When roughly 13 wrestlers were unable to complete last season due to academic ineligibility, Skyview coach Neldon Gardner was done playing games.
Either his wrestlers were going to put in as much time and effort in the classroom as they were on the mat, or Gardner was gone.
"I was real blunt with the kids. After 25 years of coaching, I was not going through another year like we finished last year," he explained. "It wasn't that they weren't working hard, it was that they weren't putting in the time in the classroom. If we can't get on the mat, we can't prove anything. Our No. 1 goal is to get these kids eligible this year.
"I told them flat out if I check grades and they weren't doing well that I wouldn't be coaching," he added. "I told them if they wanted me to come back as a coach they had to show me that they could pass their classes and that they were willing to do it."
Call it tough love. Call it positive reinforcement. Call it unfair.
But Gardner's message, which he delivered at last year's postseason banquet before reinforcing that stance at the very first practice this season, worked like a charm.
Losing only one kid to academic issues this season, the Panthers are taking 23 grapplers to the Northern Lights Conference Tournament at Colony High School today and Saturday.
"Positive goes so far, and if it doesn't work, negative sure helps," Gardner said with a laugh. "If it comes down to it, and you have to tell a kid that it's this way or the highway, it's tough love is what we call it.
"I'm there for them as long as they're willing to give back as much as I give them."
The Panthers have given nothing less.
With 21 to 22 kids consistently showing up every morning for a two-mile drill workout from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m., and then an hour study hall after school followed by a two-hour practice, which included a four-mile workout as well as a regular practice, Gardner has his team primed to possibly compete with Colony, by far the overwhelming favorite to win this tournament as well as next weekend's state tournament at Chugiak High School.
"I think it kept their sleep habits constant and in tune that way. They go to bed earlier. They just seem fresher," Gardner said of the morning workouts. "That translates to on the mat wrestling."
Hoping to bring 12 or more wrestlers to the state tournament, Gardner said senior Eddie Buffington (189), ranked second by akmat.org, should definitely be a state champion after succumbing to academic issues last season.
"He's worked harder this year than I've ever seen him work," Gardner said. "Just real strong, real physical and focused. It's just good to see."
Others looking to make a run at a region title and advance to state include fourth-ranked Michaela Hutchison (119), her sister Monica Hutchison (103), Bryce Wilson (103), Alex Janorschke (130), Jared Thomas (140), Fred Pollard (145), Pat Sheridan (171), Kenny Mahan (189), Adam Byrne (215) and Claude Mraz (HVY).
As for competing with Colony, considered by many the top program in the state, the Panthers have their work cut out for them.
"Like I told the kids (Wednesday), anything's possible. Miracles do happen," Gardner said. "They're sitting there in a school that's more than double us in number, and not to mention that they've done a great job.
"Five, six kids more than another team, if half those kids score in points or possibly place, then you're behind by 20 or 30 points from the get-go. And they're good, quality kids," he added. "I would say they rank up there with the top teams that we've ever had at Skyview."
Kenai coach David Boyle said if any team can compete with the Knights, Gardner's crew will be the ones to do it.
"It's easy to take great athletes with 10 years of experience behind them to win state championships. But what Skyview has done this year is taken a few really experienced kids and brought along and a few intermediate wrestlers and turned them into good wrestlers," he said. "It's been some of the most impressive Skyview wrestling I've seen ever."
The Kardinals, who are sending 14 wrestlers to the conference tourney, have done their fair share of opening some eyes, too.
Chris Osbekoff (119) has 23 pins and is just one fall away from setting the Kenai Central record for most pins in a season.
"Kenai Central wrestling's been around since the '60s," Boyle said. "He should be a frontrunner to place at state for us."
Also hoping to become a region champion and make a state title run is Cody Booth.
"If Cody Booth has a good tournament, he'll place," Boyle said of the state meet. "If he has a great tournament, he'll be in the final."
He also said senior captain Jaron Dambacher (171) has a chance to do something special this weekend.
"He's been a point or two away from beating some of the state's best," Boyle said. "If he opens up, he might surprise a lot of people."
Others looking at placing in the top six and qualifying for state include Quintun Pribbenow (112), John Hughes (125) and Halyn Lipps (HVY), who Boyle said should probably make it through.
"On a really good day, we could send 10 (to state) ... but we could send as few as four," he said.
Homer, which owned one of the top teams on the Kenai Peninsula at the start of the season with around 28 kids, has been reduced to 11 by injuries and academic difficulties.
But each one of them has a solid shot.
"Ultimately, our goal is to get at least six to eight guys to qualify for state," said Mariners' coach Mike Illg.
Included in that group is Ben Daigle (125), who is ranked third after finishing fifth in the state last season, Tom Appelhanz (135), Robby Brymer (140), Mitch Wyatt (145) and Tris Brymer (152), ranked fifth.
"Those are the guys I think that have the best chance to make it to state," he said. "They should be going."
Having competed with the top teams all season, including a second-place finish at the Skyview Invitational when they had six grapplers reach the finals, five emerging victorious, the Mariners are looking better than they have in a while.
"We've been able to compete a lot with all those teams. We're expecting some big things from these guys," Illg said. "They've been working hard all year and it's pay day. Time to cash in the chips."
Soldotna should have at least three wrestlers advance to the state tournament in second-ranked Wes Mills (135) and heavyweights Les Baker and Nathan Strieby, ranked first and second, respectively.
Also looking to make competitive runs for the Stars will be second-ranked Matthew Strieby (215), as well as Taylor Hanley (103), Tyler Powell (125), Steven Burlison (145), Jesse Carlson (152) and Dakota Elsey (189).
"There's been some talk that our region is the toughest one in the state," Illg said. "Colony, Kodiak, Wasilla, Skyview. It's tough. It's just a tough area."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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