Over the years that Soldotna’s Neldon Gardner and Kenai Central’s Stan Steffensen have faced each other as coaches on the wrestling mat, the rivalry has been intense but fun.
Tuesday night at Soldotna Prep School, an old chapter was revived as the Kardinals grabbed a 45-36 dual win over the Stars, sans rubber chicken.
“We have a middle school tournament every year, and the winners get that as a prize,” explained Steffensen. “I was waiting for (Gardner) to throw out the rubber chicken.”
Because the two coaches haven’t competed in the Soldotna Prep wrestling room at the high school level in quite some time, Steffensen’s expectations were not unfounded. The two coaches are also involved in the local borough middle school squads, and the annual tournament has been contested for over a decade.
Of Kenai’s six actual match wins Tuesday night (not including forfeits), five came in the form of pins. The 30 points that were accrued from those wins proved to be crucial after the slow start that Kenai endured.
The night started with Jesse Littrell of SoHi pinning Kenai’s Shayna McKinley 1:22 into the 120-pound match. Littrell’s win was followed by two straight forfeited matches that put Kenai in an 18-0 hole right off the bat, but Matt Vandermartin answered the call to score the Kardinals’ first points of the night, locking SoHi’s Ryan Winter in a half nelson just 72 seconds into his match to secure the six points.
“That was important,” Steffensen said. “You could tell when the gym was getting excited.”
Next up, Paul Steffensen of Kenai — coming off the first loss of his high school career last weekend — used a similar pin to beat SoHi’s Bechler Metcalf in 33 seconds.
Paul’s brother, Ellery, pulled off the pin on SoHi’s Bailey Blumentritt, although it took more clock management than raw power to do so. Coach Steffensen said Blumentritt has been ranked in the top four on AKmat.org for most of the season, and Tuesday’s match with Steffensen could very well end up as the region championship pairing in February.
Ellery’s victory left the two schools tied at 18-18, with another tough matchup looming in the 160-pound division.
Soldotna’s Hunter Bourgeois (160 pounds) staved off a potential loss with a quick pin of Kenai’s Keyshawn McEnerny, who was competing with a hand injury sustained at the North-South duals last weekend in Anchorage. Before Bourgeois’ pin, McEnerny held a 7-3 edge in points.
The winner of the 170-pound match — Jaden Kissee — collected the six points for Kenai in his first-ever varsity match, pinning SoHi’s Mason Castagnier 33 seconds into the second round.
Following that breakthrough moment, Kenai senior Dylan Carter produced one of the gutsiest performances of the night, eking out a 7-3 win over Ashton Mahan for the 182-pound crown with limited vision.
Referees were forced to put a halt to the action early in the contest when Carter suffered a gash to his forehead that drew blood. After five minutes, Carter returned to center mat with a bandage wrap on his head that was cut off just above his eyes. At the time, Carter held a 2-0 advantage over Mahan, who quickly used a pair of escapes to tie it up at two apiece.
However, Carter fought back and scored the winning points in the final four minutes to win the round.
“A little inspiration there,” Steffensen said. “In a close match like that, it’s pin or get pinned.”
Carter’s decision was worth three points, giving Kenai a slight 27-24 lead. Soldotna gained the lead right back with two forfeit wins, putting the Stars ahead 36-27, but a pin by Zach Koziczkowski over Dalton Best in the 285-pound bout closed the gap once again.
The go-ahead win was earned by a SoHi forfeit in the 106-pound division, as Tyler Vaughn of Kenai showed up with no one to wrestle. The swing in points put the Kards up 39-36, which they held the rest of the way.
Soldotna will compete at this weekend’s Alaska Duals at South Anchorage High School, while Kenai will be taking the weekend off.
Tuesday at Soldotna
1. Kenai Central, 45 points; 2. Soldotna, 36.
98 pounds — double ff.; 106 — Tyler Vaughn, Ken, ff. win; 113 — Natalie Chavez, Ken, ff. win; 120 — Jesse Littrell, Sol, pin Shayna McKinley, Ken, 1:22; 126 — Seth Hutchison, Sol, ff. win; 132 — Anthony Long, Sol, ff. win; 138 — Matt Vandermartin, Ken, pin Ryan Winter, Sol, 1:12; 145 — Paul Steffensen, Ken, pin Bechler Metcalf, Sol, :33; 152 — Ellery Steffensen, Ken, pin Bailey Blumentritt, Sol, 4:14; 160 — Hunter Bourgeois, Sol, pin Keyshawn McEnerny, Ken, 2:34; 170 — Jaden Kissee, Ken, pin Mason Castagnier, Sol, 2:33; 182 — Dylan Carter, Ken, dec. Ashton Mahan, Sol, 7-3; 195 — James Gallagher, Sol, ff. win; 220 — Taylor Macrae, Sol, ff. win; 285 — Zach Koziczkowski, Ken, pin Dalton Best, Sol, 1:52.