A year after finishing third at the Kachemak Conference tournament and eighth at the Class 1-2-3A state meet, the Homer wrestling team is aiming higher.
In the 29 years since the 1985-86 Mariners squad captured the conference title — a week before winning the Class 1-2-3A state championship — Homer has failed to return to the top step of the podium at the region meet.
This weekend, the Mariners stand a very real shot to break the winless skid, and under their home roof at Alice Witte gym at Homer High School.
The tournament runs today and tomorrow in Homer, the first time in 10 years that the region meet will be held in the small, quaint fishing town. The top four in each weight class qualify with state berths.
Homer coach Chris Perk said he has hardly mentioned the 1986 squad to his current crop of rising studs, but when the depth of the team is moving at such a high level, past accolades are not needed to provide motivation.
“I know there’s a lot of talk surrounding the Mariners, so the question is can we walk the walk?” Perk asked.
The proof of Homer’s status as a rising wrestling program is evident on Akmat.org, a popular Alaska wrestling website, which provides near-weekly rankings for each weight class among Class 4A and 1-2-3A teams. While the rankings are effectively a statewide coaches poll and are mere guidelines to who the top contenders are, it typically is not far off base on who to pen in as region and state champs.
Entering the weekend, Homer has 10 current athletes ranked in the top six. If the field is narrowed down to only Kachemak Conference grapplers, the strength of the Mariners is astonishing.
Starting at 98 pounds, Homer freshman Wayne Newman is ranked first in the conference with a 30-4 record, 16 of those wins accomplished with pins. At 106 pounds, sophomore Seth Inama is first among the region with a 19-11 record, and at 120 pounds, freshman Luciano Fasulo is ranked second with a 38-7 tally this year, including 19 pins.
Two Homer wrestlers are not only ranked highest in the conference, but best in the state as well. At 132 pounds, junior Jared Brant tops the field with a 31-8 record and 13 pins, while junior Timmy Woo leads the way at 152 pounds with a 39-3 record, including 14 pins. The high level of success by Brant and Woo has not gone unnoticed by coach Perk.
“Timmy is always ready to wrestle, he’s optimistic, ready to go, and it doesn’t matter who he’s against,” Perk described. “Jared is a student of the sport, he just likes learning new moves and techniques.”
Homer sophomore Teddy Croft is ranked second in the region at 160 pounds with an 18-6 season tally, while sophomore Tristen Cook is ranked second at 170 pounds with a record of 38-6. Of the 31 wins that Cook claimed not by forfeit, 22 of those were pins (ranked ninth in the state).
A pair of Homer sophomores hold shots at a state berth at 182 pounds, including Kyle Wells, who tops the list with a 22-7 mark, including 13 pins, and Levi King, ranked second with a 26-8 record.
Finally, freshman Jadin Mann is second among region competitors at 220 pounds while holding a 27-10 season record.
So how has all this young talent suddenly cropped up? Perk attributes it to a lot of tough work at the developmental levels, such as the Popeye club program.
“It’s taken years,” Perk said “We started about five or six years ago, and when we got down and spent time with those kids at the youth level and invested time with these guys, it’s paid off.”
Additionally, Homer has six girls among the 28 total listed in the state ranks, with all but two already qualifying to state with automatic berths (due to lack of competitors). Samantha Martin and Hanna Inama will need to earn their way to state, but others, such as Jadzia Martin (19-9 in 106-pound coed competition this season), already have state spots locked up.
So how worried should Homer be in trying to knock off the defending Kachemak Conference champion Houston Hawks? Perk said the Mariners have the best shot in a long time.
“Houston will probably have more bodies, but we have some real stellar athletes,” he said. “When we start racking up those first-place points, that could be the difference.”
One team hoping to stop the Mariners rise and add their name to the list of region champions is the Nikiski Bulldogs.
Just last week, Nikiski faced off against Houston at the North-South Duals, losing a tight 41-38 dual.
Nikiski coach Adam Anders said he is hoping to qualify as many as a dozen Bulldogs to the state meet, and maybe capture the region crown along the way. Nikiski took home runner-up honors a year ago.
“I’m not going to say we don’t have a chance, but there are some great programs out there, and Homer and Houston are our biggest obstacles,” Anders said.
Nikiski currently has a trio of seniors that are ranked in the Akmat.org rankings. At 120 pounds, T.J. Cox is ranked first among region competitors, and enters this weekend with a 29-3 record, 15 of those wins coming on a pin.
Also at 170 pounds is Nathan Carstens, who is ranked second in the region with a 20-4 record this year, with a whopping 17 of those being decided with a pin.
Then there is Luke Johnson at heavyweight, a powerful grappler who is ranked first in the state in his class and holds a 13-0 record this year. If all his forfeit wins are taken out of the equation, then his 2015 record is lowered to 6-0, but all six matches ended with a pin.
Anders said the three leading seniors each hold great opportunities to advance to state for various reasons.
“They kind of know what to do at this point in the year,” he said. “They’ve worked super hard to get down to this point and being relaxed and focused, making sure they don’t get in their own way.”
Also for Nikiski, Gabe Smith is 21-13 at 106 pounds, Donovan Smith is 28-11 at 126 pounds, Dylan Broussard is 19-3 at 182 pounds and Tyler Litke is 23-11 at 220.
Also from the Peninsula, the Seward Seahawks feature several contenders, including senior Matt Morris at 182 pounds, who is ranked third in his weight class and enters the weekend with a 16-8 record this year with 10 pins.
Also in contention for Seward, senior Justin Schutter enters the weekend with an 18-3 record in the heavyweight division.
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct the weight of Nikiski’s Nathan Carstens. The Clarion regrets the error.