When it comes time for a state championship tournament, it’s hard for athletes not to get excited.
“They’ve got a renewed energy for wrestling right now,” said Nikiski coach Lucas Peless of the four Bulldogs wrestlers preparing for the 1-2-3A state championships today and Saturday at the Wasilla Sports Center.
“They want to come out and do their best. They know they’re underdogs, but they’re looking at this as a great experience. They know if they do the best they can, there’s the possibility they can go very far.”
Leading the Bulldogs is senior Justin Tumbaga, the runner-up at the Kachemak Conference tournament at 152 pounds last week. Tumbaga has twice been the runner-up at the state meet, and his coach said he has a good outlook as he prepares for his final shot at a state title.
“He’s able to maintain a good focus, but he’s also able to relax, which I think is crucial at this point,” Peless said.
“I feel confident,” Tumbaga said. “I’m in a good mind-set as far as I have nothing to lose. I had that attitude last week, but it was close but no cigar.”
Bulldogs also have a pair of freshmen heading to the meet in Leo Pennison (119) and Michael Sauve (135), and a junior in his second season of wrestling in Tyler Payment (145).
While they are young wrestlers, Peless said they go into the meet with confidence.
“They know there’s a long line of success backing them. At Nikiski, there’s a long-standing tradition of putting it all on the line, and they know that can win matches, putting everything out there, and they’re willing to do it,” Peless said.
Peless is excited that these wrestlers will get to experience a state tournament and use it to build for the future.
“I think there’s a really good chance they could medal if they wrestle like they’ve been wrestling in practice this week,” Peless said. “They should do well. If they don’t medal, I’ll still be happy because this experience will help them.”
Several other schools form the Kenai Peninsula will be sending wrestlers to the meet, including Cook Inlet Academy, which will be represented by Derrick Bunts at 112 pounds. Ninilchik will send Austin Vanderford (135) and Tyler Sutherland (103).
Two wrestlers from Voznesenka, Joe Basargin (125) and Daniel Reutov (130), qualified for the meet, as did Seldovia’s Paul O’Leary (189) and Jordan Geagle (215).
The largest contingent of peninsula wrestlers comes from Seward, which qualified 11 athletes for the meet. Coty Beck (189) and Brandon O’Brikis (275) are conference meet champions. Also making the trip for the Seahawks will be Scott Relerson (103), Koal Backlund (130), Mike Zweiful (112), Dylan Beck (140), William Clock (160), Matt Nyholm (152), Ian Filbert (171), Jeremy Sandy (171) and James Aase (215).
Peless expects an exciting atmosphere as teams from all corners of the state, from Nome to Unalaska to Klawock, will be represented at the tournament.
“I’m excited,” Peless said. “We haven’t seen a whole lot of the Southeast schools. It will be good to get everybody together and see who takes the day in each weight class. There’s a lot of speculation, but it comes down to who wants it most.”
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