A shortened wrestling season for the larger schools in the state has quickly reached its final stages, and as the holidays approach, local teams have visions of trophies dancing in their heads.
The chance to claim the big hardware, however, will be no easy task for Northern Lights Conference rivals Soldotna and Kenai Central high schools.
The NLC tournament — which usually takes place in late January — runs today and tomorrow at Wasilla High School, with the top five in each weight class punching their ticket to state. The Class 4A teams in the state have seen their seasons shortened due to a statewide “syncing” of the large- and small-school seasons.
When the defending region champion Colony Knights are also the defending state champs, it can be tough to place enough wrestlers in the finals to even have a shot at the team title. The majority of coaching opinions point to Colony as the favorite to win the team title, with Wasilla not far behind, and while local teams Soldotna and Kenai could be hard-pressed to send enough wrestlers to the state meet to seriously challenge for a team crown, there are several individual stars that have given opposing teams reason to quake in their boots.
Last weekend at the annual North-South tournament at Soldotna prep, which featured a team dual format for the first time, Colony downed Wasilla in the championship dual 52-28, indicating that the Knights hold the keys to the NLC.
Behind the powerhouse Colony and Wasilla teams, the race for third could be quite fierce.
“We don’t have a third-place guarantee, so we’re going to have to wrestle tough to get it,” said Soldotna coach Neldon Gardner. “Palmer and Kodiak are gonna be fighting tough as well.”
Kenai coach Stan Steffensen, who has been around long enough to know that one match could make the difference between several spots in the team standings, declined to predict who would finish where because of the tightness of third place on back.
“It’s just really close,” said Kenai coach Stan Steffensen. “And yet wrestling is an exciting sport, for those that have seen it before, it’s pin or get pinned on either given day.”
Gardner said with a lower number of competitors in each weight class this year, the probability of making it to state is now higher for each individual. The longtime coach said he hopes to qualify at least 10 wrestlers to state.
Among the contenders he hopes to be taking to the season-ending state meet next week, SoHi freshman Gideon Hutchison is ranked second in the conference at 106 pounds and enters the weekend with a season record of 36-5, according to trackwrestling.com. Of his 24 wins not taken by forfeit, 14 of those came by pin.
Gideon’s senior brother, Seth Hutchison, is ranked first in the conference and in the state. Seth enters this weekend at 35-2, with his only two losses coming in decisions against South Anchorage’s Greg Shack, a two-time state champion. Hutchison has racked up a total of 20 pins in 26 wins that didn’t come by forfeit.
Coach Gardner said while the two brothers share the same drive and motivation, the experience of four years in high school under his belt has become an advantage for Seth.
“Gideon is making quite a few more freshman mistakes, while Seth is a seasoned senior,” Gardner said. “He’s technically stronger, but Gideon is my most improved wrestler this year.
“He wasn’t sure as a youngster if he wanted to continue wrestling, but he’s made the turnaround in high school. He could win a state title.”
Additional contenders for SoHi that enter the weekend with impressive records are Austin Schrader (who is 27-11 at 170 pounds), Abraham VanHout (17-5 at 160) and Bechler Metcalf (24-9 at 145).
In the 285-pound heavyweight division, senior Dalton Best is currently the top-ranked wrestler in the region, and enters the weekend with a 20-5 record with 12 pins.
Among NLC wrestlers, Best’s biggest competition has been Kenai senior Zach Koziczkowski. The two have sparred three times this season, with Koziczkowski owning a 2-1 advantage over Best. Both have pinned the other once, and Koziczkowski won the rubber match on a 3-1 decision.
“That’ll be a good one,” Gardner said. “Both are big, strong physical kids, and both wrestle a lot alike. I think it’s going to come down to one kid making one mistake, turning the wrong direction or reaching back too far.
“When you’re dealing with 285 pounds and one guy gets the other on his back, it usually ends in a pin.”
The anticipation of the heavyweight bout has not been lost on coach Steffensen either. Koziczkowski has run up a 16-1 record this year, his only loss against Best. Incredibly, all but one of Koziczkowski’s 12 wins that did not come by forfeit were accomplished by pinning his opponent.
“It’s pin or get pinned, and if you get pinned in the first round, you probably won’t make it to state,” Steffensen said.
Steffensen said with dwindling numbers in the Kardinals wrestling room, he hopes to get five or more to the state meet.
One of those that lethal contenders from Kenai that holds a solid chance is Keyshawn McEnerney, who enters the weekend at 20-6 this year in the 152-pound division and is the highest ranked NLC competitor in the state. McEnerney has tallied eight pins on the year.
Also in contention for Kenai, Jacob Anderson is 21-12 at 126 pounds, and has six pins overall.