Big-schools wrestling preview: Coaches Steffensen, Gardner return to old mat rooms

The feeling of coming home after a long time away can overwhelm even the most resolute of people.

For the coaches of the two large-schools prep wrestling teams on the Peninsula, the feeling was shared as they have stepped back into their old proving grounds.

As the high school season gets underway this weekend for the Kenai Central and Soldotna wrestling teams, changes have transpired that have seen old faces reunite with old places.

Kenai Central wrestling coach Stan Steffensen was able to move his Kardinals squad out of the “Kenai cage” as they called it, and back into the old wrestling room at the school, located above the pool area. The Kards haven’t used the room for wrestling in over four years, but after a postseason move that included swapping the weightlifting equipment for mats, the gang is back.

“That is cool,” Steffensen said. “We just have a little specialness about it, I mean, how do you explain it? It’s really awesome. You’re back home.”

Steffensen added that the names of past Kenai wrestling champions adorn the walls of the room, names that Steffensen coached going as far back as the ’80s.

“When I first started coaching here, this is where we were,” Steffensen said. “Being back in the room is super, super good.”

For Soldotna coach Neldon Gardner, the wait had been even longer. Gardner took over the SoHi program this season after 24 years at Skyview High School, and has moved back into his old room.

“It’s a good change, and I actually feel like I’ve come home,” Gardner said.

The room that Gardner and the Stars have moved into has in recent years been used as the mat room for the Soldotna Preparatory School. It’s a room in which Gardner has coached many middle school grapplers that eventually made their way to competing with the high school team.

But the last time he coached high-schoolers there? A full quarter century has passed.

Starting in 1983, Gardner took an assistant coaching job at Kenai, but also spent time as an assistant at SoHi.

It was at Soldotna Middle School that he became head coach, and he split head-coaching duties with the middle school and at former Skyview High. He also taught classes at Soldotna Middle School, and took on physical education as well in the later years, but retired from teaching in 2006.

When Gardner sent in a request to Soldotna principal Todd Syverson earlier this year to use the room again for the current crop of high-schoolers, the answer was yes. Gardner added that it is a great way to combine the ninth-graders and the rest of the grades together for practices.

“I actually got the keys back to the school again, the old office I had for P.E.,” Gardner said. “There are the same old locker rooms, it’s all there. When I walk into the old teacher’s lounge, I get reminiscent about those days.”

But wrestling is a sport that doesn’t give competitors a lot of time to be nostalgic. Thus, both coaches are quickly focusing on the upcoming season, which begins this weekend with the Peninsula Duals.

Kenai starts today with a 2:30 p.m. matchup with Seward and a 4 p.m. date with Bethel. Soldotna will start at the same times with Homer and Nikiski. The results determine Saturday’s matchups.

The season then continues with the popular Lancer Smith Invitational in Palmer next weekend.

The Northern Lights Conference tournament will be hosted Jan. 30 and 31 at Soldotna High, which will determine the six individuals from each weight class that qualify for the Class 4A state tournament, scheduled for Feb. 6 and 7 at Bartlett High School in Anchorage.

KENAI KARDINALS

Stan Steffensen said his current roster has at least 20 grapplers, which will likely fluctuate after eligibility checks.

Steffensen said some of the excitement heading into this season comes from the returning wrestlers that competed at the Alaska USA Wrestling state tournament in Wasilla in May.

Competing for the local Kenai Kaveman club, Paul Steffensen and Dylan Carter won the “triple crown” of wrestling, claiming titles in all three styles of the sport — Greco-Roman, freestyle and folkstyle. Paul won his matches in the Cadet division at 138 pounds, and Carter won in the Junior division at 160 pounds. Coach Steffensen added that Kyle Hunter also did well in the 182-pound division.

Paul Steffensen won a state championship in February at the 126-pound level as a freshman, capping off a 36-0 season with a state tournament that consisted only of pins. This year, Steffensen is back as a sophomore, and will be competing in either the 138-pound or 145-pound divisions.

“I think he’s ready to go out, wrestle hard and have fun,” Stan said. “He’d like to win as many matches as he can, and he’s looking really good in the room.”

Paul’s brother Ellery is also back as a senior at the 145-pound division, and is looking to reclaim a state championship after finishing second last year. Steffensen won a state crown his sophomore year at 138 pounds.

Hunter is the only other returning state placer from last year, when he took fourth place at 182 pounds. Hunter is a senior this year.

Overall, the Kards return a large senior class, something that coach Steffensen said will help the team overall.

“We have a good group of seniors that have been around, and it’s kind of fun, kind of different,” Steffensen said. “We’re just enjoying being around each other, and that’ll help the guys move through the season and have a good year.”

The tentative wrestlers in each weight division currently looks like this; freshman Tyler Vaughn and sophomore Natalie Chavez at 106 pounds, senior Shayna McKinley at 120, senior Matthew Vandermartin at 132 (a returning state qualifier), senior Micha Lankford at 138, sophomore Keyshawn McEnerny at 145, senior Gunner Smith at 152, senior Ryan Glenzel at 160, Carter at 170, and junior Zach Koziczkowski at 285 pounds.

SOLDOTNA STARS

Gardner said one of the biggest changes to this year’s SoHi squad is the number of volunteers. At Skyview, Gardner said he typically had about four to five people helping on the team. This year, all three Skyview assistants made the jump to Soldotna to add to the SoHi staff, which has resulted in 10 full-time helpers.

According to Gardner, there are about 36 athletes on the roster, so the help will be put to use.

“I’m coaching the identical way I’ve coached since 1983,” Gardner said. “My philosophy hasn’t changed.

“We’re started with the basics and running through all that, but the challenges are the ninth-graders get out (of class) 20 minutes before the others get out.”

Another thing Gardner has had acclimate himself to is the different season of large-schools wrestling. In the recent years he spent at Skyview, the Class 1-2-3A state tournament has been contested in December, but the 4A tournament is contested in February.

“It’s a little shorter window, but the second season goes a little longer because of the Christmas break,” Gardner said.

Because of that, the former Skyview athletes have also had to become accustomed to a later season. Instead of preparing for a season-ending tournament in December, the grapplers new to SoHi are now facing a longer period of competition leading up to the state tournament in February.

“I’ve got kids coming up to me asking, ‘Hey coach are we doing two-a-days now?’” Gardner said, referring to the two practice sessions a day that the Panthers would schedule. “I have to say, ‘No, it’s a longer season.’”

A few reigning state champions from Skyview are now competing for SoHi, including senior Austin Craig at 113 pounds and junior Seth Hutchison at 120 pounds. Gardner said he expects both athletes to do very well this year at the 4A level.

Last year, Craig claimed his first state title at 106 pounds at the Class 1-2-3A meet, while Hutchison won the 113-pound title, his second straight state crown.

Other returning state qualifiers include senior Ryan Winter at 132 pounds, senior Bailey Blumentritt at 152, senior Hunter Bourgeois at 152, senior Ashton Mahan at 170, junior Sage Hill at 195, and junior Dalton Best at 285.

Gardner listed the rest of the tentative spots of leading wrestlers in each weight class as the following — freshman Anthony Long at 126 pounds, sophomore Talon Musgrave or freshman Logan Schrader at 138, senior Eli Damon or freshman Bechler Metcalf at 145, senior James Gallagher and junior Mason Castagnier at 182, and junior Taylor Macrae at 220.

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