Ninilchik coach Kevin Zimmerman doesn't think it's cocky. He doesn't think it's looking too far ahead, either.
Booking defending state champion Austin Vanderford for the Reno Tournament of Champions in Reno, Nev., was just the natural, and logical, thing to do.
"Not at all," Zimmerman said of wishful thinking. "Just his ability. He's arguably one of the, if not the, top five wrestlers in this state if you were to ask anybody.
"Austin would be in finals at any weight this year in the state of Alaska," he added. "There's coaches other than myself on akmat.org that have said that."
The top-ranked 160-pound senior will get his chance to prove Zimmerman and the other coaches right when the Class 1-2-3A state wrestling tournament opens today in Sitka.
"It seems to be this is his year," Zimmerman said. "There's not much competition. I think he's pinned everybody in the 1-2-3A deal, let alone beat them."
The Reno Tournament of Champions, held on Dec. 21 to 22, is a tourney consisting of state champions from all 50 states for the purpose of allowing college scouts to evaluate the talent, according to Zimmerman.
"The who's who of all the colleges are there watching for up-and-coming stars," he said.
Vanderford is clearly one to keep an eye on.
Already speaking to colleges, according to his coach, he pinned his way to a Kachemak Conference championship and Most Outstanding Wrestler Award last weekend, overcoming his personal "Nikiski curse," having suffered his only loss of the season in the Bulldogs' gym this year and last.
"He gave them a good show there," Zimmerman said.
He put on a solid performance for fans at state last season, too, capturing the 152-pound crown after placing sixth as a freshman and again as a sophomore.
"He respects every opponent he comes up against," Zimmerman said. "He's been doing this so long it's natural to him. He pretty much lives for this sport."
One thing working in Vanderford's favor is never having to cut pounds, something many wrestlers begin doing directly following their match.
"He could wrestle right with the colleges right now," said Zimmerman, who also has Taylor Sutherland competing at 125 pounds. "He's in the best shape that you could possibly be at."
And for the most part, he's gotten to this point on his own.
"He hasn't had a workout partner here in the past three years. He didn't work out with anybody even close to his degree of wrestling," he said. "He pretty much trains himself. I'm too big to wrestle. I'd just crush him if I were to land on him wrong. I'm kind of scared of him, too."
So is everybody else.
"His nickname's 'The Worm' because he's hard to get a hold of. I've heard it said he brutalizes people on his offense," Zimmerman added. "He's as strong as you can be at 160 pounds. He carries it well."
Vanderford isn't the only local grappler contending for a state crown, though.
Seward has nine competitors, led by top-ranked senior Brandon O'Brikis, Nikiski has six, Voznesenka has two in region champ Joe Martushev (135) and Leo Polushkin (215), while Seldovia is taking regional runner-ups Timothy O'Leary (171) and fifth-ranked Jordan Gaegle (HVY).
O'Brikis (215), who placed fifth as a heavyweight during his sophomore campaign, finished second at state last season after being penalized four straight times for stalling in the final 30 seconds, costing him a 5-4 decision.
"I think he's going to be quite motivated," said Seahawks' coach Ronn Hemstock. "We'll just have to see if it goes his way. At this level, it's never easy to win."
Trying to best a fourth-place finish last season is senior Dylan Beck (152), who is ranked third after claiming a region title last weekend, while other region champions Alan Logan (189) and Scott Reierson (119) also strive for a spot atop the podium.
"I think Alan Logan and Dylan Beck, with any given day with the kids they've got to work with, if things go their way and they wrestle well, those two kids have a chance to get into the state title (match)," Hemstock said. "I'm hoping to get Scotty Reierson into the medals."
Also competing for Seward is Brenton Meier (112), Jonas Romero (HVY), Kyle Kain (HVY) and returning state qualifiers Matt Nyholm (145) and Koal Backlund (160).
"We've had pretty good luck the last few years ... It seems to be getting there," he said. "Hopefully this year we'll have a couple."
While Nikiski boasts no state champions, they do have a pair of grapplers with state experience in third-ranked sophomore Matt Parker and senior Josh Vance (171).
"They've helped reinforce a positive mental attitude and the kids are listening because they know they've been there," said Bulldogs' coach Lucas Peless.
Others making the trip include seniors Stony Wall (135) and Ancel Ware (140) and freshmen Karl Buccholz (152) and Nathan Stangel (171).
"My goal for every one of them is to place at least. I believe they're fully capable of placing in this tournament," Peless said. "If they want it bad enough, I also believe that they can win it. There's no shoe-ins for the state tournament. Anything can happen.
"Are they going against sometimes stronger opponents? Yes. But willpower can overcome a stronger opponent."
Being in top physical shape, he said, will help them along the way.
"We pushed them to the limit this season. I've seen their mental fitness and mental toughness come alive this week," he said. "Just the attention they've been putting into practice, the level of intensity they've been striving for at practice, how hard they've been pushing each other. And they're just not giving up."
Whatever happens, though, Peless is excited for the future.
"This just bodes well for a bright future for Nikiski wrestling. ... It shows the other kids that you don't have to be an all star in every match to go to the state tournament," he explained. "When their fellow teammates come back from having success at the state tournament, it's all that more encouraging to ... have that positive goal set."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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