Placing sixth in the state as a freshman was acceptable.
Ninilchik’s Austin Vanderford didn’t complain.
But when he replicated that finish the following year, Vanderford was less than pleased.
“Last year it was a little bit of a disappointment because on the wrestling sites I was ranked third,” he said. “I had kind of realized throughout last season, mainly in the last match, that I wasn’t as strong as a lot of my opponents and I’d have to work on that in the offseason.”
That’s exactly what he did.
Now, as a junior, he’s 27-1, ranked No. 1 in the 152-pound weight class by akmat.org and is the favorite to claim the title in his third consecutive trip to the state championships, which begin today at 9 a.m. at the Wasilla Sports Complex.
“I’m definitely more confident in my abilities,” he said.
And with good reason.
Following back-to-back sixth-place finishes at 119 and 135, respectively, Vanderford postponed his training until after basketball season.
When March rolled around, he started lifting weights and running up and down stairs.
“I was really motivated. I was in there every day,” Vanderford said. “No exaggeration. Every single day about two hours.”
Strength isn’t the only attribute he’s honed. He believes he now has a heightened sense of awareness, too.
“I just think I’m more aware of what’s going on,” said Vanderford, adding that 23 of his 27 victories have come by way of pin. “I’m less tentative being a junior now being one of the older ones in the weight class.”
Not the oldest, though.
Nine of the 16 wrestlers in his bracket are seniors. But that means nothing as the junior has already knocked off three of them this year.
He said his toughest competition this season was Hutchison regional champion James Gillen (No. 2 by akmat.org), a senior, who Vanderford defeated twice once in double overtime at the Houston Invitational and again by a 6-3 margin at the Grace Invitational.
Also a regional champion as a senior, Bethel’s Steven Unin ranked third by akmat.org was pinned by Vanderford in the first round at the ACS Invitational.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “I really want to win this year.”
Many expect him to.
Seward Coach Ronn Hemstock said Vanderford has come a long way and is quite fun to watch.
“He’s a good example of what you can do when you really put yourself to the test,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to go the distance with him.
“I think he’s going to pin his way through the tourney.”
After finishing fifth in his second straight trip to state, Brandon O’Brikis asked his coach what he could do to improve.
“He focused last year in the spring to get ready,” Hemstock said. “Now he gets the chance to see if he can shine. It should be fun for him.”
Fun or not, O’Brikis (215 pounds) is determined, according to his coach.
Ranked No. 2 by akmat.org with 23 wins this season, the junior regional champion is in a bracket with only two seniors.
“He certainly should be making (the finals) if he wrestles well. He deserves to be,” he said. “I think he’ll win a state title. He really wants it.”
His toughest opponents, Hemstock said, should be Barrow regional champ Michael Gonzales (No. 1 by akmat.org) and Hoonah regional champion Eric Larsen, who’s ranked third.
“It might be that if Brandon is seeded in such a way, that he’ll have to beat both of them,” he said. “They’re the biggest contenders.”
Besides O’Brikis, though, there are 10 other Seahawks chasing the same dream.
“I think the whole team is peaking at the right time. We’ve worked pretty hard to make that happen at the right time,” he explained.
Freshman Shane Douglas (103) won the regional and is ranked No. 3 by akmat.org. Hemstock said it’s possible he could make the finals.
“He certainly has potential,” he said. “Whether it’s realized is the question because he’s a freshman.”
Perhaps the third time is a charm for senior William Clock (160), who placed second at regions but has yet to taste success in two previous trips to state.
“My big hope for him is to make the podium. I want to see him make the top four,” Hemstock said. “If all things work out, hopefully he’ll get out of the semis.”
Having coached Clock for six years, including two years at the middle school level, Hemstock’s really pulling for him.
“Out of all the people on the team, he’s the one I want to see make a medal more than anyone because he’s worked so hard for me,” he said. “I kind of feel like a dad would feel for his own kid because I’ve had him around so long.”
Also contending will be regional champion Will Chisholm and Jeremy Sandy, both seniors at 171. Hemstock said based on their finishes at the ACS Invitational earlier this season, where Chisholm took fourth, they both have solid shots at placing.
“Sandy and Chisholm are pretty evenly matched,” he said. “Both guys have a good chance of placing in the top six.”
Juniors Koal Backlund (140) and Matt Nyholm (145) are both returning to state and hoping to improve on their previous standings.
“Backlund and Nyholm are both really coming on strong,” he said. “They’re both in really tough weight classes.”
Returning sophomores Scott Reierson (119), Mike Zweifel (135) and Dylan Beck (152) and freshman Kyle Campbell (130) also will hit the mats in Wasilla.
As a team, Hemstock is gunning for a top 10 finish.
“If we stick with ACS as well as we did at regions, I hope our team finishes in the top five,” he said.
SELDOVIA SEA OTTERS
Seldovia already made history.
Now, it’s hoping to create some more.
For the first time in school history, according to Kachemak Conference Coach of the Year Dan Blodgett, the Sea Otters qualified a wrestler from each of its weight classes to the state tournament.
“100 percent of our team in weight classes is going to state,” Blodgett said. “Every varsity wrestler we have qualified for state.”
The lone grappler with state experience is sophomore Jordan Geagel (215), who finished 12th out of 16 as a freshman last season.
“He’s at least had some experience at state, so he won’t have as many butterflies,” he said. “Hopefully he’ll be more aggressive this year.”
Junior Harold Haynes (275) also has a good chance of placing, he said, although both him and Gaegle are already at a heavy disadvantage.
“They’re wrestling up in weight classes,” Blodgett explained. “Harold weighs 208 pounds and is wrestling 285 and Jordan weighs 194 pounds and is wrestling 215.
“When you start getting into the finals of big matches, it hurts quite a bit,” he added.
Also competing is junior Timothy O’Leary (189), sophomore Oren Kroll (171) and freshmen Derek Burt (125) and Matthew Gain (130).
“One of my goals this year was to have at least one wrestler place,” Blodgett said. “The way it looks, we have the possibility of (Gaegle, Haynes and Kroll) placing.
“I’m pretty excited about going with the full team,” he added, “not leaving anyone behind.”
Despite having four wrestlers compete at state last season, only two Bulldogs advanced to the tournament this year.
Senior Chris Mapes (189) placed second at regions and is looking to make a run to the podium, despite having to possibly go through the top seed in the second round if both prevail in their opening matches.
“He’s been working really hard at practice this week and he really has the focus and the mind-set,” Nikiski coach Lucas Peless said.
Also competing is freshman Matt Parker (103), who Peless said drew a first-round bye and will take on the second-seed in the second round pending a victory.
“He’s really got a lot determination,” he said of Parker.
On one hand, the bye could help, having to wrestle one less match en route to a possible title.
On the other, it may slow Parker down.
“I would rather have him have a match right away,” Peless said. “It warms up the muscles and you come out ready to go with all the excitement of 103 especially.
“But I think he’s ready to go out and wrestle hard.”
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