The Kenai Peninsula's high school wrestling teams head into this weekend's Area Championship meets with a common goal: qualify as many wrestlers as possible for next weekend's Alaska School Activities Association Fall State Championships at Kenai Central High School.
The Skyview Panthers top the field headed to Seward High School for the Area 4 Championship, joining the host Seahawks along with squads from Kenai, Houston, Valdez, Cordova, Tok and Nenana.
Nikiski heads the list of teams traveling to Anchorage Christian Schools for the Area 3 tournament, joining the host Lions, Homer, Ninilchik, Soldotna, Seldovia, Glennallen, Galena and Grace Christian.
Six wrestlers from each weight class will advance to the state championship meet from each of the four area meets. Area 1 consists of the Region I Bush and Western Alaska schools while Area 2 covers Southeast, or ASAA's Region V.
"We're taking 24 wrestlers to the area tournament, and we're looking to bring all of them to the state tournament," said Neldon Gardner, coach of the defending Area 4 and state-champion Panthers.
"To place them all in the top six is the ultimate goal, then just to get through the tournament healthy and with no injuries. We want to come away with the team title, and individually, there are many kids that would like to come away with individual championships."
Gardner said his wrestlers are looking at the competition in their weight classes, thinking about how they've wrestled during the course of the season, and setting goals to improve should they encounter that opponent again.
Seward coach Ronn Hemstock said Skyview would be the team to beat at the Area 4 meet. The Seahawks are just working on getting healthy after a nasty bout with the flu while Kenai will be sending a handful of wrestlers to the competition.
The Seahawks have a returning state champion in Darian Draper while the Kardinals have a good shot at a state medalist in Jacob Madrid.
Gardner said that Dallas Seavey, Cameron Gardner and Justin Rainwater have been wrestling well over the past couple of weeks, but that the entire team has picked up the pace.
"As a team we just made another big step up the hill," Gardner said.
The Nikiski Bulldogs head into the Area 3 meet with their little guys leading the way. Chris McCaughey and Joey Wicker have wrestled well of late, and coach David Martian said that Josh Huhndorf, Tab Key, Wicker and McCaughey wrestling well in the lower weights builds momentum for the rest of the team.
"It gets the ball rolling. Sometimes, that's all you're waiting for, and once it gets rolling, it's hard to stop," Martian said.
Martian expects tough competition to come from Soldotna and ACS.
"The first goal is to get everybody to state and win some key matches that are going to be important at state," Martian said. "Right now, we want to get that region title again. ACS and SoHi are going to have a legitimate shot at it.
"With the top six going to state, in some cases it's not going to be too hard for some kids to qualify -- they may only have to win one match -- so the emphasis is going to be, 'Let's take care of business with SoHi and ACS.'"
For the Stars, Johnny Howarth and Josh Brantley are coming off wins at last week's North/South Tournament.
Monte Garroutte, a third-place finisher at last year's state tournament, has wrestled well all season for Homer.
Ninilchik would like to defend its status as the top 2A team at the state meet and will need some big performances to get some wrestlers through to state.
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