This weekend's Grace Invitational gave the peninsula's high school wrestling teams a look at what the rest of the state has to offer for the 2001 fall season, but the early season meets closer to home have given them plenty of cause for excitement for the upcoming campaign.
"Every year it's a new group of kids, but we start the year thinking we can win the state tournament," said Skyview coach Neldon Gardner. "That's our goal -- to repeat as state champions."
While the Class 4A Panthers are perennial contenders, other teams from the peninsula will be looking to make their mark this season. Under the fall wrestling format, now in its second year, the state competition is declassified, but the Alaska School Activities Association does recognize the top team in each of the four classes determined by school size.
"This team shows a lot of promise," said Ninilchik coach Kevin Zimmerman. "We're hoping to defend our title in the 2A division at state this year. If we can get one or two wrestlers to finish good, we'll be in the running."
Kenai Central and Soldotna, both 4A schools, are anticipating sending several athletes to the state tournament, hosted by the Kardinals this season.
Nikiski and Seward, both 3A schools, also have good reason to be optimistic about their chances at the state tournament.
"There's going to be some competition, and it's not just going to come from the road system," said Seward coach Ronn Hemstock, pointing out that Barrow and Dillingham have been strong in the early season meets. "It'll be interesting to see how it goes. I wouldn't be surprised to see the highest-scoring 3A team be a village."
The following is a closer look at the peninsula's wrestling teams:
The wrestlers that Homer coach Chris Perk is able to send out on the mat are tough, but Homer, like many other teams on the peninsula, is playing the numbers game.
"We're short on numbers, so it's tough," Perk said. "Twenty is about our max, so we're looking at one full lineup and a couple of reserves. We've gotta stay away from injuries."
Perk is looking for big things from Devion Hagen, a runner-up at 112 pounds in last year's state meet, and Monte Garroutte came into the season in great shape after running cross country and figures to be in the mix at 125 pounds.
Jim Pollack and Adam Crum also should work themselves into Homer's lineup.
With new coaches at the helm, the Kardinals are excited about their chances of sending wrestlers to the state championship meet this season.
Jacob Madrid already is off to a flying start at 119 pounds and Jacob La Shot has high expectations at 140 pounds.
"There's quite a few kids that are going to be in the state tournament this year," coach Tony Prior said. "Whether they can win it or not, we'll see."
Kenny Butler should be competitive at 152 pounds once his ankle heals up, while T.J. O'Lick shows some potential at 130 pounds.
Carlito O'Dell has shown dramatic improvement this season at 135 pounds, while Elliot Hampton won his first match at 103 pounds on his way to placing third at Ninilchik last weekend.
"These guys are excited," coach Craig Schwartz said. "We're working on mental toughness, getting into the second and third period and see how they stick it out. And we're doing a lot of conditioning right now. That's big for any team."
The Bulldogs were last season's Area 3 champions and finished third at the state meet behind Skyview and Juneau-Douglas.
Coach David Martian has about 30 athletes out for the team, though some are still recovering from the Bulldogs' extended football season.
Martian expects seniors Neil Fucci (140 pounds), Chris McCaughey (130 or 135) and Kyle Alexander (189) to provide leadership for the team.
"(The Grace Invitational) gives us an idea of where the kids are at," Martian said. "We'll know quite a bit more of what we need to do after this weekend. It'll be interesting to watch them. We just want to see where they're at technique-wise. Later on down the road, we'll start looking at win-loss things."
Martian said he was happy to have Steve Gillaspie come out of his semiretirement to help out with the team.
"This is his program I'm working with, not mine," Martian said.
Kevin Zimmerman enters his first season as head coach of the Wolverines, but after spending time as an assistant last year and working with Ninilchik's middle school team, he already has a good working relationship with the team.
"There's lots of positive things," Zimmerman said of his 10-member team. "We're not big, but we have lots of experience."
Returning from last year's team are Salty Bock (160), John Matson (152), Mike Taylor (171), Melissa Deiman (125) and Travis Winter (215).
Steven Miller (135) has high hopes of placing at the state meet, and Vincent Kruzick will wrestle at 119 for the Wolverines.
While the influx of talent fresh off the football field gives coach Ronn Hemstock 31 bodies in the Seward mat room, the Seahawks had been generating excitement with the dozen bodies already set to compete.
Joel Grimes, Marvin Borja and Brandon Davis all wrestled well in the early season meets.
Darian Draper won a state title at 140 pounds last season and Zach Rininger was the runner up at the Area 4 meet at 145 pounds.
Hemstock said he wasn't sure where Draper would would wrestle this season, adding that he'd keep it under wraps if he did know, but said he's had some good intensity in the mat room. The Seahawks emphasize the team, and the large group in the mat room has made for some rollicking practice sessions.
"It's a real tough crew. We've got some scrappy freshmen. A new one walked off the football field and started throwing seniors around," Hemstock said. "The more people you can get in the room the higher the intensity, and everybody benefits. It's a lot of fun."
The Panthers had five individual state champions a season ago, and coach Neldon Gardner has a balanced group of athletes to work with this season.
"I'm real excited with the younger kids," Gardner said. "In the first few weeks, you don't know what to expect, but boy, they're working hard. They've got a good attitude. Hopefully, we can build on that right through Christmas."
Cody Phipps is a returning state champion for the Panthers, winning the title at 103 pounds last season. Ben Nabinger (135), Vance Gaddis and Nate Morse (145) all found their way to the medal podium last season, and Gardner said David Leach (119 or 125) and Tom Wagenaar (152) look strong so far this season.
Gardner said that Gaddis dropped a weight class this summer, down from last year's 189, while Justin Rainwater grew about three weight classes to fill that 189 spot this season.
Jake Savely has made an impact after transferring from Ninilchik and Brandon Cleveland has started strong at 135.
Gardner said the early season tournaments have been beneficial for gaining match experience.
"We're taking as many kids as are eligible and healthy and getting some experience," Gardner said.
With just three seniors on the roster, Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell hopes the 13 juniors he has will be able to rise to the occasion.
"I expect the juniors to step up to the plate this year," Truesdell said. "We've got about 35 kids in the room, that's the most since I've been here. It's a great junior class, and there's 16 in the freshman class."
Truesdell has great expectations for Colten Goracke at 145, Johnny Howarth at 160 and Shawn Weigle at 215. Josh Brantley fills out the Stars lineup at heavyweight.
"All those guys came in together. They should be tough," Truesdell said.
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