Peninsula signs on for fall wrestling season

Posted: Thursday, March 30, 2000

Kenai Peninsula high schools Skyview, Soldotna, Kenai and Homer will most likely not get a chance to wrestle with big schools in the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, Anchorage and Fairbanks next season.

"This is going to limit our ability to schedule quality competition big time," said Skyview activities and athletic director John Andrews, whose school has won big-schools wrestling titles two of the past four years.

"It doesn't take into account how much our program has developed over the past six years. If we win a state championship against the small schools, we can put a banner on the wall, but what will it mean?"

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Donna Peterson decided this week that all the peninsula schools will wrestle in the fall next season.

ASAA is sanctioning completely separate wrestling seasons in the fall and spring next year, and schools can decide which they want to participate in.

Gary Matthews, executive director of the Alaska School Activities Association, said Wednesday it was his understanding that schools in the Valley, Anchorage and Fairbanks, except for Anchorage Christian Schools and Houston, would wrestle in the spring.

Matthews said the schools do not have to make the decision official until April 15.

Peterson's decision to put all the peninsula schools in the fall came as a shock to Skyview coach Neldon Gardner. The decision went against the recommendation the Kenai Peninsula Schools Activities Association had given to the superintendent in early March.

"I don't see (her decision) as looking at the same information that I'm looking at," said Gardner, who has coached wrestling at Skyview 10 years. "I really don't see this as being in the best interest of wrestling."

KPSAA recommended that Skyview, Soldotna, Kenai and Homer wrestle in the spring, while all the peninsula's small schools wrestle in the fall.

However, Peterson said that she would not split up the seasons of the peninsula schools because of the current budget crunch facing the school district.

The school budget recently passed by the school board cuts funding for student activities next year by about 18 percent.

"We've had to cut travel costs to almost nothing," Peterson said. "Accordingly, it was important to have a wrestling season where peninsula schools could at least wrestle each other."

Gardner said the money his program receives out of the pocket of the district will be the same no matter where his program has to travel. The wrestling program has to find ways, like fund-raising, to make up the difference.

"To use money as an issue, that's not a valid issue in my mind," Gardner said. "Activities fees are going up from $100 to $150, and they're not going to get to travel outside the area and wrestle other 4A schools.

"It's frustrating."

In fact, Gardner contends wrestling in the fall will cost his program more. In the spring, the Anchorage schools and Valley schools would have been less than five hours away on the road.

But by switching to fall, the peninsula big schools lose the opportunity to wrestle those Anchorage and Valley schools, and gain just two programs within easy driving distance which Gardner feels are competitive -- Nikiski and Seward.

Andrews, who had already done tentative scheduling assuming Skyview would wrestle in the spring, said the move also rips up one of the state's best wrestling conferences in Region III, which also included Kodiak, Wasilla, Colony and Palmer.

"It throws a huge monkey wrench into scheduling," the athletic and activities director said. "I don't know what I'm going to do.

"Maybe we'll wrestle Kenai, Soldotna and Homer 10 times."

Peterson did not deny that the situation was not ideal for some schools.

"We're so different than any other district in the state, and ASAA did something that doesn't recognize this," the superintendent said. "We have small schools, and we have big schools, and the needs of the small schools and big schools are different."

Once she decided all the peninsula schools had to stay together, Peterson decided to put them in the fall because the small schools did not have the gym space for wrestling and basketball in the spring.

Nikiski coach Steve Gillaspie, whose Bulldogs have taken four of the last five small-schools state wrestling crowns, said Peterson was put in a tough, if not impossible, position.

"Someone had to bite the bullet and make a decision, and it was a difficult decision that had to be made," Gillaspie said. "ASAA left it up to a district superintendent to make that decision. I don't think that's right."

Like the vast majority of the state's wrestling coaches, Gillaspie is still irked at a 1996 ASAA vote that changed the activities calender.

Before the 1996 vote, both small-schools and big-schools wrestling ran from February to mid-April. The 1996 vote split the wrestling seasons and moved them from spring to late fall and early winter, as well as moving volleyball to the fall and basketball to the spring.

"Obviously, what's worked best for wrestling is when we have everybody together in the springtime," Gillaspie said.

Wrestling coaches weren't happy with the new calender because it decreased competition between big and small schools. The calender for the 1997-98 school year gave the small and big schools just over a month to compete before the small schools wrapped up their season.

ASAA addressed that problem by increasingly moving the start of the big-schools season toward the fall to allow more overlap with the small schools.

That trend continued this fall when ASAA voted to start the big-schools season in the first week of October.

That triggered a revolt by the big schools, which felt that put the wrestling season too close to the end of football. Anchorage schools also said that put more activities in fall than their facilities could handle.

The revolt resulted in a vote in late February that amended the calender to create two wrestling seasons -- one from Sept. 25 to Dec. 16, and another from Jan. 15 to April 7. Schools could choose to go with whatever one they wanted.

"(Big) schools decided they didn't want a season in the fall," said ASAA's Matthews. "Smaller schools didn't want a season in the spring.

"There's not a lot of options there."

Matthews said going back to the way things were before the 1996 vote is not under consideration, especially considering a survey of schools last spring that showed 85 percent liked the current calender.

The one dissenting vote in late February was cast by Soldotna principal and Region III representative Sylvia Reynolds, who said a split season was a bad idea.

She said the wrestling season should operate the way it did this past school year, allowing time to find a less drastic action than completely splitting the seasons.

"What Region III was trying to do was buy another year," Reynolds said.

Skyview's Gardner saw the vote to have two seasons as an opportunity to begin to move everybody back to the spring.

But Gillaspie, who spent three years coaching in the Bush community of Kotzebue, didn't want to move to spring because he felt it would kill Bush wrestling.

The Bush schools, which could never move to spring because of the popularity of basketball and the travel savings created by having their season run at the same time as volleyball, need to have the cheaper option of wrestling schools on the road system in order to survive.

"If we would all move to the spring, they'd be dead within a year," Gillaspie said. "I didn't want to do that."

Dave Spence, the executive secretary of KPSAA, said this whole issue is one in a continuing series of problems with having activities in a diverse state like Alaska.

"There's a whole different set of problems in this state, and I've been seeing them since I arrived here," said Spence, an Alaskan for 15 years. "It's all a domino effect.

"You can't do something in one season without affecting something else."

Soldotna's Reynolds agreed.

"If the solution was easy, we would have found it by now," she said.

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