While small schools on the Kenai Peninsula are in for a novel experience at their conference wrestling tournament, area big schools could be in for another rerun.
The peninsula's small schools -- Nikiski, Ninilchik, Seward, Seldovia and Voznesenka -- will compete in the new Denali-Kachemak Conference this season.
Seward won the first conference title in its history last season, but coach Ronn Hemstock says the new conference, which features 22 schools, is another challenge entirely.
"The kids all seem excited to try and win something that has never been won before," Hemstock said.
There is no sense of freshness among peninsula big schools Homer, Soldotna, Skyview and Kenai Central in the Northern Lights Conference. Colony has won the last three conference and state titles, and most coaches at least expect to see a conference repeat.
"It's Colony by far," Soldotna coach Bill Carlson said. "There's nobody that's going to push Colony around right now."
Hemstock said Valdez, Anchorage Christian Schools and Nikiski all should be in a fight to win the first conference crown.
"There's going to be a lot of teams that are whittling away at each other," Hemstock said.
In his second year at the helm, Adam Anders said the Nikiski program is strong enough to again make a run at a conference title. The Bulldogs program has four state titles to its credit.
"I think we're going to be right up there," Anders said. "Seward is tough, but we're going for a region championship this year. That's one of our goals."
The top five in each weight class earn state berths. Hemstock said intense wrestling will take place after wrestlers lose and try and make their way through the back bracket.
"The back side at the tournament is going to be very important," he said.
Even though Colony is expected to dominate the NLC, Kenai Central coach David Boyle said wrestlers still have incentive.
"One of the great things about wrestling is that it's an individual sport," he said. "You keep team scores, but on the mat it's just you and your opponent. For smaller teams, it's easy to focus on individual goals."
Neldon Gardner, who has been the coach at Skyview since the school opened in 1990 and has coached on the peninsula since 1983, says Colony has an advantage in numbers, but that does not mean a peninsula school could not compete with them some day. Gardner has won four state titles at Skyview.
"They definitely have the numbers to choose from, but small schools with small numbers have risen to the top before," he said. "Nikiski, back in the day, was as good as anybody in the state."
Homer coach Chris Perk, the NLC coach of the year last season, said he lost three seniors. All qualified for state last year and all had over 100 career wins.
Leading the team will be junior captain Mitch Wyatt at 160 and 171. Wyatt took fifth at the state meet last year. Wyatt, along with senior Eli Garvey (103), is the only returner from a team that placed 16th at state.
Perk, in his ninth year as head coach, said juniors Larry Croft (215) and Ben Harville (285) should once again be solid varsity contributors. He also is expecting sophomore David Jolly (215) and transfer senior Scott Bickis (189) and Josh Brandt (215) to earn varsity time.
Perk also has wrestling experience in junior Ve Locklar (130), sophomore DJ Marsengill (119/125), sophomore Travis Catron (145), sophomore Ellis Smith (112), sophomore Shlomo Gherman (140/145) and sophomore Courtney Smith (145/152).
Perk also sees a lot of potential in freshmen Alex Clayton (125/130), Mark McGregor (130/135) and Drew Raymond (171/189). McGregor and Raymond were borough champions last season.
Kenai Central Kardinals
In his fifth year at the helm, Boyle had 18 wrestlers in the room. Boyle said his numbers usually hover at about 20.
The Kardinals will be looking to rebuild this year. The team lost a handful of state qualifiers, and its only two state placers, to graduation. The lone returning state qualifier is senior Donny Dormady, who will wrestle this year at 215.
Boyle said he has eight freshmen this year that have a lot of promise. At the head of that pack is Hope Steffensen, who at 103 was already 9-1 going into weekend action.
"We want to bring along the freshmen and make it so they look forward to coming out again next year," Boyle said.
Other key wrestlers will be junior captain Adam Agosti, who will wrestle at 140, and sophomore Devon Carter, who is looking to make his hard offseason work pay off at 130.
Anders enters his second year with 30 athletes in the mat room. He said the team's goal is to finish with at least 28 wrestlers.
Anders said there are many factors aiding Nikiski's resurgence. He said the Nikiski Freestyle Wrestling Club is feeding experienced wrestlers to the high school. He said the parents are supportive. He also said having three assistants -- Jesse Bjokman, Dylan Hooper and David Brown -- is a big help.
"We're trying to build a program that will attract a lot of athletic kids," Anders said. "We're trying to make a difference in helping them do good things in the sport of wrestling."
The Bulldogs had three state placers last year: senior Matt Parker, who was fourth at 119; sophomore Kaden Spurgeon, who was third at 140; and junior Karl Bucholz, who was fifth at 160.
Others qualifying for state were junior Sawyer Skiba, who will wrestle at 135 this year; junior Tyler Peek, who will be at 145; sophomore Tanner Payment, who will be at 125; and junior Nathan Stangel, who will be at 119.
Anders also said the team will get crucial depth from sophomore Henry Eide at heavyweight, sophomore Walter Moore at 119, senior Theo Armstrong and sophomore Floyd Armstrong.
"We've got a pretty tough group of freshmen," Anders said. "They should give us a shot in the arm this year."
Key freshmen will be Lincoln Johnson at 160, Josh Brown at 130, Morgan Sauve at 119, Trey Zimmerman at 103, Troi West at 112, Avery Olson at 119, Devan Berry at 140 and Pat Sterling at 140.
Kevin Zimmerman enters his 10th year at Ninilchik with five athletes in the mat room.
The Wolverines are led by senior Jefferson Klapak, who qualified for state last year and will wrestle at 140. Zimmerman also said senior Quinn Bennett, at 171, had a shot at making state this year.
Zimmerman said senior Jesse Shell at 135, junior Sam Bennett at 189 and sophomore Justin Klapak at 152 use wrestling as a tuneup for basketball.
Hemstock said he has 22 in his mat room, slightly up from last year.
He said the team returns about 12 state qualifiers. The two returning state placers are Jed Wilde, who was sixth, and Shane Douglas, who was fourth as both a freshman and a sophomore.
The coach said the team will be led by senior captains Kyle Kain and Joe Nyholm.
"I don't like to bring up specific kids, because that can be divisive from a team standpoint," Hemstock said. "We're a family. It takes all 22 to practice together and get better together."
With a solid group of seniors and 33 in the mat room, Gardner would like to see the Panthers return to one of the top five placements in state.
Senior Bryce Wilson is Skyview's lone returning state placer. Wilson placed fifth at 112 and will wrestle at 119 this year.
Gardner saw a lot of positive signs at the Bob Bailey Invitational on Oct. 16 and 17. Skyview took fourth without sophomore Austin Tennis, who is out due to an injury, and senior Monica Hutchison, who will join the team after volleyball.
Keying Skyview's performance were senior Fred Pollard Jr. finishing second at 160, senior Jared Thomas finishing third at 160, senior Steven Lawson finishing third at 171, sophomore Hannah Hutchison finishing fourth at 103, freshman Sam Janorschke finishing fourth at 112 and senior Nick VanBruggen placing fourth at 215.
"We should do really well this year, if we keep everybody eligible and healthy," Gardner said.
Entering his fourth year as head coach, Carlson is anticipating 24 wrestlers in the mat room once he gets everybody back from the football team.
The Stars will be led by senior Nathan Strieby at 285. Strieby finished fourth in the state last year.
"He'll definitely be in the running for that state title again," Carlson said.
The Stars also have returning state qualifiers in senior Tanner Link (160), junior Braden Price (171) and junior Cody Carroll (130).
Carlson said the returning state qualifiers will lead the way for the team, but he is very excited about an infusion of young and transfer talent that the school has received. He said the new talent has a tremendous hunger for learning that has resulted in rapid improvement.
"This is the first time I've ever had an entire squad pleading to do two-a-day practices," Carlson said. "So this last week we started to have an additional practice in the morning."
Steve Wolfe, in his seventh year of building the Voznesenka program, has 10 athletes in the wrestling room. That's more than half of the boys in the school.
Wolfe, who coached for 18 years at Homer High School, said this is his best Voznesenka team ever. The Cougars teamed up with Ninilchik's five wrestlers and a couple of Kenai wrestlers at the Peninsula Duals and went undefeated. Kind of. The Ninilchik and Kenai wrestlers were not allowed to count toward the final score, but if those wrestlers would have counted, the hybrid effort would have been unbeaten. That shows something about Voznesenka's talent.
Junior Joe Martishev leads the team after placing fifth in the state last year at 140. Martishev was named the most outstanding wrestler at the Luke Spruill tournament at Kenai. Senior heavyweight Leo Polushkin placed sixth at state last year after also placing the year before.
Junior Julian Polushkin at 215 and sophomore David Martishev at 135 are also returning state qualifiers. Junior Zenon Martushev, wrestling this year at 160, won the conference meet last year but hurt his shoulder in the championship match. Martushev was winning his first match at state before the shoulder flared up again and he had to forfeit.
Wolfe also said sophomore Zenovi Martushoff and junior Mavrik Reutov also have the potential to qualify for state. Pauvil Reutov is back on the mat after qualifying for state as a sophomore and taking last year off.
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