Hope Steffensen trotted to the center of the mat, headgear fastened, and shook her opponent's hand. Then the referee grabbed her arm and lifted it toward the rafters.
Just like that, she was a conference champion.
"I would have preferred to wrestle for it," said Kenai Central's Steffensen, who won an individual title by forfeit at 103 pounds last weekend at the Northern Lights Conference championships.
Steffensen will get a chance to prove she's one of the state's premier wrestlers when Kenai Central, Soldotna, Skyview and Homer conclude the 2010 wrestling season at the Class 4A state championships today and Saturday at the Curtis D. Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla.
A combined 26 peninsula athletes will grapple for large-schools individual titles after qualifying at the conference tournament. Skyview is sending an area-high nine wrestlers, followed by SoHi (eight), Homer (five) and Kenai Central (four).
Steffensen is among the favorites to bring home a first-place trophy. The two-time region champion placed fourth at state a year ago and enters the tournament ranked No. 2 in the state behind Kraig Hammond of South Anchorage.
If Steffensen avoids an early round upset, coach Steve Schoessler expects her to face Hammond for the crown.
"She's been there before, she should be in," Schoessler said. "Just that experience, it's really going to help."
Teammate Kevin Hunter (heavyweight) will make his state-tournament debut, and the Kardinals also will send Devon Carter (135) and Adam Agosti (140).
Schoessler said the team didn't perform its best at the conference tournament, meaning he hopes the state quartet delivers a strong collective performance.
"Hopefully it's that bounce-back effect," he said. "We were a little down last weekend and maybe we can get back up this weekend."
Other athletes, meanwhile, will look to maintain the momentum they gained at conference tournament.
SoHi's Auston Tennis is coming off his second conference championship in as many years and is in good position to reach the finals at 145.
Tennis is the state's top-ranked 4A wrestler in his weight class and placed second at state in 2009.
Standing in his way is No. 2 Matt Downing of East Anchorage. Tennis defeated Downing at the Glenn Vandergaw Classic at Dimond High School last month, leapfrogging him in the state rankings.
SoHi coach Scooter Hackett said Tennis is well-prepared for a state-title run.
"Auston has been putting in a lot of extra time at practice, and he's mentally ready," Hackett said. "Just like all the other guys, it's take it one match at a time -- wrestle match for match, period for period."
An additional seven Stars will join Tennis, led by Taylor Hanley (130), Dusty Poole (140) and Logan Patrick (160). Hanley placed second at regions, while Poole and Patrick took third.
Tim Price (119), Kade Foust (160), Cody Warfield (171) and Dakota Elsey (189) round out SoHi's contingent.
Hackett believes any of his wrestlers could reach the podium.
"You can't count any of the team out because they all have different abilities," Hackett said. "You never what's going to happen."
The Panthers of Skyview, meanwhile, are sending nine athletes after placing fifth as a team at regions.
Sam Janorschke leads the charge, advancing to state for a second straight year. The junior won a conference title at 125 -- the Panthers' lone champion -- and is looking to improve upon his 0-2 performance at state in 2009.
Skyview's lone senior, Daniel Rozak, will compete at 160, as will Hannah Hutchison at 103, Austin Cunningham at 125, TJ Checketts at 130, Cody Williams at 145, Joe Ben Hawkins at 171, Alex Rodriguez at 189 and John Alexander at 215.
Despite the fact none of Skyview's wrestlers hold a top-six ranking in the state, coach Neldon Gardner believes all of them will be competitive.
"The way they wrestled at regionals, and the way they practiced this week, I would say any of them could place (in the top six)," Gardner said. "They are all capable."
Homer's Mitch Wyatt, who is 44-0 this season and coming off his third consecutive region title, is expected to vie for the state's top prize at 171.
He has been to state each of the past three seasons and was named the most outstanding wrestler at last weekend's conference tournament after pinning all his opponents en route to the title.
Wyatt will be joined by teammates DJ Marsengill (125), Mark McGregor (145), Shlomo Gherman (152) and Larry Croft (215).
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