Don’t book your ticket quite yet for high school state championship wrestling in February.
Instead, go for December, when you can see all the sights and sounds of every champion in the state at one location.
In order to keep every school in the state on a consistent schedule, the Alaska School Activities Association tweaked the season schedule in a big way for bigger teams, essentially syncing the Class 4A schedule with the Class 1-2-3A season.
It means every 4A and 1-2-3A team and state-hopeful competitor will gather Dec. 18 and 19 at Bartlett and Chugiak high schools for a two-day extravaganza.
It also means a severe shortening of the season for large-school teams like Kenai Central and Soldotna, which will see the season end in mid-December, almost two months earlier than usual. The Class 1-2-3A teams have traditionally seen the season end before the holiday break, so the change will not affect them.
For coaches like Soldotna’s Neldon Gardner, the change is not a difficult adjustment, as he became accustomed to the December finish in his 24-year career as head coach at Skyview, which is now closed.
However, in his second year at Soldotna, Gardner said he would prefer a long season not only because it gives athletes more time to get in shape for a title run, but also because the successful Soldotna football program has made a tradition of playing games in mid-October, leaving those athletes less time to transition from one sport to the next.
“It’s a different ballgame, and I’ve been on that side of coin,” Gardner said. “On the other side of the coin at Soldotna, the football team does well and it goes to a longer season, and the boys need time off and we’re down to a shorter season.”
Gardner expanded on the idea by adding that the returning state placers know how to prepare better for a successful season, while the newer athletes to the sport might suffer from the change.
“It’s not harder for the good kids because they come into the wrestling room knowing most of the sport already and in shape,” he said. “It’s the new kids that it’s a disadvantage to.”
However, Gardner did praise the state event culminating for both classes under the same roof, featuring the 4A finals being contested alongside the 1-2-3A finals. In 1997, Gardner coached his Skyview Panthers squad to their first state team title at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, which featured the same side-by-side format.
“There’s always pluses and minuses for most things, and we’re all together as a wrestling state,” added Kenai coach Stan Steffensen. “The good thing is the big schools don’t have to have kids training after Christmas break and they won’t have to miss out on seeing grandma or the holidays.
“It is what it is.”
Seward coach Chad Hinders, who is with one of the schools not being affected by the change, is welcoming the state event format.
“I think it’s bringing it back to an old school feel, the way it was before,” Hinders said.
In addition to the schedule changes, a weight class change is being made at the girls state tournament. A 106-pound division is being added, which will replace the 98-pound class. Also, a 113-pound category is being added.
The season continues to roll this weekend in Homer, as the Mariners host the Round Robin Rumble, which will also feature Nikiski, Soldotna and Kenai Central. The meet starts 5 p.m. Friday with duals competition, then continues 10 a.m. Saturday.
Last year, the Bulldogs finished second in the team standings at the Kachemak Conference tournament — just 16 points behind team champions Houston — then took fourth at state, a big jump up from a 13th at state in 2013.
Helping Nikiski to that top five were two individual champions — Nathan Carstens at 160 pounds and Luke Johnson at 220. Both return to defend their crowns. Other returning state placers include senior T.J. Cox at 120 pounds.
Nikiski coach Adam Anders said the Bulldogs squad was due for a sudden roster expansion after the Nikiski football program finally ended its season with a state championship runner-up finish Saturday.
“We’re just building our team now, and just (Wednesday) we got our guys in from football,” Anders said. “We’re still getting our feet wet.”
Anders, in his eighth year as head coach, set a top-five finish at state as the team goal for Nikiski, but maintained that a steady focus and nurturing work ethic will be key in putting the Bulldogs at that level.
“We’re going to have a great season,” he added. “We’ve got some great kids, and any time you return three state finalists, you’re feeling pretty good.”
Carstens and Johnson are both fresh off state football performances in their senior seasons. Carstens will be gunning for a second straight state crown, while Johnson will be going for a third straight.
Last year, SoHi finished third at the Northern Lights Conference tournament and rode the momentum to an eighth-place result at state, where the Stars picked up two individual titles from 113-pounder Austin Craig and 120-pounder Seth Hutchison. The Colony Knights took home the team championship over runner-up Wasilla.
As a senior last year, Craig is gone to graduation, but Hutchison returns for his senior campaign and is trying to become the ninth wrestler in state history to win four straight state crowns, joining a list that includes older brother Eli, who pulled off the feat from 2003 to 2006. Eli is the only wrestler in state history to have finished his high school career with an undefeated record.
With a loss on his record, Seth is unable to finish undefeated, but he can contribute to his impressive Hutchison family resume, which currently stands at an astounding 10 combined state wrestling championships, shared between Zeb (1997, 1999), Eli and Michaela (2006).
“He won’t have the undefeated record like Eli, but that’s OK,” Gardner said. “His family is just a joy to work with, they just have a desire for wrestling, and (Seth) just loves it. He’s upbeat out there and getting after it, never complains, and just battles through soreness and minor injuries.”
The winning heritage does not stop there, either. Joining Seth on the SoHi team this year is freshman brother Gideon, the last of the 10 Hutchison siblings.
Seth won two state titles while at Skyview High in 2012 (at 98 pounds) and 2013 (113 pounds), then added his third at Soldotna last year.
After finishing the 2014 season with just under 30 wrestlers, Gardner said the SoHi roster is up to at least 35 competitors, with more joining the list after the football season wrapped up Saturday.
“The numbers are up and we’re really excited,” Gardner said. “The room is full of hard-working kids.”
As the Stars football team was battling Kenai for a fourth straight championship last Saturday, the SoHi wrestling team was getting down to business with a victory at the Luke Spruill tournament at Kenai. The Kards had won the previous four Spruill tournaments.
SoHi got match victories out of Charles Meyer at 106 pounds, Gideon Hutchison at 113, Travis Howell at 120, Seth Hutchison at 132, Sean Marks at 145, Talon Musgrave at 152, Abraham VanHout at 160, Jesse Boze at 170, Austin Schrader at 182 and Austin Reeves at heavyweight. Of those names, the elder Hutchison and Musgrave are the only state returners.
Gardner said Schrader could have qualified for state, but suffered through an injury last year.
Gardner tabbed several others to make a run for a state berth, including senior Dalton Best at heavyweight, senior Sage Hill at 220 pounds, sophomore Bechler Metcalf at 145, senior Kristian Palaniuk at 195, and junior Abraham and senior brother Emmanuel VanHout at 152 and 160 pounds, respectively.
Coach Steffensen guided the Kards to a sixth-place team finish at the region tournament last year, a week before placing 10th at state on the strength of two individual state titles by the Steffensen brothers — sophomore Paul and senior Ellery.
However, much of the Kardinals’ powerful core of state contenders are gone, including Ellery, who capped off a 37-0 senior campaign with a state title in the 152-pound class. Dylan Carter and Matt VanderMartin, two Kenai grapplers who competed strongly at state, also graduated.
This season, Steffensen said he is looking forward to tuning up the current crop of grapplers in the Kenai weight room, which has been seeing anywhere from 10 to 20 athletes in the wrestling room so far.
“It’s always about having good fun, and whoever is interested in having some fun,” Steffensen said. “It’s always a joy to work with new kids, and the philosophy is to get healthier, get stronger and work hard.”
Joining the mix this year is world powerlifting champion Cipriana Castellano, a powerlifting phenom that owns several age and weight classification records on the international scene. Castellano was joined by Soldotna junior Robin Johnson in Salo, Finland, in June, when the pair won their respective age categories at the International Powerlifting Federation RAW Classics World Championships.
But does strength translate into wrestling success? Coach Steffensen did not want to predict what Castellano is capable of on the wrestling mat, but did say that the team is excited to see what she can do.
“I’m sure there’s many people saying she can be state champion for Kenai’s girls team,” he said.
Castellano, who will be competing in the 145- or 160-pound classes, will be joined by state returner Natalia Chavez, who competes at 98 pounds, senior Zach Koziczkowski at heavyweight and junior Keyshawn McEnerny at 152 pounds.
Additionally, Keyshawn’s freshman brother Tyrone will join the Kards at 170 pounds, and sophomores Byron Dunham (152) and Jaden Kissee (160), and freshmen Cameron Maxie (120) and Jacob Anderson (126) will fill out a young, burgeoning class of Kenai grapplers.
Paul Steffensen finished 23-2 last year and won the state title at 145 pounds, but coach Steffensen said there are several factors that may keep his son out this season. Whether he finishes the year or not, Steffensen said, “without a doubt”, he could win another state crown.
“We just really enjoy the sport and the process of competing and participating,” Steffensen said.
The Mariners enter the new season with the intent of picking up where they left off. Homer finished third among region teams last year — just 2.5 points shy of second-place Nikiski — which springboarded them to an eighth-place result at state.
Homer coach Chris Perk wrote in an email that the squad is looking to improve upon their state finish, and will look to do so with four returning state placers, which include juniors Timmy Woo (third at 138 pounds), Jared Brant (fourth at 120), Tristen Cook (fourth at 160) and sophomore Jaime Rios (fifth at 132). Senior Matthew Pollack was also a state qualifier last year.
Heather Harrington, girls state champion at 220 pounds, returns to defend her crown, and will be joined by fellow sophomore Alex Moseley, who took third at state last year at 98 pounds. Moseley is part of the Homer girls cross-country running team that has won two straight state 1-2-3A team titles. Jadzia Martin was unable to compete at state last year due to an injury, but is looking to go out on top her senior year.
“Jadzia will be a real threat to win the 106 (pound class) girls Championship,” Perk wrote.
Perk wrote that a strong class of freshmen could give Homer its deepest squad since the 1986-87 team.
“Much of the success can be given to the work done in the offseason,” he wrote. “Assistant coach Bubba Wells has coached the (club teams) Chapman Eagles and Anchor Kings during the winter months. Many of the other wrestlers were wrestling with coach Danny Rios at (Homer High School) and Jason Cavasos the head Popeye coach.”
Homer’s talented freshman class includes Jadin Mann (at 220 pounds or heavyweight), Hunter Harrington (at 160), Allison Wells (120), McKenzie Cook (138) and Hannah Inama (120).
Perk also recognized several family connections on the team. Wells, a former girls freestyle state champion, is the sister of returning state qualifier Kyle Wells (182 pounds), while Mann is the stepbrother of state returner Jaime Rios, and Harrington is the younger brother of Heather, the defending state girls champ. Luciano Martin, a triple crown winner on the club wrestling scene (with titles in freestyle, folkstyle and Greco Roman style), will join sister Jadzia on the team at the 120-pound level, and Cook, who was the girls freestyle state champion last year, is the younger sister of Tristen Cook, a triple crown winner himself from last year.
Coach Chad Hinders will be rejoining longtime wrestling presence Ronn Hemstock in Seward this season, guiding a squad of about 23 on the current roster.
At last year’s region tournament, only one Seward wrestler made it to the finals, but five others competed in third-place matches, helping to secure a fifth-place team result.
“We’re looking at a great team this year, we have a core of about a dozen guys that have been with coach (Ronn) Hemstock and I since middle school,” Hinders said. “It’s tough to win a region championship, but we could have a few second- and third-place finishes.”
Following this weekend’s Throw Down in Snow Town meet Friday in Valdez, Hinders said he is eagerly anticipating the King of the Mountain tournament in Seward, scheduled for Oct. 30 and 31, a meet that exhibits a format that allows every competitor the chance to wrestle at least seven matches.
“That’s gonna be a wild one,” he said.
The leading candidates in the region for the Seahawks include a senior class composed of Paxson Berry at 145 pounds, Justin Schutter at heavyweight, and Jonathan Kingsland at 126. Schutter took home the silver medal at last year’s region tourney while junior Chris Hettick was fourth at 145.