Nikiskis Justin Tumbaga fends off Kenai defenders in a football game last season.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Nikiski senior Justin Tumbaga manages to pour his heart and soul into every competition while making sure not to let his emotions get the best of him.
In wrestling, for example, Tumbaga puts so much of himself into every match that he was named the outstanding wrestler of the year this year in the Kachemak Conference despite finishing second in the conference tournament at 152 to Cody Dunbar of Anchorage Christian Schools.
“The most outstanding wrestler, as I see it, is not just the best wrestler in that weight class,” said Nikiski wrestling coach Lucas Peless. “The wrestler’s attitude should also count.
“The way that Justin wrestles is pretty inspirational to watch for a lot of people.”
What may be more impressive, however, is the way Tumbaga can turn on and off his attitude when he steps on the mat.
“He gets a mask when he steps on the wrestling mat,” Peless said. “He has a completely different mind-set after he’s done wrestling.”
Peless said many of the wrestlers that throw themselves into matches with the all-out attitude of Tumbaga will carry that attitude off the mat and throw a fit after losing.
“He’s always very willing to talk to me after matches win or lose,” Peless said. “That’s unusual.
“Just the fact that he is willing to talk shows that he is looking to grow.”
Nikiski football coach Ned Clooten said Tumbaga brings similar qualities to the gridiron.
In a 55-6 playoff loss to Kenai this season, Tumbaga collected a whopping 21 tackles.
“He didn’t care what the score said,” Clooten said. “He was determined to fight until the final horn blew.”
Clooten also was quick to point out that if Tumbaga is the victim of a poor call by the officials or a cheap shot, he will not let his emotions get the best of him. He will simply wait until the appropriate time to point out the injustice to his coach.
“He was voted our most valuable player in football,” Clooten said. “He was almost a double winner, which is extremely rare. He also almost received the most inspirational award.”
Tumbaga started wrestling when his family moved to the Kenai Peninsula from Hawaii when Tumbaga was 10 years old. Before long, Tumbaga was winning borough titles as a seventh- and eighth-grader.
As a freshman, Tumbaga finished sixth in the state in the tough 135-pound weight class.
Sophomore year saw Tumbaga in two of the endless battles for which he would become notorious. At the Area 2 South wrestling championships, Tumbaga defeated Ninilchik’s Vincent Kruzick 4-3 in double overtime for the championship at 135. After the match, Tumbaga collapsed into the arms of then-Nikiski coach Abe Porter and could not stand for several seconds. Tumbaga was named Area 2 South’s most outstanding wrestler.
At state that year, Tumbaga lost in the championship at 135 to Will Savo of Dillingham in a 2-1 thriller.
Tumbaga’s character would be tested even more strongly during his junior wrestling season. His parents, Evan and Fred, were driving to Anchorage to watch a wrestling tournament when they got in a car accident. Fred received spinal cord and brain damage from the accident, and Justin missed most of the season to be with his family while Fred received treatment in Seattle.
“He didn’t want to wrestle, his dad was in a coma,” Evan said. “We forced him to come back and wrestle. He wanted to quit and pretend he’d never wrestled before.”
Despite not having a lot of matches under his belt, Tumbaga was able to come back and qualify for state at 140. With Evan and Tumbaga’s brother, Jayden, making a surprise trip to the state tournament, Justin worked his way to the finals, where again he lost to Savo 2-1.
“It didn’t help that my support team was spread out last year,” Justin said.
Justin said his father still needs help to eat and still must use a walker to get around.
“We’d just like to thank the community, the Nikiski community,” Evan said. “It takes a village to raise a child. We were in Seattle four months and when we did send Justin back they did take care of my baby.
“We couldn’t leave now. The community wouldn’t let us leave. We have so many good memories, outside the accident.”
Clooten said the fact that Justin was able to cope with the accident at such a young age is remarkable.
“It’s a lot to ask a 16-year-old kid to become head of a household, but he embraces the role,” Clooten said. “He’s definitely earned my respect.”
Fred was able to make it to Wasilla Saturday to watch Tumbaga end his wrestling career with a third-place finish at the state meet.
Although Tumbaga didn’t start playing football until eighth grade, he said he may play that sport in college and give up wrestling.
As a junior, Tumbaga earned second team small-schools all-state honors at running back. As a senior, Tumbaga earned first team all-state honors at inside linebacker and second team honors at running back.
Tumbaga, who thanks his brother and parents for all their support, said that he wants to major in physical therapy in college due to all the time he’s spent in the hospital with his father.
“He’s one of those kids I’m looking forward to keeping tabs on,” Clooten said. “I don’t think he’s popped the top on his potential as far as being a football player.”
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