With a handful of deserving seniors, and probably a few juniors, all possessing the traits required to win the Most Inspirational Wrestler Award at the Luke Spruill Memorial Wrestling Tournament at Kenai Central High School on Saturday, Nikiski coach Lucas Peless glossed over his own wrestler, only a sophomore, for that very reason.
Figuring Matt Parker had two more years to capture such an accolade, which is based on a series of desirable characteristics, he planned on voting for somebody else.
"I thought, 'Yeah, he's got these qualities. He's here. But in the future, he can have something like this,'" Peless recalled. "There's other senior kids that are good wrestlers and that I've seen leadership and I've seen dedication from them."
After being approached and informed that a group of coaches discussed the possibilities before ultimately resting on Parker, Peless decided to do the same.
As it turns out, they all made a wise move.
Winning both of his matches in the tournament, having only wrestled two because he missed weight by a tenth of a pound on Friday, Parker appeared surprised when his name was announced as the recipient of the award, based on a competitor's dedication, ability to act as a coach and be coachable at the same time, sportsmanship, can-do attitude, kindness, leadership, and of course, tenacity.
"I've been told that this is just a tool to keep me humble," the 103-pounder said. "Given this award, I don't know. I guess I'm going to find that out.
"It's kind of special to me that my dad (Gary) would say that to me, that it would keep me humble."
Surprised at first, Peless always knew Parker was as deserving as anybody else.
"As I talked to a few people even, they still remember Luke's legacy that he left and for Matt, as a sophomore, to be named to that, shows a lot that he's also shown these characteristics outside of the mat room," he said. "He's shown them out to everybody else and not just to us."
The award is a special one, considered my some to be more valuable than an MVP trophy. It honors Luke Spruill, a two-time state champion who graduated from Kenai Central in 1995 before returning to share the coaching duties during the 2003-04 season. After surviving a car accident in 1996 and breaking his back, Spruill went on to attend junior college before wrestling and graduating at the University of Iowa, one of the top wrestling programs in the country.
In June of 2004, Spruill died in a fishing accident in Bristol Bay at the age of 27.
After Kenai captured the tournament title with an impressive 5-0 mark, Kardinals coach David Boyle, who was one of the five coaches that nominated Parker, remembered watching Spruill compete in middle and high school.
"Just as an individual, Luke was a really, really nice guy," he said. "The little I've known of Matt, just a, 'Yes sir. Good match, sir,' when he shakes my hand.
"Just watching him with his peers, he's a leader," Boyle added. "He just seems like he represents the sport well."
Peless described Parker's dedication as a primary reason for his success.
"I think, as a sophomore, he exhibits the qualities of the Luke Spruill award," he said. "He loves the sport. I don't know a better kid that goes home and watches his videos with as much dedication then goes and figures out what he did wrong and doesn't come out and do it wrong again."
Parker's older brother, Chris, a state champion in 1999, gets some of the credit for helping his brother break down his matches on tape.
"I'd definitely be nowhere near as good as I am right now," Parker said when asked how much Chris has helped him.
When it comes to winning, Parker has the ability, according to his coach. As for learning, he's always up for that, too.
"It's not just that he wins, but he wins with class. He's always looking at the next kid, how he can help him," Peless said. "He doesn't go out there and just throw a kid all over the mat. If he's going to beat him, he beats him. He doesn't toy with him and make the kid feel like he's less than he is. Matt, he loves pushing himself.
"Not like the type of kids, they know how to wrestle. He knows how to wrestle, but he'll still listen," he added. "He always defers to the coaches so that he wants to show that he's respectful all the time and he's definitely a kid who's open to correction. He'll listen to anything we say.
"At practice this week when we were pushing the kids really hard, Matt was the only kid on the team at that point that was still encouraging the rest of the guys, saying, 'You guys, we can do this. Let's go. Hey, pick it up,' and that's impressive to see."
After fighting his way to a gutty 14-9 decision over Kenai's Quintun Pribbenow in his final match before next week's Kachemak Conference Tournament in his home gym, eluding a pin by squirming on his back for the final 50 seconds, Parker, who bumped up to 112 pounds for that contest, now has his radar locked in on a conference title.
After that? The state meet at Mt. Edgecumbe High School.
"Oh yeah. Absolutely," he said of winning a state championship. "If not this year, next year and the year after that."
Despite akmat.org ranking Parker third behind No. 2 Luke Charters of ACS, who's knocked off Parker three times already this year as well as a "handful" of times last year, Peless believes a state crown is attainable.
"He's improved every single time I've watched him wrestle and he's got the mind-set that he really wants to see how far he can go," the coach said.
On Saturday, he nearly helped Nikiski (2-3 in the tournament) nearly upset Kenai, which eventually edged the Bulldogs, 53-21, with the assistance of 24 points from forfeits.
"It's a good way to end the season," Boyle said. "With eligibility check, we got back a couple of wrestlers and we were able to fill our lineup a little bit better. We've had some big hits as far as injuries, so it's nice to see that we've recovered from that and been able to fill the lineup."
Douglas Duniphin (145 pounds) started things off with a hard-fought 7-6 victory over Nikiski's Jake Tuttle, a Duniphin escape at the buzzer the difference. After Nikiski's Karl Buchholz (152) pinned Jorrie Seidl in 2:56, Kenai's Jaron Dambacher (171) beat Josh Vance, 5-2.
Kenai's Chris Osbekoff (119) pinned Nathan Stangel in 51 seconds; Joey Aho (125) handled Nikiski's Kovy Harbick, 18-2; the Kardinals' John Hughes (135) pinned Tyler Peek in 4:46; Cody Booth (140) required only 41 seconds to pin the Bulldogs' Ancel Ware; and Nikiski's Chris Richter (130) needed 2:37 to do the same to Adam Agosti.
"The team that I envisioned us having at the beginning of the year doesn't resemble this team very much because of everything that's happened," Boyle said. "So, it was just a really kind of sweet ending to the season to see us kind of come back like that."
The most eventful match of the afternoon, though, went to Parker and Pribbenow, who jumped in front 2-0 on an early takedown before falling behind by four only 38 seconds into the middle frame.
Parker then extended his lead to 11-4 after two periods when he used a reversal to put Pribbenow on his back before picking up three back points as time expired.
An escape and subsequent takedown to open the third gave the Bulldog a commanding 14-4 cushion before Pribbenow scored a reversal and flipped Parker onto his back.
"There was one move that I tried doing, it's a front three-quarters, and he just reached around and caught me and I did that to him last year," Parker said. "I knew that I was ahead by enough to where if I just stuck that out."
That's exactly what he did, although it certainly wasn't easy.
Tossing and turning, fighting and squirming, Parker staved off the pin for just under a minute in capturing the exciting victory.
"That speaks to how tough he is, never gave up. But that's him," Boyle said of Parker. "He won the outstanding wrestler a couple weeks ago at Seward, looked great at Skyview. He's just an up-and-coming kid."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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