The athletes won't sport ruby red slippers, and Toto the little black dog certainly won't be in the building, but the Nikiski wrestling team is about to channel its inner "The Wizard of Oz."
There's no place like home.
At least not for the Bulldogs, who host the Class 1-2-3A state wrestling championships for the first time Friday and Saturday and enter as one of the tournament favorites, ranked No. 2 in the state.
Voznesenka, Ninilchik and Seward also will represent the Kenai Peninsula. Action begins at 10 a.m. Friday and 9 a.m. Saturday, with the championship round set for 5:15 p.m. Saturday.
"It's definitely a bit of an advantage to have the guys wrestle here, then go home and sleep in their own beds," coach Adam Anders said of competing for the state's top prize at home. "Not to mention the great family and community support."
The Bulldogs won their second consecutive conference title last weekend in Valdez, notching five individual championships while qualifying 17 athletes for the state meet.
Only No. 1 Bethel, which advanced 21, will have more athletes in the tournament.
Trey Zimmerman (103 pounds), Nathan Stangel (130), Josh Brown (135), Kaden Spurgeon (145) and Lincoln Johnson (171) were Nikiski's individual winners in Valdez, making them favorites to compete for titles at state.
Throw in 12 more athletes, including five second-place conference finishers, and the Bulldogs are in good position to earn a medal.
The squad last won the team championship in 1998, capping a run of four titles in four years. To earn first, the Bulldogs must overcome Bethel, which enters the meet having nine conference champions.
Still, Anders expects his team to finish near the top of the standings.
"We certainly have a chance to be No. 1 this weekend," Anders said. "But we're going to have to wrestle our best."
The Cougars of Voznesenka are sending six athletes, led by Joe Martishev at 135, David Martishev at 140 and Julian Polushkin at 215. They were runner-ups at the conference tournament and are all ranked among the state's top six in their respective weight classes.
Also competing for Voznesenka are Dennis Martishev (140), Zenovei Martushoff (152) and Zenon Martushev (160).
The Cougars finished fifth at the conference meet, but coach Steve Wolfe said the squad could have placed higher had some close matches fallen Voznesenka's way.
"We were disappointed," Wolfe said, adding some of the athletes had "bad" matches. "But hey, when you have bad luck at one tournament, that only increases your chances to have good luck at the next."
Seward, a seventh-place finisher at the conference meet, qualified five athletes to state.
Jed Wilde leads the way at 125, ranked No. 6 in the state, after earning a silver medal last weekend. He will be joined by Nick Markowitz (145), Aaron Sorenson (152), Tony Harris (160) and James Logan (189).
Meanwhile, Sam Bennett will represent the Wolverines of Ninilchik at 189. He was the school's lone participant at the conference championships, where he placed second to give the squad at least one state wrestler for the 10th straight season.
"It's going to be intense," Anders said. "There should be a lot of great wrestling, a lot of excitement."
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