There will be no defending champion at the Kachemak Conference wrestling tournament Friday and Saturday at Houston High School, but the Nikiski wrestling team hopes there is at least a familiar champion.
The Skyview wrestling team won the Kachemak Conference last season, but with that school having closed its doors, the Bulldogs will seek their fifth Kachemak crown in the last six years.
“I think we have a good chance to win it if we show up and wrestle to our potential,” Nikiski coach Adam Anders said. “Houston will be the challenge, and there are a lot of other great programs in the region, like Homer and Seward.
“Not having Skyview in the region certainly takes away one of the toughest competitors in the past, but we still have a lot of great teams to compete against.”
Homer coach Chris Perk said his team probably isn’t big enough to challenge for the conference crown.
With teams able to enter two wrestlers in each weight class, Perk said Houston’s depth will make the Hawks formidable at the tournament. He said he could see Houston outscoring Nikiski with the Hawks’ second guys.
Seward coach Ronn Hemstock sees a nice battle between Nikiski, Houston, Anchorage Christian Schools and Homer.
He said all of those schools have a few stud wrestlers that will roll through the tourney.
“That’s like trading queens in chess,” Hemstock said. “All those schools don’t win the tournaments by winning medals. They win the tournament by getting thirds.”
Hemstock explained that a wrestler taking third in a 16-man bracket can actually earn more points than the champ in an eight-man bracket.
“It’s just going to depend on how it lays out,” Hemstock said. “Sometimes a team will get a bunch of byes, and sometimes they won’t.
“I’ve always said byes are death because you miss out on a bunch of pin points.”
The Bulldogs return three conference champions in Tyler Handley, Nathan Carstens and Luke Johnson.
Handley is ranked No. 3 at 152 by akmat.org, with no conference competitors ahead of him.
“He’s one of our few seniors and I couldn’t ask for more out of a wrestler or person than Tyler,” Anders said.
Johnson’s undefeated record has him with the top ranking at 220. The junior also went undefeated as a sophomore and Anders said that the great thing is Johnson takes nothing for granted and keeps working hard.
Carstens also has a No. 1 ranking for Nikiski at 160. Anders said Dylan Broussard also wrestles at 160 and is just as tough as his teammate.
Jon McCormick, at 195, is ranked fifth, one spot behind Sean Lang of Houston. McCormick was second at the conference meet last season.
Anders also said TJ Cox, ranked second at 120 behind Bethel’s Gage Hoffman, is poised to win a conference title.
Then come the group of kids that will be so important to Nikiski’s chances due to Houston’s depth.
According to Anders, Austin Ozbun at 98, Tyler Olsen at 106, Donovan Smith and Luck Broussard at 113, Nico Castro at 138, Andrew Tennison and William Lynch at 145, Baker Hensley at 160, and Ian Johnson and Nick Olsen at 182 all are potential state qualifiers. To qualify for state, a wrestler must finish in the top four.
“We’re excited for this weekend,” Anders said. “I’d like to thank all the parents for their support, and I’m looking forward to a good tournament.”
Last season, Perk took 10 Homer wrestlers to state — a number the Mariners had not accumulated in quite some time.
This weekend, Perk is hoping to match that number.
After a disappointing performance at the last meet of the regular season in Kenai on Nov. 25, Perk said his squad is ready to go.
“We’ve worked through sickness and bugs and we feel like the team is pretty darn strong,” Perk said.
The Mariners did a rope climb in practice this week, and Ravi Cavasos won by raising to the roof eight times.
“It was pretty incredible,” Perk said. “Those last two, he gave everything he had.”
Perk said Timmy Woo, at 138, has a great shot at a conference title. Woo is ranked third at 138, but is the top-ranked Kachemak wrestler.
At 120, Jared Brant is ranked fourth, but Nikiski’s Cox is second and Shannon LeMay of ACS is third. Perk said Brant’s only losses were to that pair, but that those came in close matches.
At 132, Perk also sees Jaime Rios in the mix. Rios has lost to Etienne Kinney of Houston, No. 5 on akmat.org, and has yet to face top-ranked Michael Lucas of Holy Rosary.
At 160, Perk has sixth-ranked Tristan Cook getting back to full strength. Cook must deal with top-ranked Carstens and No. 3 Zack Young of Grace in his bracket.
“He had bronchitis for three weeks,” Perk said of Cook. “He’s been really resilient.”
Perk also sees state qualifiers in Antonio Ochoa at 170, Danny Rios at 220, Julian Richburg at 145, Kyle Wells at 152 and Matthew Pollack at 182.
Homer also is guaranteed of moving its lone two girls to this year’s new girls state tournament. Heather Harrington and Alex Moseley are two of the three girls in the region and thus will qualify.
In Seward, Hemstock is focusing on a positive experience.
“I don’t have any seniors going,” he said. “I have a very young team. I just want to go and have a good time.”
Hemstock said he would be happy with any wrestlers qualifying for state.
“We’ve been having a great time this year,” Hemstock said. “We’ve been up to Bethel and Barrow.
“We just want to finish on a good, strong peak and look forward.”
At Voznesenka, coach Justin Zank said he thinks he could come out of the meet with a pair of state qualifiers.
Senior Gavril Kalugin was second at conference last year and third as a freshman. He is ranked No. 4 at 145, with Grayson Sorenson of Grace at No. 3.
“That was one of our losses,” Zank said. “It was a tight match the first weekend of competition.
“I know Gavril is excited to wrestle him again.”
Zank also thinks sophomore Michael Kusnetsov could qualify at 170. Beyond that, Zank said he has three freshmen that will get the benefit of experiencing their first conference meet.