Changes are coming to the prep wrestling scene on the peninsula, and there is no real consensus as to how things will shake out by the state meet in mid-December.
The easiest change to spot this year is the move of the Kenai Central program from Division I to Division II, thanks to an offseason shakeup that affected most of Kenai’s athletic programs. The Kardinals will go from competing in the Northern Lights Conference, which houses fellow peninsula rival Soldotna, to the Kachemak Conference, which features state wrestling powerhouse Homer.
It’s a move that has Kenai head coach Stan Steffensen feeling optimistic.
“I think going forward, it’s probably going to be a good deal,” Steffensen said. “It’ll be exciting, it’s a new start. It’s a place we belong.”
Soldotna head coach Neldon Gardner, a 1977 KCHS grad, said the move shouldn’t affect the Stars “in any way shape or form,” although he is glad to see his team competing against Kenai in the opening month of the season, which got under way last weekend with the Luke Spruill Memorial Tournament at KCHS.
“In wrestling, the individual is No. 1 and the team is No. 2,” Gardner said. “You want to win the team title as a coach, and as an individual you want to win an individual title. … Our first four weekends are on the peninsula, so we won’t see too many schools outside our area.”
Division II teams on the peninsula are also welcoming the change.
The Homer Mariners are winners of the last three Kachemak Conference titles, and have followed up the 2016 Division II state title with two straight state runner-up finishes.
Homer assistant coach Chris Perk said the Kards should inject a handful of region contenders into the mix, but he’s not confident the Kards are ready to contend for a region title.
“They have one or two wrestlers that will challenge us for a state berth (in weight classes), and it’ll make our conference tougher,” he said. “If we can show our toughness, in the future, maybe we can get a state berth back, but we just have to wrestle a little tougher now.
“It’s going to take them a couple years, they had a pretty solid middle school program last year, so we’ll see if that continues.”
Nikiski’s Adam Anders also welcomed Kenai, which sits just 20 minutes down the Kenai Spur Highway from Nikiski, into the fold.
“It makes things tougher on us,” Anders said. “They’re a well-coached team and we’ll have to rise to the challenge.”
On the statewide level, another change in 2018 is expected to turn up the competitive wick, although it’s seeing a mixed bag of reviews.
The weight class categories received a tweak in the offseason as the smallest class, 98 pounds, was dropped to lower the total divisions from 15 to 14. The lightweight division begins at 103 pounds, and continues to 112, 119, 125, 130, 135, 140, 145, 152, 160, 171, 189, 215 and 285 pounds.
Seen as a redistribution of competitor numbers in each class, the change is a return to a more traditional division in weights, and also lines up more with the current national high school standard. Anders said it should help bulk up some of the weight classes that were lagging in numbers, while evening out others that were stacked with talent.
“It’ll make some of our brackets a little more solid,” he said. “It’ll also help with dual meet competitions, making it a little more realistic for teams to produce a full lineup because there’ll be fewer weight classes to fill.”
Seward coach Andrew Scrivo pointed out that the change should also benefit programs from Southcentral Alaska more than the northern teams that have weight rooms filled with smaller competitors.
“We just got out of whack a few years ago when we were talking about how small some of the kids were from the rural schools,” he said. “It was just an Alaska state vote kind of thing.”
Steffensen criticized the move, saying that while the middle weights should not be affected much, the lightweights might suffer for small competitors being grouped with slightly bigger kids.
“It’s like, what the heck,” Steffensen said. “It’s not the best thing for wrestling. Without a 98-pound class we’re not able to get the younger kids out and wrestling should be a sport where the lighter guy gets to participate at his weight.”
Gardner, meanwhile, said he sees both sides of the coin, being a former lightweight wrestler himself. With 103 pounds being the new standard for smallest grapplers, the longtime Soldotna-area coach said the little guys will need to beef up a bit.
“I was 98-pounder, I weighed 95 and wrestled up and ate all I wanted and loved life,” Gardner said with a chuckle. “If there was only a 103 (class) those guys would be heavier than me.”
A series of peninsula meets in October and November will give athletes a feel for the new changes. Starting with the Spruill meet last weekend and the Homer Round Robin Rumble this weekend, local grapplers will get mat time Oct. 26 and 27 at the King of the Mountain duals in Seward and Nov. 2 and 3 at the Top Dog Invite in Nikiski.
The Kachemak Conference tournament for local Division II squads kicks off Dec. 7 and 8. The tournament sends the top three wrestlers to state with two at-large berths across the state available.
The Division I Northern Lights Conference sends the top five from each weight class to state. Additionally for both meets, the top two female wrestlers in each weight class qualify for the girls state tournament.
Steffensen said the Kenai weight room is currently seeing over 20 kids out, and the enthusiasm is strong early on.
“The one thing about it, this year the kids are still wrestling,” he said. “Small or large, they still get out there and wrestle. It’s kind of like those looking forward to duck season, we’re looking forward to wrestling season.”
The Kards are returning two state competitors from 2017, led by 160-pound sophomore Tucker Vann and heavyweight senior Jacob Grant. Vann went 15-14 last year en route to a quarterfinal loss in the 138-pound class at state, and Grant got as far as the NLC semifinals to wrap up an 18-8 season.
Other seniors to watch for include Brandon Kroto at 152 pounds, Keaton Logston at 145 and Kaden McKibben at 160, although Steffensen said McKibben could go to 171 pounds.
Steffensen said junior Pierce Peterson returns at 119 pounds, while sophomores Rocky Sherbahn at 189 and Joe Sylvester at 145 or 152 are back. Freshman Talon Whicker made his prep debut last week at the Spruill tourney with a win at 103 pounds.
On the girls side, freshman Olivia Easley could be a contender at 125 pounds.
Gardner said his program traditionally takes a few weeks to really start humming as the Stars football season adds another championship trophy to the case, but now that football season is over, he sees major progress.
“We never really get rolling until after (the King of the Mountain tournament),” he said. “We’re at an 80 to 90 percent lineup, but by Nikiski we should be rolling.”
Gardner, in his 35th year coaching, said he has about 30 total kids showing up, with eight to 10 of those fresh off the football season.
SoHi senior Gideon Hutchison returns for another go after claiming a state championship at 120 pounds last year, the 12th for his family. Hutchison became the fifth of his siblings to win a state crown, and will take a crack at 130 or 135 pounds this year after going 35-3 last season.
“Here you have a senior state champ returning at 130, he’s growing and he’s bigger, and he might meet another state champ from another school,” Gardner said. “I look for him to win a title.”
Another senior, Logan Craig, returns to knock down the state title that has eluded him. Craig has placed at state the last three years, including a semifinal run last year at 106 pounds to cap a 25-12 campaign. Craig will compete at 112 pounds this year, Gardner said.
From there, Gardner said the SoHi roster is full of potential, including juniors Hudson Metcalf at 189 pounds (who was one win away from placing at state last year), Aaron Faletoi at 215 and Sean Babbit at 171, who broke his ankle prior to the region tournament last year. Another junior, Brayde Wolfe, will compete at 145 or 152 after missing the 2017 season with a broken wrist.
Gardner said others to watch for include juniors Ben Booth at 130, Eli Floyd at 215 and Melvin Lloyd at 285.
Chasing their fourth consecutive conference title won’t be easy, but Perk said the Mariners are focusing on the bigger picture, which is a state championship.
Perk said the biggest thing that kept Homer from winning it all last December was the depth of Bethel, which picked up valuable points in the consolation brackets, even though Homer placed seven athletes in the state finals.
“I’ve got to believe that it’s us two schools again,” he said. “Glennallen had another good performance this weekend, Dillingham is returning some good wrestlers. This year, if Glennallen and Dillingham can score a few points, it’ll bring all of us down to a manageable situation.
“If we can get seven kids in the finals again, we’ll have a really good shot at winning.”
Homer stands a chance by returning three state boys champions and five state finalists, including senior Seth Inama (who won at 120 pounds), senior Luciano Fasulo (132) and junior Mose Hayes (138). Levi King also won a state title at 195 pounds but graduated.
Fasulo ended 2017 with a 97-match win streak intact that dates to his sophomore season, and looks to continue it this year, but Perk said it will have to wait as Fasulo currently is healing from a knee injury sustained in practice. Perk said Fasulo could be out two to four weeks, and upon his return will need to get in competitive shape to win at 135 pounds.
Inama will move up to 125 pounds while Hayes will take on 152 pounds this year after going 41-8 last season.
Homer also crowned two girls champions in Alex Moseley (120 pounds) and McKenzie Cook (145). Moseley graduated but Cook returns for her senior year.
Another state boys finalist returns is senior Wayne Newman, a three-time state finalist who is looking for that elusive title.
Senior Jadin Mann missed last with a shoulder injury, but Perk said if Mann returns, he will likely be the top-ranked athlete at 285 pounds.
Other grapplers looking to place at state include seniors Ian Stovall at 130, Alex Miller at 189 and Hunter Harrington at 215.
A stout sophomore class includes Josh Bradshaw at 160, Dakota Moonin at 140 and Bruce Graham at 152.
Perk said the Mariners host a “boatload” of freshmen, starting with middle school champions Michael Ritter at 103 pounds, Timmy Hatfield at 135, Seraphim Macauly at 145 and Alex Hicks at 215.
Anders said among the 20 or so competitors that fill the Nikiski weight room, he holds two returning state placers from last year but eight state qualifiers total, as six other names have made it to the big dance in previous years.
The 2017 state wrestlers are 285-pound junior Ethan Hack and 171-pound sophomore Koleman McCaughey, but more state experience returns in 119-pound junior Joey Yourkoski, 130-pound junior Jordan Fleming, 135-pound senior Justin Cox, 152-pound junior Mason Payne, 215-pound senior Dustin Mullins and 189-pound senior Malcolm Yerkes.
“We definitely have the potential to (make state),” Anders said. “We just have to stay healthy, and put in the work to do that.”
Last year, Nikiski suffered from a spate of injuries that crippled the team’s chances of placing high at the conference meet. Anders is hoping for better luck this year.
“That’s our game plan, keep everyone healthy and on top of their academics,” he said. “So far so good.”
On the girls side, junior Destiny Martin returns to tackle the 125-pound girls class.
Working in tandem with longtime wrestling coach Ronn Hemstock, Scrivo said his wrestling room holds at least 10 kids, with more potentially to come with eligibility checks and recruitment.
Seward may have the biggest boy-to-girl ratio in the state, with five girls and five boys occupying the Seward High mats.
Returning to the Seahawks is sophomore Gabriel Wood at 119 pounds and junior Jaden Van Dyke at 160. Scrivo said Van Dyke is a team captain, and is looking for his third straight trip to state this year, as well as his first conference championship.
Sophomore Thomas Ooka returns at 130, while freshmen Steven Harshman at 171 and Kekoa Albino at 215 are new.
On the girls side, juniors Naomi Ifflander at 119 and Rebekah Christenson at 145 return as region contenders. Christenson won her class at the King of Mountain meet last year.
Sophomore Hana Cooney returns to compete at 130, and will be joined by sophomores Angela Tinker at 119 and Priscilla Stolz at 130.
Head coach Justin Zank said he has a solid group of freshman on his team of 12.
He said more experienced wrestlers like Maxim Kusnetsov, Dia Martishev, Daniel Anufriev and Anthony Kalugin will be working toward state goals, while the younger wrestlers will be looking for growth.