As the coach of a rising Homer High School wrestling squad, Chris Perk is seeing early returns on the effort to build up a successful program.
Competing on the Class 1-2-3A state scene, the Mariners have gone from upstart to contender in quite a short amount of time. Naturally, the next step is champion.
“We’re in the conversation for sure,” Perk said about Homer’s chances of winning a state team title. “We still have a lot of work to do, because while that tournament is a good look at teams, there’s so much in the second half (of the season) that can happen.”
“That” tournament that Perk is referring to was the ACS Invitational on Nov. 7. Homer won the meet, beating out a massive field of 42 other teams, including last year’s top two state teams, 2014 champion Kotzebue and runner-up Bethel.
The Mariners finished eighth at last year’s state meet, but the stunning win at the ACS Invite catapulted them into the state title conversation.
“When it’s attainable, we want to seize the moment,” Perk explained.
Friday and Saturday at Nikiski High School, the Mariners nearly seized another meet championship, ultimately settling for second at the Peninsula Duals.
Soldotna defeated Homer 39-34 in the championship dual to claim the Peninsula Duals crown. Kodiak beat Houston 43-35 in the third-place dual, Dillingham topped Nikiski 46-39 for fifth place, and Colony beat ACS 46-24 for seventh. A total of 16 teams competed.
The Stars began a busy Saturday with a 59-18 dual win over Grace Christian, then continued with a 69-18 win over Bartlett and a 59-27 win over Kodiak before meeting Homer in the final dual.
The Mariners started with a 70-0 dual victory over Unalaska, then notched a 63-18 win over Kenai Central and a 44-32 win over Houston before facing SoHi.
Four Homer wrestlers finished Saturday with perfect 6-0 records at the Peninsula Duals. Wayne Newman capped a 6-0 run with a 44-second pin on SoHi’s Logan Craig. Luciano Fasulo finished with a forfeit win, Timmy Woo notched a 16-3 decision over SoHi’s Talon Musgrave, and Tristen Cook capped his 6-0 run with a 94-second pin on Emmanuel Van Hout of SoHi.
For Nikiski, Nathan Carstens (7-0), Dylan Broussard (6-0) and Luke Johnson (7-0) all went undefeated. Carstens was also named the outstanding wrestler of the meet.
For Soldotna, Gideon Hutchison (6-0), Seth Hutchison (6-0) and Dalton Best (6-0) completed the weekend undefeated. For Kenai, Byron Dunham (2-0) and Zach Koziczkowski (5-0) were undefeated. Also, Seward’s Matt Morris finished 5-0.
An avid student of the sport, Perk said he is all eyes and ears when it comes to learning how to build a team.
“I’m watching what other teams are doing,” Perk said. “I mean, SoHi beat us (Saturday) on that front quarter-nelson. That was obviously their move of the week, and we had not gotten to that move yet. Kudos to (Soldotna coach) Neldon (Gardner).”
Gardner himself said Homer’s victory at the ACS Invite did not surprise him, partly due to the duals format which doesn’t spread a team thin across the weight classes, but also because he knew the time and effort that Perk and his assistant coaches had been putting in to build the team up.
“Homer’s got a really strong team this year,” Gardner said. “Chris and I have talked, and I’ve known him since he wrestled, and he was asking me about what to do and how to do it.
“One of the biggest things you can do as a coach is to get the younger programs going.”
Apparently, Perk took that advice to heart, piecing together a solid freestyle club scene in Homer and making sure the middle school programs were developing wrestlers to prepare them for high school.
The freestyle club wrestling season continues after the high school season ends, delving into the months of March, April and May and culminating in the statewide tournament in mid- to late May. The Soldotna Whalers, Nikiski Freestyle, Popeye Wrestling and Anchor Kings all compete at the club level.
After developing a core of young students of the sport at the middle school and club levels, Perk said he expected the returns on that effort to appear in the next year or two.
He did not expect it to happen this year.
“It’s fun seeing the team put it together so soon,” he said.
While high school wrestling in Alaska features the folkstyle method of the sport, both Gardner and Perk said establishing a solid freestyle base at the club level is crucial to efficiently developing a team at the high school level capable of winning a state championship.
Gardner said freestyle and folkstyle are similar in style, while Greco-Roman, which is notably different than the other two, does not allow any use of the legs.
“Even though it’s not the exact same, you learn movement,” Gardner said about freestyle wrestling. “The more you wrestle, you learn to move more. You learn positioning, and even though you score different than the others, the takedowns are the same.”
Perk said out of 30 prep grapplers on the Homer High School team, about half of them are involved in club wrestling.
“When these high-level athletes are coming in as freshman, they aren’t wrestling like freshman,” Perk said. “They’re wrestling like sophomores and juniors.”
Currently, there are four Homer freshman that are ranked in the top six in the 1-2-3A state rankings in their respective weight classes — Wayne Newman at 98 pounds, Seth Inama at 106 pounds, Luciano Fasulo at 120 pounds and Jadin Mann at heavyweight, and Newman sits at No. 1 in his division.
More importantly, the success does not seem to be a flash in the pan, since Homer has no male seniors on the team. The lone senior that will graduate in the spring is Jadzia Martin on the girls side.
The Mariners combined to go 57-18 in individual matches at the Peninsula Duals. Nikiski coach Adam Anders, hosting coach of Friday and Saturday’s tournament, took notice.
“They were really up and coming last year, and their numbers are up this year,” Anders said.
Perk said his team is also a well-attended team, with athletes combining for over 90 percent attendance every day.
“Getting that mat time and experience is so crucial,” he said. “It’s all about repetition, and these kids already have that.”
Saturday championship match
Soldotna 39, Homer 34
98 — Wayne Newman, Hom, p. Logan Craig, Sol, :44; 106 — Gideon Hutchison, Sol, dec. Seth Inama, Hom, 7-2; 113 — Travis Howell, Sol, p. Ian Stovall, Hom, 1:38; 120 — Luciano Fasulo, Hom, forf; 126 — Allison Wells, Hom, forf; 132 — Seth Hutchison, Sol, dec. Jared Brant, Hom, 7-3; 138 — Logan Schrader, Sol, p. McKenzie Cook, Hom, 1:54; 145 — Bechler Metcalf, Sol, p. Jaime Rios, Hom, 1:37; 152 — Timmy Woo, Hom, maj. Talon Musgrave, Sol, 16-3; 160 — Abraham Van Hout, Sol, dec. Chris Cudaback, Hom, 15-9; 170 — Tristen Cook, Hom, p. Emmanuel Van Hout, Sol, 1:34; 182 — Austin Schrader, Sol, dec. Levi King, Hom, 8-7; 195 — Paul Wilcox, Sol, forf; 220 — Jadin Mann, Hom, def. Noah Schmelzenbach, Sol, DQ; 285 — Dalton Best, Sol, forf.