Jadzia Martin at 98 pounds, Pedro Ochoa at 152 pounds and Jordan Reynolds at 220 pounds.
The lone Seward wrestler to take a conference title last year was then-sophomore Howie Hubbard in the heavyweight division. Four other Seward grapplers competed for a state crown, which was enough for the Seahawks to take third place in the team standings.
Jonathan Kingsland at 120 pounds, Terrance Annogiuk at 126, Kris Hettick at 145, Nick Zweifel at 170, Ben Miranda at 220 and Justin Schutter at heavyweight all have put multiple pins on opponents this season and could make a run at state bids on Saturday.