When the Class 4A high school wrestling season began back in November, hardly anyone saw the freshman phenom that was about to be released out of Kenai Central high school.
For Kenai coach Stan Steffensen, he was just watching another one of his children take the mat on the Alaska wrestling scene. He knew what was coming.
“Some people didn’t realize it, some have wrestlers in middle school that knew,” Steffensen said. “The ones that do that get involved in it ... they’ve kind of known it. They knew. They’re the guys in the same group.”
Steffensen’s son, Paul, has certainly turned heads this season on the Alaska wrestling scene, powering to a 28-0 season record, including beating South Anchorage’s Gavin Alvarado all three times the two have met. Alvarado was named Most Outstanding Wrestler at last year’s state meet.
When Kenai and Soldotna travel up to Colony High School this weekend for the Northern Lights Conference wrestling tournament, they will be bringing some real talent with them. The tournament will begin today, and finish with championship, third-place and fifth-place finals Saturday. The top five wrestlers in each weight class qualify for the state tournament.
The 126-pound freshman started his year with a victory over Alvarado at the Lancer Smith Memorial tournament at Palmer High School in November. That’s when folks discovered he was for real.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Paul said Wednesday. “I just take it one day at a time. It’s tough, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Not many underclassmen expect to win every single match they compete in, but Paul does not hide his confidence.
When asked if he expected to go undefeated his freshman year, his response was, “Kind of.”
Steffensen beat Alvarado in a 5-0 match at the Lancer Smith tourney, then again 2-0 on Dec. 7, and capped it with a 3-1 victory on Jan. 18, justifying that the first match wasn’t a fluke. Steffensen explained that his ability to adapt and change his style is what keeps him on his toes.
“I guess it’s just take what the other wrestler gives me,” Paul said. “I can’t just go out there and think I’m going to use a certain move, or I’m going to do this. If they have a certain stance I have to react to it.”
Of course, growing up in a household of championship grapplers is rather nice, too.
Paul’s older brother — junior Ellery Steffensen — has been one of the most successful wrestlers the Kardinals team has produced in recent years. Ellery captured the 138-pound state championship last year by winning a 4-2 decision over South’s Kraig Hammond.
Hope Steffensen — the older sister of Ellery and Paul — won a state championship in the 103-pound division in 2011 as a sophomore.
This season, Ellery has seen limited action (he currently holds a 5-0 record), meaning Paul has been giving him a run for his money as top dog in the Steffensen family.
Ellery is eyeing a third-straight conference title this weekend, competing in the 145-pound division.
“He’s pretty excited,” Stan Steffensen said. “He definitely just wrestles where he is, he’s right in there.”
Coach Steffensen said he expects to be bringing about 15 athletes to the conference tournament. Last year, Kenai qualified six wrestlers to the state tournament.
Along with the two Steffensen brothers, the Kardinals will be represented by leading contenders such as seniors Shawn Burdick at 132 pounds, Mike Olson at 152 pounds, Dustin Everitt at 138 pounds, and Tyler Brown at 195 pounds. Then there’s a junior class comprised of Dylan Carter at 160 pounds (ranked fifth), Kyle Hunter at 182 pounds (ranked sixth) and Colony transfer Matt VanderMartin at 132 pounds.
Sophomores Andrew Welborn at 170 pounds and Zach Koziczkowski at 220 pounds (ranked fifth) also expect to place high, and freshman Kelcei Zoda at 98 pounds adds to the mix.
“I guess my attitude is, you enjoy the day, getting prepared, and you hope they can do it,” Stan Steffensen said. “You take it one match at a time. They’re all working hard, it’s exciting.”
For the Soldotna Stars wrestling team, the 2013-14 season hasn’t been one to remember for head coach Scooter Hackett. The Stars have suffered all season with low numbers, which Hackett said is down to four wrestlers as the conference tournament approaches.
To frustrate matters further, Hackett hasn’t been able to properly coach his team after breaking his leg at a wrestling tournament last May. Since then, he’s had seven surgeries, and once this season is done, he plans on having knee surgery.
Fortunately, the SoHi coach has had help in the form of assistants Pete Dickinson — a two-time NCAA All-American wrestler — and Jake Savely. Athletes and coaches from the Skyview wrestling team have also contributed their time.
“We’ve had help from other schools,” Hackett said. “The Hutchison family has come in and helped us, some other Skyview boys came over and helped. We have to thank (Skyview coach) Neldon Gardner for coming over and helping us out.”
The Skyview-Soldotna connection is important, Hackett reminded, because many of Skyview’s athletes will likely join the Soldotna program after the school closes this spring.
“We’ll see who goes where, some may go to Kenai and some may come here,” Hackett said. “We’ve been sticking it out. But like I say, we’d rather have four kids that want to work and be there, rather than 100 kids that don’t.”
The four Soldotna grapplers that will compete this weekend for a spot at state are junior Hunter Bourgeois at 152 pounds, sophomores Dalton Best at heavyweight and Alex Lisenby at 145 pounds, and freshman Adam Skiba at 113 pounds.
“I expect them to give their best efforts,” Hackett said. “I think Dalton stands a good chance (at a state bid). The others may have a tougher go of it, but they definitely have a chance.”