The big schools have their first big meet of the year Friday and Saturday at Soldotna High School, as 18 teams will converge on Soldotna High School for the North-South Invitational.
Wrestling starts at 9 a.m. today and 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The finals are expected to start at about 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
"There are a few schools that will not be there, but it's basically a preview of state," Kenai Central coach Tony Prior said.
While the meet features mostly Class 4A schools, who see their season continue after the Christmas break, the meet also includes Class 3A schools Anchorage Christian Schools, Nikiski and Grace Christian.
ACS, the defending Class 1-2-3A champion, has already defeated Wasilla, last year's Class 4A champion, and Skyview, the 4A runner-up, this season. That should add even more intrigue to the tournament.
The tournament also is the last time for all the Class 1-2-3A wrestlers to get a look at a huge field of 4A wrestlers, since Class 1-2-3A starts regions on Dec. 3.
"The North-South Tournament is a great opportunity for us," Nikiski coach Abe Porter. "We get to see a bunch of tough wrestlers from the big schools."
The following is a closer look at the season prospects for each of the peninsula schools in the North-South Tournament.
Returning for his fifth year as head coach, Chris Perk continues to build the program and get more and more wrestlers in the mat room. Last season, Homer finished 10th in the state by placing all five state qualifiers in the top six.
Two of those state placers return in Louden Greiner (130-135) and Simeon Daigle (112-119). The Mariners also get Camron Hagen (125-130) back on the mat this season. Hagen was a state placer two years ago.
Homer also will welcome senior Cody Crum (275) back into wrestling this season. Crum won 10 matches as a freshman.
Perk also has a number of experienced wrestlers that will give the squad depth. Some of those wrestlers are sophomores Jude Murphy (160) and Jedi Martinez (119-125) and juniors Brit Mumey (215-275) and Mat Plant (275).
Homer also will get a nice infusion of youth this year with Tris Brymer (130-135), John Bowman (119) and Mire Schadd (135-140). All were in the top two in the middle school borough tournament last year. Tom Appelhanz (103) also joins the team after taking third in his conference in Wyoming.
Adding depth will be Trevor Mumma (152), Matt Fogg (130) and Brandon Weaver (145-152). Each will be getting back into wrestling after taking time off.
Others looking to crack the varsity lineup are Kyle Moore (275), John Woodward (171), Katie Connor (112), Andew Hazel (275), Kevin Christiansen (145) and Francis Cavalho (160).
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Coach Tony Prior enters his fourth year at the helm of the Kardinals with about a dozen wrestlers in the mat room. The wrestlers are a mix of experienced and inexperienced wrestlers. The squad is also on the heavy side. There is a 119-pounder, then one has to go up to 135 pounds to find the next wrestler.
Mitchell Canavan, a sophomore at heavyweight, is the lone returning state qualifier. Michael Dormady, a sophomore a 171, just missed out on state at 160 last year.
Prior said sophomore Tyler Smith (152) and senior Sonny Nelson (189) also looked good at the season-opening tournament in Homer last weekend.
Prior said there are a number of young or inexperienced wrestlers who should learn a lot this year. In that group are junior Loren Fanter, freshmen Jaron Dambacher and Halyn Lipps and sophomores Chuck Copp, Greg Aho and Amanda Skinner.
"The young wrestlers have a lot of learning to do, but the great thing is they have two or three more years to learn," Prior said. "They're going to do a lot of improving this year."
Prior said assistants Rocky DeMello and Ted Navarre make sure there is plenty of instruction available for the team.
The Bulldogs have about 15 wrestlers in the mat room, but they still remain a quality team due to the quality of those wrestlers. Nikiski had a similar number of wrestlers out last year and finished second at the Class 1-2-3A state championship.
The Bulldogs return six wrestlers who qualified for the state tournament last season. That group is headed up by Lance Penhale, a two-time state champion at 103 who now wrestles at 112. Justin Tumbaga placed second at state and remains a solid wrestler for the Bulldogs, but he will not be able to attend the North-South Tournament. The other state placer that returns to the squad is Jordan McCaughey, who finished fourth at 119 last season and now wrestles at 125.
Others qualifying for state last season and returning to the team are Jared Mazurek, Travis McCaughey and David Rorrison.
Nikiski coach Abe Porter said the Bulldogs also are getting quality performances this season from Josh Vance, Joel Ribbens, Chad Holloway and Tab Schwenke.
Trevor Johnson is out with a broken collarbone.
"We still have a large number of tough kids on the team," Porter said. "We still have a lot of kids walking around the school that could help us, but it's tough getting them out because I don't work here in the school."
Skyview coach Neldon Gardner has a young team this season, with only one senior. He also has 10 juniors, 11 sophomores and 10 freshmen.
Skyview assistant coach Dave Carey said the Panthers will still be tough, though. Early in the season, the new wrestlers will learn what the program expects of them. That should set the Panthers up for a strong finish.
"We want to get them in good shape and teach them good technique," Carey said. "We'll then peak at the end. Traditionally, that's what we've been able to do."
The Panthers have enough experienced wrestlers that they should be formidable early in the season, as well. Eli Hutchison is at the top of the heap. He is a two-time state champion that has never been beaten.
Also for Skyview, Clark Buffington was third at state last year, Tyler Wehrli was fourth at state last year and Shane Strausbaugh was fifth at state last year. Strausbaugh got a late start to the season and will not be ready for the North-South Tournament.
The Panthers also have gotten immediate help from freshmen Eddie Buffington and Michaela Hutchison.
Carey said that the help of all the assistant coaches and parents is what helps the team improve so much over the course of the season.
Soldotna coach Jeff Breakfield enters his second year at the helm with 28 wrestlers in the mat room.
Breakfield has seven seniors plus another three wrestlers that qualified for state last season.
Heading up the seniors are state placers Brandy Goracke, Ben Breakfield and Sean Whitmore. Goracke placed third at 140 last year and will wrestle at 145 this year. Breakfield finished fifth at 160 last year and will stay at that weight class this year. Whitmore placed fifth at heavyweight last season and will stay at that weight class this season. Senior Scott Foster qualified for state at 130 last year but did not place. He will wrestle at 140 this year.
The other seniors on Soldotna's squads are Ryan Fuller (152), Steven Jicha (heavyweight) and Terrance Carlson (189-215). Soldotna also had sophomore Erick Morris, sophomore Jake Ciufo and junior Jake Howarth qualify for state last year.
"We've also got around nine freshmen that are coming around real well," Breakfield said.
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