In a sport in which team success is spawned from numbers, the Kenai Central and Soldotna wrestling teams will need all the help they can get at this weekend’s Northern Lights Conference tournament.
Luckily for the two sides, one thing they’ll have is a home mat on which to compete.
Kenai plays host to the NLC meet with matches on Cliff Massie Court. The action begins today at 11:30 a.m. with first-round matches, and the championship semis begin at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, three rounds of consolation matches precede the championships for each weight class at 3 p.m.
On the small-schools level, the Kachemak Conference tournament will play host to a larger pool of schools at the Class 1-2-3A level, and Homer looks to win another championship one year after winning its first in 29 years.
At the Class 4A level, SoHi and Kenai recorded team finishes of fourth and sixth, respectively, at last year’s NLC tourney. The Stars and Kardinals will try to bring as many individual competitors to the state meet they can, but after hosting a dual meet with SoHi just over a week ago on Kenai’s home floor, Kenai coach Stan Steffensen expects to see some of the toughest competition in the state convene on Kenai this weekend.
“I think four of the top teams in the state are in our region,” Steffensen said.
Colony, winners of three straight conference crowns, is the favorite heading into this weekend. The three Valley schools — Colony, Wasilla and Palmer — combined to amass almost 73 percent of available points at last year’s NLC meet, and when 11 of 15 championship matches at last year’s NLC meet featured an all-Valley matchup, the odds of winning a team crown for the peninsula schools are long.
However, both Steffensen and SoHi coach Neldon Gardner are excited for the opportunity to bring the conference competition to the peninsula.
“We’re more excited about regions more than we have been recently,” Gardner said after SoHi defeated Kenai last week.
The only returning NLC champion from last year is SoHi sophomore Gideon Hutchison, who won a title in the 106-pound final. This year, Hutchison has compiled a 34-1 record at the 113-pound level.
Other Stars that enter the weekend as threats to win a region title include junior Bechler Metcalf (32-5 season record at 152 pounds), senior Austin Schrader (5-0 at 170 pounds), senior Abraham VanHout (14-3 at 170 pounds), sophomore Logan Craig (22-10 at 98 pounds) and senior Talon Musgrave (11-6 at 160 pounds).
Gardner said that the 152-pound class, which Metcalf competes in, is one of the toughest divisions in the state. The top five ranked wrestlers in the state all hail from the NLC, with Metcalf ranked fourth.
“That weight class is stacked, it’s loaded,” Gardner said. “There are five kids from our region that go to state, and one or two kids may miss it.”
Leading the way at 152 pounds is Kenai senior Keyshawn McEnerney, an experienced athlete that missed much of last year with an injury. This season, McEnerney has rolled to a 29-5 record.
Joining McEnerney in the mix for potential state spots is sophomore Jacob Anderson (26-6 season mark at 138 pounds), junior Byron Dunham (22-8 at 182 pounds), junior Tyler Vaughn (9-4 at 126 pounds) and Seth Segura (12-8 at 113 pounds).
Also joining the fun are a contingent of female competitors who will match up only with other girls for the first time all year. After a season of wrestling the boys, all the top female wrestlers on the peninsula will be thrown into the mix of girls region competitors this weekend, and up to nine conference champions and three others selected by the Alaska Schools and Activities Association for at-large berths will make the trip to state the following week.
Among the top contenders are Kenai’s Natalie Chavez, a senior that won the girls 106-pound title at the region tournament last year, and Soldotna freshman Amanda Wylie, who enters with a 9-9 record in 2016 at 145 pounds.
After capturing last year’s conference title, the Mariners went on to win the 1-2-3A state title to break another, more important, title drought.
The meet will be hosted by Anchorage Christian Schools, so Homer will not enjoy the home mat advantage it had last year in winning the title, but with such a stacked team of grapplers, the Mariners may not need it.
Homer coach Chris Perk said after bringing home the hardware in 2015, the 2016 season has challenged the squad in a different way.
“For some reason it’s felt like more stress,” he said. “Last year, we were always pushing and chasing and looking forward. This year, we’re the people looking back. It’s just new waters as a coach.”
Buoyed by a roster of experienced veterans and talented freshmen, the Mariners easily took him the state title, but the accolades did not dull the drive to reach further heights. Perk’s former days as a Homer wrestler himself helped lead him to success as a coach, but even with years of experience under his belt, Perk has continually looked for additional avenues to create a better team.
“Whether it’s other sports, other business models, reading books, I’m always trying to find nuggets here and there that I can bring in each week, to keep the guys focused on something in particular,” he explained.
Last year, Bethel proved to be the closest challenger to Homer at the state meet, finishing second in the team race. Homer beat Bethel for the team title at the Lime Solar Invite at ACS in early November, racking up 252.5 points to Bethel’s 241. At the popular Lancer Smith Memorial tournament held the week before Thanksgiving, Homer finished second in a stacked field of 45 teams, losing only to 4A opponent Colony, 275 points to 211 points.
A week ago in Kodiak, the Mariners proved that they will not be rolling over anytime soon. Homer crushed Kodiak in a dual meet with a score of 68-0, fighting off every Bears advance in head-to-head matches.
“We’re not going through the motions, we’re showing we’re a dominant team,” Perk said. “We owe it to the sport to honor that tradition.”
The Kachemak Conference tournament at ACS will see some familiar faces. Perk said Homer’s closest pursuers in the conference title chase are Houston and Nikiski, but a recent bout of illnesses has taken over the Mariners wrestling room, leaving Perk with some concerns of defending their title.
Among the leading contenders to claim a region championship is sophomore Luciano Fasulo, the lone undefeated athlete on the Mariners. Fasulo’s record this season at the 126-pound level is a sparkling 38-0, half of those matches coming by pin.
Joining Fasulo with strong resumes for Homer is senior Timmy Woo at 35-1 in the 160-pound division, senior Jared Brant at 37-1 at 160 pounds, junior Tristen Cook at 35-3 at 170 pounds, junior Kyle Wells at 31-2 at 195 pounds, sophomore Wayne Newman at 33-2 in the 106-pound class, sophomore Seth Inama at 26-7 at 113 pounds, sophomore Jadin Mann at 31-5 at 285 pounds, and freshman Mose Hayes at 25-9 at the 132-pound level.
“We’re just consistently performing at a high level,” said a proud Perk. “The majority of those guys are participating in freestyle programs in the spring.”
The Nikiski wrestling team is bringing a team of fresher faces to the conference tournament. After losing three region champions and two state champs from last year’s squad to graduation, the Bulldogs entered the year trying to build on a younger squad.
Entering the tournament are several top threats, including sophomore Justin Cox (15-4 record this season at 132 pounds), sophomore Dustin Mullins (23-8 at 170 pounds), senior Dakota Hupp (25-10 at 195 pounds) and junior Tyler Litke (34-5 at 220 pounds).
Of the three finalists that the Seward wrestling team furnished in last year’s conference tourney, only one returned this season. Junior Cole Norcross lost a tight 7-6 decision in the 113-pound title bout last year, but Norcross has returned this season with a 28-16 record at 120 pounds.
Other Seahawks grapplers to watch out for are junior Simon Estes (19-15 in the 132-pound division), junior Brooks Berry (12-6 at the 145-pound class), senior Nick Woodard (17-15 at 170 pounds) and freshman Isaiah Bivins (20-15 at 113 pounds).
On the girls side, Homer junior Alex Moseley (16-12 at 113 pounds), sophomore McKenzie Cook (14-14 at 145 pounds), as well as former state champion Heather Harrington, a senior who sports a 10-15 record this year at 220 pounds, will vie for region crowns.