Now is the time to peak.
That was the predominant message this week as wrestling coaches on the Kenai Peninsula prepared their athletes for conference tournaments, the final step before the Class 4A and 1-2-3A state championships Dec. 10 to 11.
Grapplers from Soldotna, Skyview, Kenai Central and Homer will begin their march toward the 4A state meet at the Northern Lights Conference tournament, which begins at 9 a.m. today and concludes with the finals at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Kenai Central High School. Kodiak, Palmer, Wasilla and Colony also will compete.
Athletes from Nikiski, Ninilchik, Seward and Voznesenka, meanwhile, will look to qualify for the 1-2-3A state championships when they compete at the Denali-Kachemak Conference tournament in Valdez, also running today and Saturday.
"This is what you prepare for all season," Skyview coach Neldon Gardner said. "You hope to peak now because the other results don't matter anymore. It really all boils down to this."
The Northern Lights tournament, made up of 16-wrestler brackets, grants six berths to state at each weight class. The Denali-Kachemak event grants five.
Both tournaments, of course, also will feature a team champion.
The Bulldogs of Nikiski might bring home the most hardware of any school on the peninsula.
Nikiski enters the small-schools tournament ranked No. 3 in the state and in position to secure its second conference championship in as many years. Coach Adam Anders said Wednesday the squad could advance as many as 14 wrestlers to state, the most since he took the helm in 2008.
In turn, expectations are high.
"One of our goals at the beginning of the season was to win a region championship, and that hasn't changed," Anders said. "We expect to have a great tournament."
A rule change this year allows teams to enter as many as three wrestlers in each weight class for the Denali-Kachemak tournament, something Anders and other coaches said will benefit Nikiski. The Bulldogs will have three wrestlers in the bracket at 130, 145 and 171, and two wrestlers available for a host of other weights.
Those numbers will make it difficult to upend Nikiski, though Seward coach Ronn Hemstock said Cordova and Valdez shouldn't be ignored.
"It's possible if things fall right and Nikiski has bad luck, and they have good luck, it could key them," Hemstock said of Cordova and Valdez.
Leading the way for the Bulldogs are Kaden Spurgeon, who was ranked No. 2 in the state at 145 pounds when the most recent rankings were released Nov. 24, and Lincoln Johnson, the state's top-ranked wrestler at 171.
Both enter the tournament as No. 1 seeds, meaning they are favorites to earn individual titles. Spurgeon will be joined at 145 by teammates Tyler Peek and Logan Harrison. Johnson, meanwhile, is in a bracket that includes four of the state's top six wrestlers for small schools at 171, including sixth-ranked Sam Rininger of Seward.
Nikiski also is strong at 130, where Anders said Morgan Suave and Nathan Stangel are capable of winning titles and could meet in the finals. At 125, Anders is confident both Mike Stangel and Walter Moore will reach state, while he believes Corey Green is capable of winning the conference at 140.
The Bulldogs, Anders added, also have state-caliber wrestlers at 103, 152, 189 and 215.
"We have a lot of guys who could be in the finals," Anders said. "And a lot of guys who will be in the top three or five."
Fellow peninsula squads Seward, Ninilchik and Voznesenka won't have as many wrestlers at the Denali-Kachemak meet, but each squad figures to send at least one to state.
Seward's Jed Wilde (119) is the highest ranked competitor in his bracket, rated No. 5 in the state, and has been to the state tournament the past two seasons.
Hemstock expects Wilde to advance, along with James Logan at 189, Aaron Sorenson and Nick Markowitz.
The Seahawks, however, are sending just five wrestlers to the conference tournament.
"We're probably going to get pared down pretty small and be taking a van to state," Hemstock said. "But these guys have hearts the size of Montana and, man, they can fight."
Voznesenka will send three brothers -- David Martishev (135), Joe Martishev (140) and Dennis Martishev (145) -- as well as Zenonvei Martushoff (152) and Zenon Martushev, who is ranked No. 2 in the state at 160. Julian Polushkin, a senior, will compete in the heavyweight division.
The Cougars placed 10th of 40 at a recent tournament in Anchorage, and coach Steve Wolfe believes the team will have another strong showing at the conference tournament.
"I'm feeling really good going in," Wolfe said. "The kids are gung-ho. They are asking for more practice. They are disappointed when practice is over."
Meanwhile, Ninilchik's lone wrestler is 189-pounder Sam Bennett, who enters the tournament with a 12-4 record. Coach Kevin Zimmerman called Bennett a "really, really good wrestler" who should qualify for state.
The Wolverines have advanced at least one athlete to state each of the past 10 years, Zimmerman said, adding he expects the streak to continue despite the fact Bennett is the squad's only wrestler competing.
"No pressure, right?" the coach said. "He's definitely hungry, ready to go for sure."
With perennial powers No. 1 Wasilla and No. 3 Colony bringing a full complement of wrestlers, winning a team title will be a tall order for each of the peninsula schools.
Taking home a few individual trophies, however, is a possibility for Kenai Central, Homer, Skyview and SoHi.
The Stars of SoHi feature the state's top-ranked wrestler for large schools at 145 in Auston Tennis, who placed second at state a year ago and is coming off an individual championship at the Glen Vandergaw Invitational in Dimond.
Tennis owns the top seed at 145, but could face a stiff challenge if he reaches the finals. Also in the bracket, is No. 3 Derek Johnson of Wasilla.
"He's looking great," SoHi coach Scooter Hackett said of Tennis. "He's ready to go."
Teammates Taylor Hanley (130), Dusty Poole (140), Kade Foust (160), Logan Patrick (160) and Dakota Elsey (189) all have the ability to reach state, Hackett added.
But Hackett said Wednesday as many as four wrestlers could miss the tournament due to injury.
Cody Carroll, who was ranked as high as No. 2 in the state at 135 earlier this season, has been sidelined for two weeks with a shoulder injury and could miss his chance for a repeat berth to state. AJ Briggs is out with cauliflower ear, and Kyler Ledet is injured, too.
Those absences will hurt SoHi in the race for a team trophy, especially with Wasilla and Colony standing in the way.
"It's kind of a bummer to have this happen at the end," Hackett said, adding the team's goal is to finish in the top three. "We've been doing great all year, but that's how it goes."
Skyview, which has just one senior and is in rebuilding mode, is led by Hannah Hutchison at 103, Sam Janorschke at 125 and Daniel Rozak at 160.
Additionally, Gardner said, the Panthers could receive state-caliber performances from Austin Cunningham (125), TJ Checketts (130), Joeben Hawkins (171), Alex Rodriguez (189) and John Alexander (heavyweight).
Host school Kenai Central features 103-pounder Hope Steffensen, who placed fourth at state at the same weight in 2009. Coach Steve Schoessler expects her to compete for a region title, despite a recent injury that forced her to sit out a match at the Vandergaw invite.
Steffensen, ranked No. 3 in the state, could face No. 2 Wade Booth of Colony in the finals. Devon Carter, Adam Agosti and Dylan Sterling also will compete for state berths, Schoessler said.
"You always want to have a good performance as the host school," Schoessler said.
Homer coach Chris Perk said the Mariners will enter 15 wrestlers, led by No. 1-ranked Mitch Wyatt at 171.
Wyatt is 41-0 with 30 pins this season after placing at state each of the past two years. He also is a two-time region champion.
"Mitch has done everything we've asked of him," Perk said. "I never make predictions, but Mitch looks very hard to beat right now."
Also expected to reach state, Perk said, are DJ Marsengill (125), Mark McGregor (145), Shlomo Gherman (152) and Larry Croft (215).
With strong performances from those athletes and others, Perk believes the Mariners will compete for fourth place in the team standings.
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