The way the last four years have gone, most Northern Lights Conference wrestling teams are green with envy.
That’s because the Colony Knights, whose school colors are predominantly green, have kept all challengers from winning an NLC crown.
Colony is shooting for a fifth straight conference team championship this weekend at Kodiak High School, where the NLC tournament kicks off today and goes to Saturday.
The Knights, who are also the defending state champions at the Division I level, won last year’s team crown with top-heavy results, winning eight of the 15 weight class crowns.
“They’ve got a real good program,” said Soldotna coach Neldon Gardner. “They not only have some good quality wrestlers, but quantity as well.”
Kenai Central coach Stan Steffensen said it’ll take a lot to overthrow the Knights, but if anyone could do it, Wasilla could be the conqueror to thwart a five-year string.
“That’ll be the five dollar bill.” Steffensen said about Colony potentially winning. “Colony and Wasilla are gonna have a battle. It’s a matter of who’s going to be healthy. They have a number of very experienced wrestlers.”
Both Gardner and Steffensen acknowledge that the team race is out of their hands, but both the Stars and Kardinals have potential in qualifying a list of names to the state tournament. The top five placers in each weight class qualify to state, while the top two wrestlers in the girls tournament qualify to the girls state tourney, a change from last year when just the winner from each region qualified.
After a fourth-place finish in the team standings a year ago, Gardner said the Stars will be hard-pressed to improve on that due to a variety of injuries and other missing wrestlers. Gardner said he has lost six potential state qualifiers, three of which would’ve probably placed at the big dance. Instead of looking to qualify 14 to state, Gardner said the number is down to about seven to nine going.
“This year I’d say exceeds the most kids I’ve had that are injured,” said Gardner, who has been coaching for almost 34 years. “I’ve had three broken bones this year, and I only had three in the 34 years before.”
Among the leading contenders to win a region title for SoHi is Gideon Hutchison at 120 pounds, a junior with a 32-3 record this season. Gardner said all three losses came to Homer’s Wayne Newman, who Hutchison need not worry about as Homer competes at the Division II level.
The Stars also have solid chances to medal with junior Logan Craig at 106 pounds and senior Bechler Metcalf at 152 pounds. Both athletes are currently ranked second in the region in their class — Craig has a record of 23-11 and Metcalf is 29-4 — and Gardner said all three are expected to make it to their respective region finals, barring injuries.
Sophomore Aaron Faletoi hasn’t competed much this year due to a minor knee injury, but is 4-1 at 220 pounds, while Metcalf’s younger brother, sophomore Hudson Metcalf, could also reach the title match or third-place bout at 170 pounds, Gardner said. Hudson is 15-14 this season.
Gardner also said sophomore Melvin Lloyd at 285 pounds is targeting a top-five spot, and if things go right, he could be a finalist. Lloyd is currently 9-10 this year.
Also in the mix is SoHi freshman Zach Burns at 138 pounds, who began the season strong but missed time with a pulled groin muscle. Burns is 6-1 this year. Sophomore Ben Booth at 113 pounds stands a good shot of qualifying to state, while senior Braeden Tennis is a potential qualifier at 152.
In the girls tournament, SoHi senior Madison Worth and sophomore Amanda Wylie both enter with strong chances to win. Wylie, who won last week’s 145-pound championship at the North/South tournament, is currently ranked second in the region with a 14-9 mark, while Worth is 7-7 this year at 132 pounds.
“All the kids have been working hard,” Gardner said. “I think they all have a good shot at it.”
This weekend will be the last for Kenai at the Division I level, as 2018 promises a new start at Division II.
After being blanked last year at the NLC tournament, coach Steffensen said the Kardinals are looking to go out with a bang. The most recent region champion from Kenai was Zach Koziczkowski in 2015.
Kenai’s strongest hope lies in senior Byron Dunham, ranked second at 195 pounds. Dunham is 28-2 this year, two losses early to Levi King of Homer and Tyrese Finley of Lathrop at the Lancer Smith tournament.
As the top-ranked wrestler from the region, Dunham will likely see his strongest opponent in Palmer’s Christian Kurka.
“I’m anticipating him to be No. 1 seed this weekend,” Steffensen said.
Steffensen said he is anticipating several other Kenai wrestlers to place well, including senior Seth Kruse at 220 pounds (with a 13-4 record), senior John Grossl at 182 pounds (at 15-9) and junior Jacob Grant (at 15-6).
Among the cast of Kardinals on the edge of making it to state is freshman Tucker Vann and junior Brandon Kroto both at 138 pounds, sophomore Pierce Peterson at 113, and junior Keaton Logston at 132.
On the girls side, Kenai last had a region champion in 2015 when Natalie Chavez winning at 106 pounds. This weekend’s Kenai girls competitors will be junior Raven Patrick at 160 pounds and junior Reya Hale at 182.