There won't be any suspense in the contest to be the team champion today at the Northern Lights Conference wrestling tournament at Wasilla High School, but area coaches said there should be more than enough suspense over individual championships and state slots.
Colony has won the last three conference titles and Class 4A state championships. All the area coaches said the Knights, the top-ranked Class 4A team in the state according to akmat.org, should walk off with a fourth-straight conference title.
The tournament, including peninsula schools Homer, Skyview, Soldotna and Kenai Central, will take place today, with the finals at 8:30 p.m. There is an unlikely possibility that a few matches might have to take place on Saturday morning.
"Thankfully, it's an individual as well as a team sport," said Bill Carlson, the coach at Soldotna.
As individuals, wrestlers will be seeking both conference championships and state berths. State berths go to the top six wrestlers in each weight class.
Carlson said the competition is so unpredictable at the conference tournament that any one of his wrestlers could wind up at state.
"Even the younger wrestlers stand a good chance of being a qualifier just based on the fact that there are always upsets," he said. "I've been coaching for 11 years, and I'm always seeing upsets, again and again, at every region and state tournament.
"Unseeded wrestlers knock off seeded wrestlers, and if it's your good day and their bad day, you can end up at state."
Skyview coach Neldon Gardner, whose team is shooting for a third-place finish behind the Knights and Wasilla, agreed with Carlson.
"Really, there isn't any kid on the team going to regions that, with a good performance, wouldn't make it to state," Gardner said. "A couple would have to have great matches."
The Panthers, who have 12 seniors, have been on a roll lately. The team finished 6-0 at the Skyview Invitational, then the next weekend put six wrestlers in the finals at Dimond's Glenn Vandergaw Wrestling Tournament. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the Panthers finished up the regular season by defeating Soldotna in a dual meet.
"All in all, it's been a real positive year for us," said Gardner, who wants to take at least 13 wrestlers to state. "We've had some small peaks and valleys, but no major setbacks."
Gardner said finals appearances could come from Bryce Wilson at 119, Austin Tennis at 140, Jared Thomas at 152, Fred Pollard at 160, Steve Lawson at 171 and Nick Van Bruggen at 189.
Wilson is ranked fourth in the state at 119, while Colony's Charles Coisman is ranked second. Tennis is ranked third at 140, while Colony's Chase Montgomery is second.
At 160, Pollard is ranked second, while Colony's Ryan Knutson is third and Wasilla's Jacob Marshall is fourth. Lawson is ranked fourth at 171, while Colony's Kenny Boykin has the top ranking. Van Bruggen is fourth at 189, while Wasilla's Jeremy White is fifth.
Gardner said others that should make state are Hannah Hutchison at 103, Sam Janorschke at 112, Monica Hutchison at 119 and Kyle Day and Kyle Zimmerman at 135. Others with good chances are Brett Jackson at 145 and Daniel Rozak at 152.
Carlson's team will be led by senior Nathan Strieby, the only peninsula wrestler in the state ranked No. 1 by akmat.org. Strieby wrestles at 285.
Carlson expects good things from fellow seniors Tanner Link at 171 and Derrick Burlison at 145. Link is ranked fifth at 171, with both Boykin and Lawson ranked ahead of him. Burlison is ranked fourth at 145, and is the only wrestler in the conference ranked at that weight.
Carlson also said Cody Carroll, who qualified last year at 130, should qualify this year at 135. Carroll is ranked fifth there, while Colony's Chad Lowery is third.
"We've got a number of younger wrestlers in their first year with us," Carlson said. "They're not all freshmen, but it's their first year in the program. I'm hoping at least some of these become state qualifiers."
Kenai Central coach David Boyle said finals appearances for the Kardinals could come from Hope Steffensen at 103, Adam Agosti at 135 and Donny Dormady at 215.
Steffensen is ranked third at 103, while Wasilla's Abe Fox is ranked first. That weight is very tough in the conference, with Homer's Eli Garvey ranked fourth and Colony's Noah Roetman ranked fifth.
At 215, Dormady is ranked fourth, and top-ranked Eric Fan of Colony stands in his way. Agosti is not ranked at 135.
"Adam has been improving every week, and he's beaten a couple of ranked wrestlers now," Boyle said. "He's been working hard this season, and it's a pleasure to be his coach."
Boyle said his team is young this year and suffers from a lack of experience. He wants wrestlers with more experience, like Devon Carter at 130, Dylan Sterling at 140, Aaron Gattenby at 189 and Kevin Hunter at 285, to make state.
He also wants some of his first-year wrestlers to win a match or two and possibly spring an upset and make state.
The Mariners of coach Chris Perk will be led by Mitch Wyatt, the lone returning conference champion from the peninsula. Wyatt, who is ranked third at 152, has not lost a match to a Class 4A opponent this season. Standing in his way of a repeat conference title is Wasilla's Caleb Pempek, the top-ranked wrestler in the state at 152.
"Wyatt is in the top shape of his career and has been able to escape from his opponents grasp rather quickly the past few weeks," Perk wrote in an e-mail.
Homer's other ranked wrestler is Garvey, who had 28 wins and faces the stacked field at 103. Garvey is a senior and has made all 37 practices this season, so his stamina could be an advantage as the tournament is crammed into one day.
Perk said Josh Brandt, at 215, could surprise a few at the conference tournament. Brandt has only one loss this year, but also has missed mat time due to ineligibility.
"He is a bit of an unknown and will surprise many in the next few weeks," Perk wrote.
Perk also said juniors Ben Harville and Larry Croft should punch state tickets. Junior Chris Alfiche and sophomores David Jolly, Travis Catron, Shlomo Gherman and DJ Marsengill would like to win at least one match, while freshmen Mark McGregor, Chris Franklin and Drew Raymond will look to gain experience and possibly pull an upset or two.
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