Though it's uncertain which school will claim the Denali-Kachemak Conference's inaugural wrestling title, one guarantee exits -- it will offer some of the fiercest competition in recent memory.
"There's definitely some tough competition out there," said Nikiski head coach Adam Anders. "It should be an exciting tournament."
Anchorage Christian Schools will play host to the two-day tournament, which takes place today and Saturday. Action commences today at 10:30 a.m. and the championship round is set to begin at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
The conference, which contains schools separated by more than 500 miles, from the Kenai Peninsula to Delta Junction, made its debut this season. The Denali-Kachemak is the largest of all the Class 1-2-3A conferences.
Peninsula coaches agree that Nikiski, Cordova and Seward will battle for the region crown. Anders also has ACS in the running.
"We have a really tough squad," Anders said. "We're just fortunate to have a great group of wrestlers that are working to get better."
Anders said he has several freshmen that have given his team a boost. Those freshmen include Lincoln Johnson, Josh Brown, Morgan Sauve, Troi West, Trey Zimmerman, Jesse Ross, Stephen Hartley and Devan Berry.
Strong leaders, too, have made a difference in the locker room, Anders said.
"Senior captain Matt Parker is wrestling very well and seems poised to have a great region and state tournament," Anders said.
Now wrestling at 130 pounds, Parker finished fourth last year at state at 119.
"Sophomore captain Kaden Spurgeon is a strong leader and has the work ethic and focus to be in the top of his weight class," Anders said. Spurgeon finished third in the state last year at 140.
"Sophomore Henry Eide has really come on strong during the second half of the year and just keeps getting better," Anders said. "Nathan Stangel also seems to be peaking and is putting a lot of hard work into every practice."
Tyler Peek, Kovy Harbick and Corey Green are all wrestling well, he said.
Anders said he's hopeful that several members of his squad will earn state berths.
"If we wrestle really well, we can bring as many as 15," he said. "It's just a matter of doing what we do."
Stangel (125), Parker (130), Brown (130), Green (135), Peek (145), Spurgeon (152), Johnson (160) and Eide (285) all have the potential to place at state, Anders said.
He said supportive parents and a great coaching staff has made the season a success.
Seward coach Ronn Hemstock said Nikiski's team is the likely candidate to be crowned region champs.
"I think Nikiski is the dog to beat," Hemstock said.
Hemstock said his squad and Cordova will battle the 'Dawgs for the championship.
With a team comprised of athletes at the heavier end of the scale, Hemstock said he'll need help from other schools to defeat Nikiski's smaller opponents.
"I'm relying a lot on other people," he said.
At region meets, you never know what the outcome will be, Hemstock said.
At 189 pounds, Billy Markowitz, currently ranked fourth in the state, is looking tough, Hemstock said. Joe Nyholm (171), Kyle Kain (215) and Shane Douglas (145), along with Markowitz, are all likely state qualifiers, he said. At 125, Jed Wilde, too, should make state, Hemstock said. He and Douglas each placed at state last year.
Hemstock said he anticipates sending anywhere from eight to 13 wrestlers to state.
But the team has to make it through a challenging region meet first.
With so many schools competing in the region, two-thirds of the wrestlers in each weight class won't move on, Hemstock said.
"It's an extremely difficult region to get through," he added.
Douglas enters the tournament ranked fifth, and Nyholm and Kain have fourth-place rankings.
Voznesenka head coach Steve Wolfe, too, has the Bulldogs as the No. 1 team in the region.
"I think Nikiski is going to be the best team," he said. "They're a well-balanced team."
Wolfe said Cordova should nab second at regions, with Seward and ACS dueling for third.
With the strongest team in the program's history, Wolfe said each team member has a shot at making state.
"I'm pretty optimistic about all of my kids," he said.
At 285, Leo Polushkin is ranked second in the state. Polushkin, along with Zenon Martushev (160) and Joe Martishev (140), could win the state championship, Wolfe said.
"Zenon has the ability to beat anybody," he said.
Martushev is ranked sixth in the state and Martishev is unranked because he did not wrestle in the ACS tourney, Wolfe said. He placed fifth at last year's state tournament.
For success at regions, Wolfe said his entire team has to wrestle their best.
Ninilchik head coach Kevin Zimmerman has Cordova taking first at regions with Nikiski as the runner-up.
"They got some really good talent," he said about Cordova's squad.
Like Anders, Zimmerman said this year's region tourney will feature tough competition with a deep pool of talent.
Justin and Jefferson Klapak are wrestling well for the Wolverines, Zimmerman said. The Bennett brothers, too, are having promising seasons. Sam (189) and Quinn (171) have a good shot at making state, he said.
"All of my guys got a real good chance to qualify for state," Zimmerman added. "My goal is to bring them all to state."
The new conference will make earning a state berth more difficult for the small, 2A school of Ninilchik, Zimmerman said.
"It's definitely a disadvantage for us," he said.
Jefferson Klapak (140) is a returning state qualifier.
Mike Nesper can be reached at email@example.com.
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