With high school wrestling returning to class competition this season, the Kenai Peninsula 4A high schools are looking forward to matching their skills against teams from Anchorage, the Matanuska and Susitna valleys and Fairbanks -- competition they have missed out on over the past two split seasons.
Meanwhile, the peninsula's 2A and 3A schools have been in action for a couple of weeks with some solid results already under their belts.
The state's 4A season begins next week with peninsula teams heading to Bartlett for the Chugiak Invitational as well as to the Ninilchik Invitational.
"We're excited to wrestle with Anchorage schools, Fairbanks schools and Valley schools again," said Neldon Gardner, coach of the two-time fall season-champion Skyview Panthers. "We had two good years with the other schools, and it ended up being a lot of fun, but we'll have a little stronger competition this year. We're going to have to step up the pace if we want to win a state title again, but that's our goal."
Soldotna coach Sarge Truesdell also was excited to resume some rivalries with the rest of the state's large schools, though he was emphatic that the competition over the past two seasons was high caliber.
"It's got a different intensity to it, knowing that we're heading up to Anchorage," Truesdell said. "We had all the competition we could handle last year with the small schools -- it's not a competition thing -- it's more so just a little added intensity knowing we're going up against those schools."
Another benefit of wrestling during the same season, as opposed to the fall-spring split of the past two years, is the chance to schedule more dual meets during the course of the season, rather than simply wrestling at tournaments every weekend.
"That really benefits the young kids," Truesdell said. "It's difficult to travel all the way to Colony, for example, lose two matches and be done for the tournament. With dual meets, it's how far the team goes. The Peninsula Duals have been the best thing for young wrestlers."
The Peninsula Duals will be at Skyview this year -- a program Truesdell credits with keeping his Stars hungry.
"We've got one of the best programs in the state right down the road," Truesdell said. "We'll see them all season. Whether we're at home or on the road, we're always going to going against some of the best in the state."
Gardner said the Panthers have 33 wrestlers out for the team, with about half of them returning from last year's squad. The other half includes 15 freshmen, and Gardner is intrigued by the mix of new talent in the mat room.
"I'm looking forward to seeing the whole team wrestle," Gardner said.
Gardner's lineup will include freshman Eli Hutchison at 112 pounds, and senior Cody Phipps and sophomore Dallas Seavey fitting in at 125 or 130 pounds. Seavey was third at state last year while Phipps was second.
David Leach has been looking good at 135 pounds, and junior Brandon Cleveland, a runner-up at state last year, is at 145. Seniors Sam Denison and Cameron Gardner will compete at 152 while junior Jake Savely is back at 145.
Skyview's lineup also will include junior Zach Rohr at 170, and senior Justin Rainwater and junior Nick Pyther at 189. Shane Michael will wrestle at 152.
"Those are our stronger kids from last year, then there's quite a few new kids," Gardner said. "You never know how that's going to go. We'll have our team challenges next week."
Skyview's Mark Rozak tangles with Houston's Brett Erickson on the first day of last year's state championship meet at Kenai.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
At Soldotna, Truesdell said it may take a little while for the Stars to get into the swing of things with so many players participating in the small-schools football championship just two weeks ago, but added that this year's schedule allows for slower development.
"We can take a little bit longer progression with our technique because we have a longer season," Truesdell said.
Truesdell said he lost five athletes who wrestled and played basketball last year who chose to stick with basketball this year,and two more to hockey, but added that he gained a couple he didn't expect to come out, and has had 26 or 27 athletes in his mat room for the first week of practice.
Truesdell said he had "four or five studs at the top of the lineup," but that his team also had quite a few young, inexperienced wrestlers.
Three wrestlers made last year's championship match at the state tournament. Colten Goracke took first and is back to wrestle at 160 while Johnny Howarth (171) and Shawn Weigle (215) were runners-up last season. Josh Brantley was fourth in the heavyweight class last year.
"Those guys are going to score a lot of points this year," Truesdell said.
Truesdell, now in his fourth year as head coach at Soldotna, said it was nice to see how far this year's seniors had progressed since he first worked with them as eighth-graders.
Truesdell also was thrilled to have his coaching staff back with Bill Carlson, Jeff Baker and Billy Joe Goracke.
Kenai Central coach Tony Prior said he was excited to wrestle with the rest of the state's 4A programs, but added he was disappointed the Kardinals wouldn't be able to see more of the 3A Bulldogs. Prior is in his second year at Kenai, and admitted that he would be learning as much as his wrestlers as he gets to see teams he hasn't seen before.
"It's going to be fun to see how it shakes out," Prior said. "The level of competition with the big schools is going to improve our guys quite a bit."
Prior has about a dozen Kardinals out for the team, though most of them fit in the middle weight classes. Carlito O'Dell, Jacob Madrid, T.J. Olick and Sonny Nelson are back from last year's squad, and Prior has quite a few newcomers with wrestling experience.
"We should be pretty tough in the weights that we do have," Prior said.
Newcomers to the team include Steven Fisher, Billy Loosli, Steven Eason and Randy Blevard.
Prior said that this year's team is way ahead of last year's squad simply by coming into the season already in shape.
"I was keeping up with them last year, and this year, they're killing me," Prior said. "That's going to help a bunch."
In Homer, Mariners coach Chris Perk has a group of young but experienced wrestlers to work with, starting with junior captains Monte Garroutte at 130 and Devion Hagen at 125. Both were placewinners at state last season.
Sophomore Louden Greiner, also a placewinner last season, moves up to 119, and Jim Pollack, an area meet champion last season, will wrestle at 171 or 189.
Juniors Adam Hediger (171, 189) and Tommy James (140, 145) qualified for last year's state meet. Junior Jared Weaver (215) and sophomore Luke Fennell round out the program's returnees, and a feisty group of freshman with middle school wrestling experience will be led by Camron Hagen (103), Ben Connor (112, 119), Erik Johnson (135), Canyon McKinstry (145), Jeremiah Cousins (152) and Alex Inglima (160).
The Nikiski Bulldogs were picked as one of the favorites for the 1-2-3A state title. The Bulldogs have a returning state champion in Joey Wicker, but have had plenty of other wrestlers making some noise in the early going. Lance Penhale has been solid at 103, Josh Huhndorf has been impressive at 112 and Jared Mazurek is getting some notice at 125. Anthony Lorenzo also has started the season strong for the Bulldogs at 152.
Wrestlers from Ninilchik have been strong over the first couple of competitions, led by Steven Miller at 135 and Levi Russell at 160. Doug Jones of Seward has wrestled tough at 215, and Seldovia's Jim Payton (140) and Chance Collier (189) also will be in the mix come state tournament time.
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