Losing in the Northern Lights Conference tournament may have been the best thing that could have happened to a handful of local wrestlers heading into the Class 4A state wrestling championships at Chugiak High School today and Saturday.
Soldotna's Braden Price and Nathan Strieby and Skyview's Bryce Wilson, all expected to capture conference crowns last weekend in Soldotna, were stripped of that glory in the semis or finals.
Now they have the chance to make amends on the biggest stage.
The biggest disappointment may have come from Strieby, then the top-ranked heavyweight in Alaska by akmat.org, who was pinned in the finals by Wasilla's Jed Johnson.
Comfortable throwing and shooting, the latter worked into his repertoire this season, Strieby managed neither on Saturday as Johnson took him to the ground and eventually pinned him in 3:31.
Last year's third-place finisher at state is now on a mission to culminate his junior season with a crown.
"When he went into that final match, it was almost as if there was a fight and he didn't show up for the fight," said Stars coach Bill Carlson. "He waited to see what his opponent would do and allowed his opponent to be offensive and instead of getting aggressive himself, he waited.
"He's been much more offensive and aggressive practicing this week. He's demonstrating several methods and techniques, that he's going to make sure and not let those things happen that happened during that match," he added. "Thank goodness he did it at region instead of at state. It just gives him the motivation and determination to step it up and get serious."
The loss dropped Strieby to No. 4 in the state, while Johnson vaulted to No. 2, both still looking up at Lathrop's top-ranked Jordan Lewis.
A rematch between the two rivals, as Johnson and Strieby both described their relationship, would likely occur in the state semifinals now, if at all.
"He can certainly accomplish the task if he sets his mind to it and that's what it's been looking like at practice," Carlson said of winning a title. "He needed that motivation."
The same goes for Price, once the second-ranked 160-pounder in the state behind only two-time defending champion Nolan McBryde of Chugiak.
A transfer student from Michigan, Price, only a sophomore, was upset in the semifinals of the NLC tournament, dropping a 3-1 decision to Homer's Eric Weinfurter -- who he had previously beaten -- before finishing fourth with an equally disheartening 3-0 loss to Colony's Kenny Boykin.
"He was a little overconfident in refacing some of the guys that he beat," Carlson explained. "He was a little overconfident and it served as a bit of a wake-up call and a little more motivation to step it up. I think it will serve a good purpose."
Wilson's championship loss wasn't as tough to swallow, though, considering it came against Colony's Isaac Wilson, who was and still is ranked higher than him.
In his junior year, too, Bryce Wilson (112) is out to best his sixth-place finish at state from a year ago.
"He knows he's that close. He got tossed to his back for five points and battled back," Skyview coach Neldon Gardner said of the 11-8 win by Colony's Wilson. "Bryce can beat anybody. He tends to give away one move in a match when he loses. He gives up a big move.
"If he can stop giving away that big move, that four- or five-point move, he'll beat the good kids. They'll be close, but he'll win by one or two."
Then there's Homer's Mitch Wyatt, a 152-pound sophomore who won a conference crown last weekend, the lone grappler from the Kenai Peninsula to do so at the NLC meet.
Mariners coach Chris Perk doesn't think his second-year status will affect him.
"I think right now it's an advantage because there are a lot of seniors wrestling real tight right now," Perk explained. "Coming in as a sophomore, he's got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
"He's really focused and he's just soaking up the moment of being at the state championship."
Other local wrestlers with a solid opportunity at placing include Soldotna's Wes Fuxa-Koch (119) and Homer's Weinfurter (160), a pair of second-place finishers at the conference tourney, Kenai's Chris Osbekoff (125), who qualified last season, Skyview's Danny Maciariello (112), freshman Austin Tennis (135), Kenny Mahan (189) and Adam Byrne (215), Homer's Ben Daigle (140) and SoHi's returning state qualifier Jess Carlson, all third-place finishers last week.
Daigle finished fifth at state the last two seasons.
"I think he can put together a good weekend," Perk said, adding Daigle's lost four times this year to Palmer's second-ranked Nick Stahler. "Every match has been within a move or two. He's very capable of pulling that one off."
Gardner believes his three seniors, Maciariello, Mahan and Byrne, all of whom qualified for state last season, are primed for strong tournaments.
"I'm hoping and counting on them placing in the top six," he said.
He also thinks fighting through the loser's bracket is more challenging and perhaps more helpful than advancing to the championship bout.
"It's obviously tough to make it to the finals, but to come back and make third is harder than getting second place in my opinion just because you lose in the quarters or semis and then you have to battle through and you have more matches," he explained. "You know every time you step out, you know if you lose this one you're probably done."
Also traveling to state from Soldotna is Cody Carroll (130), Tanner Link (152), Edward VanVelzor (160) and Jesse Chumley (215).
Skyview also is sending Monica Hutchison (112), a returning state qualifier, Vlad Ferderer (160) and Steven Lawson (171), while Homer has Eli Garvey (103), Alex Hediger (135) and Robby Brymer (145), who has now advanced four years in a row.
Kenai has seven grapplers heading north, six of them seniors in returning qualifier John Hughes (130), Joey Aho (119), Doug Duniphin (145), Donny Dormady (189), Freddie John (189) and Osbekoff. Also competing is sophomore Adam Agosti, a 130-pound sophomore who was an alternate until Wasilla's Nick Perkins couldn't go.
"We have wrestled really tough at times this year, for example the King of the Mountain tournament (in Seward), where it seems like every match was tough toward the end and we found a way to prevail," said Kardinals coach David Boyle. "But there were other times where we haven't been as intense as we have been.
"We're hoping that that hard work will result in some tough wrestling this weekend."
Local coaches are all in agreement that Colony is the clear-cut front-runner to capture its third consecutive state team championship, one week after winning its third straight conference crown.
"South is pretty good but they haven't contended with them all year. Nobody's given them a battle," Carlson marveled. "It's kind of like our football JV against the rest of the state. Even when we put our JV squad in, we continue to score on other teams. It's the same kind of game happening."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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