The last time Seward captured the Class 1-2-3A state wrestling championship in 1999, the Seahawks edged rival Nikiski by a mere 2.5 points.
But it was the Bulldogs who won the Kachemak Conference crown a week earlier.
In fact, a conference championship is one of the banners missing from Seward's gym.
That could all change today and Saturday when the Seahawks, a popular pick to win it all, compete in the conference tournament at Grace Christian and try to top their eighth-place standing from a year ago.
"We're really kind of loaded," Seward coach Ronn Hemstock admitted. "We're hoping to get our banner for the first time ever."
For the first time he can recall, the Seahawks fielded a complete team, a wrestler in every weight class, all season until the latest grade checks came through, costing them a couple of grapplers.
However, Seward is still carrying a plethora of talent to the conference tournament, where Hemstock is gunning to get 12 of his 15 competitors through to state.
"This is probably the strongest team since the '99 team we had when we took state," he explained. "Someone told me this once, so I'm not sure if it's true ... that Seward is the oldest running wrestling team out of 3A schools in the state. We've never had a region title. It would be kind of nice to put a banner on the wall of the gym."
Ranked second by akmat.org, Dylan Beck (160), who placed fifth at state last season and fourth the year before, has the best shot at a conference crown considering his lone 3A loss of the season came against top-ranked Ryder Torgeson of Sitka.
"We're hoping to get him in the gold medal at the state," Hemstock said. "He's got some tough competition. He certainly has the potential and the ability."
Also looking to return to state are fifth-ranked Scott Reierson (135) and sixth-ranked Shane Douglas (130), while fifth-ranked Jed Wilde (103), Brenton Meier (112), Joe Nyholm (171), Tony Harris (152) and Ian Filbert (215) should be competing for conference titles as well.
Ranked fourth in the state, Filbert will likely have to go through Seldovia's second-ranked Jordan Geagel, who finished third at state last season and beat Filbert in both meetings this season.
"That will be our region final at 215, it will be Geagel and Filbert," Hemstock predicted. "(Filbert will) be the underdog, but we're hoping he gets through it."
Hemstock said he attributes the upswing of the Seward program to co-head coach Justin Ennis, a former state champion for the Seahawks who now heads the junior high program.
"He's building the program from the junior high ranks up. It's been very noticeable, his influence," he explained. "I guess if I were to owe it to anything, I would owe it to him. It's kind of nice to have someone giving back to the program and it's really making a difference."
Nikiski's youth wrestling program also has proved vital to its varsity program, evidenced by the 15 grapplers heading to Anchorage for the conference tourney.
"One of our goals was top two in the region," said Bulldogs coach Adam Anders. "That's still our goal."
After taking fifth in the state last season, fourth-ranked junior Matt Parker (119) leads the talented group of Bulldogs and could be vying for a conference championship himself.
"As long as he wrestles like Matt Parker, he'll be a region champion," Anders said.
He also expects fourth-ranked Karl Buccholz (160), who finished sixth at state last season, to have a successful tournament, and said there's no telling what Tyler Peek (145) can accomplish.
Freshmen Corey Green (135) and fourth-ranked Kaden Spurgeon (140) also should taste success in their first-ever conference tourney appearance.
"They certainly have a shot at a region championship," Anders said. "They've been tough all year. They've been to tougher tournaments than this one."
Having 10 wrestlers advance to state would qualify as a good tournament for the Bulldogs, who have a formidable challenge ahead if they plan on winning a team title, too.
"I think it kind of looks like Seward will be tough to beat," Anders said. "ACS and Grace are also always really competitive."
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