Soldotna’s Liam Babitt defeats West Valley’s Pete Macchione for the Division I state title at 215 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Liam Babitt defeats West Valley’s Pete Macchione for the Division I state title at 215 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Peninsula wrestlers win 14 championships

Soldotna’s Donovan becomes 3rd girl to win 4 state titles

Kenai Peninsula wrestlers took home 14 individual state championships Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.

“The whole peninsula is coming on strong,” Kenai Central head coach Jason Chavarria said. “Homer, Nikiski, everybody. We’re helping each other.”

Soldotna senior Trinity Donovan provided the headline triumph for the peninsula, winning the state title at 145 pounds to become the third girl in Alaska history to win four state titles. Donovan completed a third-straight undefeated season and was named the Girls tournament’s outstanding wrestler.

The peninsula won three of the four girls finals matches it contested, with Homer’s Saoirse Cook winning at 126, Homer’s Roane Cook winning at 185 and Soldotna’s Daisy Hannevold dropping the title match at 138.

Lathrop won the girls state title, while the Stars were third, Homer was ninth, Kenai was 27th and Nikiski was 35th.

In the Division I boys finals, Soldotna won all five of the finals it contested. Victories went to Jacob Strausbaugh at 112, Ezekiel Miller at 125, Issac Chavarria at 152, Hunter Richardson at 189 and Liam Babitt at 215.

South Anchorage was able to edge Soldotna, 275-261.5, for the team title.

In the Division II boys finals, crowns went to Kenai’s Jaxson Young at 103, Seward’s Aidan Schilling at 112, Seward’s Hunter-Forshee Kurtz at 119, Kenai’s Owen Whicker at 135, Homer’s Russell Nyvall at 140 and Kenai’s Andrew Gaethle at 152. Nikiski’s Mayaac Schmit lost the title match at 285.

Redington won the team title with 172.5 points, while Kenai was second with 118.5. Also from the peninsula, Seward was 12th, Nikiski was 13th and Homer was 21st.

Girls

After losing six times as a freshman, Donovan decided she had had enough.

“I was sick of losing,” Donovan said. “I was sick and tired of it.”

She would never lose again in her Alaska prep career, winning that title as a freshmen then putting together undefeated sophomore, junior and senior campaigns.

She cruised through the 145 bracket at state, recording pins in all four of her matches. In the final, Donovan pinned Bethel’s Payton Boney, who had upset No. 2 seed Heaven Matheny of Lathrop in the semis, in just 1 minute, 27 seconds.

Donovan said winning the title in the last meet for Soldotna head coach Neldon Gardner and assistants Aaron Gordon and Eric Willets made the victory more special.

“It was nice to have them on the sidelines and in my corner,” she said.

Gardner is stepping down as head coach after 40 years of coaching on the central peninsula.

In 2006, Gardner was the head coach for Skyview High School when Michaela Hutchison became the first girl to win a state high school championship against boys. Gardner also coached Eli Hutchison and Seth Hutchison to four state titles each, with Eli winning his at Skyview and Seth winning at Skyview, then Soldotna.

Now Gardner ends his head coaching career with another four-timer and another landmark achievement for a girls wrestler.

“I put in 40 years and, like I said, I’m not going to walk away from wrestling,” Gardner said. “I love the sport. I’m just not going to be the head coach. I’m going to be the guy who comes in three days a week.”

Gardner said he would have gotten out 12 or 15 years ago but he couldn’t find a head coach to take over. Now, he said wrestling at Soldotna is in great shape with many great coaches.

One of those coaching will be Donovan, at least for a year.

“I think I’m going to take a gap year coaching middle school, club and high school next year,” Donovan said. “I’ll see how much I miss competing and go from there.”

Speaking of four-time girls champions, both Saoirse and Roane Cook have Girls state trophies to go with the four that sister McKenzie Cook won for Homer. Tristen Cook also won a state title for Homer.

“I had my older brother and sister here with me and that really helped,” Saoirse said of Tristen and McKenzie.

Saoirse avenged her only loss of the season by defeating Colony’s Bayleigh Harrington 9-2 in the final. After winning state as a freshman, Saoirse knows four state titles also is a possibility for her.

“I would absolutely love to,” she said. “That’s what I’m aiming for.”

Roane completed a perfect junior season by pinning North Pole’s Lylah Murrah in the finals at 185. Roane won a state title for the first time as a junior. She said moving down to 185 from heavyweight made a difference, as did moving from Lathrop to Homer to get under the coaching staff of Bubba Wells.

The fourth peninsula finalist, Soldotna’s Daisy Hannevold, dropped the title match at 138 to Bethel’s Isabel Lieb by 13-3 major decision.

“Daisy, even though she lost, wrestled hard and did well,” Gardner said.

Also for the SoHi girls, Alyssa McDonald was fourth at 165, Jessica Leclair was sixth at 107, Angelina Chavarria was sixth at 114 and Kaytlin McAnelly was sixth at 132.

Sarai Bravo-Moe was fifth for Kenai, while Destiny Langston was fifth for Nikiski.

Homer took the Girls sportsmanship award.

Division I

The only tournament Soldotna had lost coming into state was the season-opening Houston Altercation, when Soldotna’s football players were busy playing for the Division II state title.

Gardner said all season SoHi’s first boys state wrestling title was no sure thing. The coach said the margin for error against South was small going into the tournament.

Gardner, who was an assistant for SoHi in 1988 when the team won every tournament except for state, said SoHi’s slim margin for error evaporated due to a controversial call in the 140 semifinals that disqualified SoHi’s Scott Michael against South’s Blake Foster.

“They made the call and you can’t go backward,” Gardner said. “We did phenomenal.

“(South) was ahead by close to 30 going into the finals, and we won all five. We had a clean sweep of the finals with the boys and one out of two for the girls. So six of seven. I’m pretty happy with that, and the team had a great year.”

Leading the charge was senior Liam Babitt at 215, who topped West Valley’s Pete Macchione 8-0 for a third straight undefeated season. Babitt said winning that third title was not the highlight of the tournament for him.

“I already had two,” Babitt said of state titles. “And so for me, I value the team more, or learning and helping other people learn. It’s more important to help other people get to that goal than getting my hand raised.”

Babitt said the key to his wrestling success was listening to his coaches, and he’s found that also works when he does logging and trucking with his father, Jeff Babitt.

“I work with a lot of older gentlemen,” Liam said. “They’re always like, ‘Hey, don’t do this.’ I’m like, ‘OK. I won’t do it.’ Because they have 30 years experience. So it’s like, learn from other people’s mistakes, right?”

Hunter Richardson, at 189, won a second straight state title with a 5-1 decision over James Shivers of South. Richardson also defeated Shivers in the state title match last year.

In the last two years, Richardson has just two losses — a medical forfeit and a loss to Shivers in overtime last season.

“I wrestled him probably three or four times last year and then probably three or four times this year,” Richardson said. “We wrestled a lot.

“I’m just excited to get out and wrestle in college and not wrestle the same guys all the time.”

Richardson will attend Western Colorado University in Gunnison. He said his individual title was nice, but the team title is what he really wanted.

“I’d like to see the team get it done next year,” he said. “I’ll be watching the next couple years to see if they can get it done and make everybody really happy.”

Ezekiel Miller, at 125, and Issac Chavarria, at 152, are seniors walking away with first state titles in their final opportunities.

Miller scored a 13-3 major decision over Lathrop’s Riley Williams in the final.

Miller, who lost just once this season, took a page out of his dad’s welterweight boxing routine headed into the final.

“My dad told me that before his matches, he would always fall asleep,” Miller said. “Before he fought, he would rest and listen to calming music.

“So I wanted to do that. I just wanted to breathe and relax, like I’m on a beach of something. I went out there and I felt calm, no nerves or anything. So I felt good.”

Chavarria pinned South’s Samuel Chaput in 2:58 for his victory. Issac said it all started when his dad, Jason Chavarria, had Issac working a kicking bag at the age of 3. At 6, Issac started with jiu-jitsu, then he started wresting in middle school.

Feeling he got a late start in wrestling, only injuries kept Issac from working on wrestling daily since then.

“Once I start feeling better, I usually just get back on the mat,” Chavarria said. “It’s just my life, honestly.”

Jason was not able to watch Issac win the title, because Jason is the head coach for Kenai Central. He was coaching Andrew Gaethle, another 152-pounder, to a Division II title at the same time.

Issac said that it wasn’t a big deal.

“He’s more of a teammate,” Issac said of Gaethle. “Before finals, or at every other tournament, we just kind of drill with each other. It kind of seems we’ve got a team spirit thing going on.”

Hard work also paid off for sophomore Jacob Strausbaugh, who got a 9-2 victory over Palmer’s Kael Salisbury at 112. Salisbury beat Strausbaugh in the state finals at 103 a year ago.

Strausbaugh said he was 0-6 against Salisbury until beating him at the Northern Lights Conference tournament a week before state. Strausbaugh said hard work allowed him to turn the tide.

“I’m just so grateful that all the work I put in, all the morning practices, paid off,” he said. “You’re not going to win just by doing regular practice, like everybody else. You have to do more, because you know your competitors are doing more.”

Also for the Stars, Michael Dickinson was third at 130, Trevor Michael was third at 145, Logan Katzenberger was third at 285, Hunter Bras was fourth at 135, Samuel Strouse was fifth at 103, Scott Michael was sixth at 140 and Edgar Land was sixth at 160.

Division II

Kenai Central head coach Jason Chavarria had himself quite a day, with his son, Issac, winning a state title for Soldotna, and Jason getting his first three state champions for Kenai.

The Kards getting second place in the team standings, plus the sportsmanship award, only sweetened the deal.

Or maybe not, as evidenced by Chavarria’s answer to whether he was surprised to take second.

“Yeah, I’m surprised I took second. I wanted to take first, man,” Chavarria said. “Everybody says that. They didn’t think we would get this far. And I was like, ‘No, man, we’re going to take first.’”

Senior Owen Whicker, who defeated Grace’s Colton Merriner 5-3 for the title, said Chavarria has made a big difference, and the return of Kenai coaching legend Stan Steffensen this season also helped.

“I really like our new coach, Jason,” Whicker said. “And Stan’s back. He’s coached me since I was little, in middle and high school. Unfortunately, he left my sophomore year and junior year, but I’m really glad he’s back.”

The third coach in Kenai’s corner was Talon Whicker, Owen’s brother and a 2022 Kenai grad. That made conditions perfect for Whicker to cap a career in which he was sixth as a freshman, fourth as a sophomore and third as a junior.

Chavarria said part of the reason he took the job is Gaethle, now a senior.

Before taking the mat, Chavarria said Gaethle referenced “Frozen” by saying, “I’m like Elsa. I’m going to let it go.” After finishing second last year, Gaethle cruised to the title this season, defeating Leo Wald of Haines by 16-1 technical fall in the final.

“This is amazing,” Gaethle said. “This is the goal I’ve wanted ever since I started. Ever since last year, I was like, I need to get it. I need to get that state title. And I trained hard to get here.”

Gaethle was honored to hear Chavarria partly came to coach the 152-pounder.

“He’s an amazing coach,” Gaethle said. “He’s reformed our entire wrestling program from the ground up. He’s getting people in the room, and he’s keeping them in the room.”

Young, a freshman, showed the Kardinals have plenty of talent coming through the team. He defeated the top seed, Brendon Brown of Quinhagak, 11-7 in the semifinals, then pinned Akiachak’s Jason Ekamrak, the second seed, in the final.

Young said he was wrestling in just his third tournament this season due to ineligibility.

“He had two wrestlers that were really funky,” Chavarria said of Brown and Ekamrak. “But the way that they were wrestling was kind of like jiu-jitsu, so I had an answer for it.”

Also for the Kardinals, Daniel Steffensen was third at 130 and Reymond Perez was third at 140.

Seward sophomores Aidan Schilling, at 112, and Hunter Forshee-Kurtz, at 119, showed the value of a good workout partner.

Forshee-Kurtz said the two have grown up wrestling together in Seward and Schilling has made a big impact.

“Without him, I don’t even know if I’d be here,” Forshee-Kurtz said. “He pushed me and wanted me to be in the training room with him every day. That’s kind of what kept me going at the start, because he wanted me and I didn’t want to let him down.”

Forshee-Kurtz was third last year, but he said he was not mentally in it until the Lancer Smith tournament. After that, he fell in love with the sport again, but there was not enough time to win state.

“You don’t just get this from waking up one morning and wanting to be a wrestler,” Forshee-Kurtz said. “You have to work. I worked all summer and all spring to get where I am now, and as you can see, it’s paid off.”

Forshee-Kurtz notched a 6-0 win over Oran Brown of Delta in the final, while Schilling scored a 12-3 major decision of Alvino Vasquez of Bethel.

After also winning the state title at 103 last season, Schilling has now matched his father, Chris Schilling, with two state titles won for the Seahawks. Aidan has no intention of stopping now, though.

“Hopefully, I get him next year,” Aidan said of accumulating more state titles than his father.

Also for the Seahawks, Francisco Sanchez was fifth at 215.

Homer senior Russell Nyvall picked up his first state title in dominant fashion at 140, pinning Grace’s Josh Paulson in just 1:09.

“I was kind of expecting him to pull something out of his bag and counter me with something, but it didn’t happen,” said Nyvall, who was second as a sophomore and third as a junior.

Nyvall managed two state titles in a short period of time, winning the Division III football title with Homer in mid-October before winning the wrestling title two months later.

“We did a lot more running in wrestling than in football, for sure,” Nyvall said. “I wasn’t as conditioned getting into wrestling, but after a couple of weeks, I felt pretty good.”

Mayaac Schmit led Nikiski by reaching the finals, but he was pinned by Uatahouse Tuifua of Barrow. Tuifua won for the second straight year, while Schmit moved up from third place last season.

Also for the Bulldogs, Frank St. Denis was third at 145 and Sam Yerkes was fifth at 160.

Soldotna’s Issac Chavarria defeats Samuel Chaput of South Anchorage for the Division I state title at 152 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Issac Chavarria defeats Samuel Chaput of South Anchorage for the Division I state title at 152 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Trinity Donovan celebrates becoming the third girls in Alaska history to win four state wrestling titles Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Trinity Donovan celebrates becoming the third girls in Alaska history to win four state wrestling titles Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Central’s Andrew Gaethle celebrates winning a Division II state title at 152 pounds as Kardinals head coach Jason Chavarria looks on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Central’s Andrew Gaethle celebrates winning a Division II state title at 152 pounds as Kardinals head coach Jason Chavarria looks on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna head coach Neldon Gardner and Soldotna assistant Aaron Gordon coach their last meet for the Stars on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna head coach Neldon Gardner and Soldotna assistant Aaron Gordon coach their last meet for the Stars on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Daisy Hannevold loses the Girls state title match at 138 pounds to Bethel’s Isabel Lieb on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Daisy Hannevold loses the Girls state title match at 138 pounds to Bethel’s Isabel Lieb on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Hunter Richardson hugs Stars head coach Neldon Gardner after winning the Division I state title at 189 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. SoHi assistant Pete Dickinson looks on. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Hunter Richardson hugs Stars head coach Neldon Gardner after winning the Division I state title at 189 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. SoHi assistant Pete Dickinson looks on. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Seward’s Hunter Forshee-Kurtz defeats Delta’s Oran Brown for the Division II state title at 119 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Seward’s Hunter Forshee-Kurtz defeats Delta’s Oran Brown for the Division II state title at 119 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Ezekiel Miller defeats Lathrop’s Riley Williams for the Division I state title at 125 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Ezekiel Miller defeats Lathrop’s Riley Williams for the Division I state title at 125 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Homer’s Russell Nyvall defeats Grace Christian’s Josh Paulson for the Division II state title at 140 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Homer’s Russell Nyvall defeats Grace Christian’s Josh Paulson for the Division II state title at 140 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Homer’s Roane Cook defeats North Pole’s Lylah Murrah for the Girls state title at 185 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Homer’s Roane Cook defeats North Pole’s Lylah Murrah for the Girls state title at 185 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Homer’s Saoirse Cook defeats Colony’s Bayleigh Harrington for the Girls state title at 126 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Homer’s Saoirse Cook defeats Colony’s Bayleigh Harrington for the Girls state title at 126 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Seward’s Aidan Schilling defeats Bethel’s Alvino Vasquez for the Division II state title at 112 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Seward’s Aidan Schilling defeats Bethel’s Alvino Vasquez for the Division II state title at 112 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Nikiski’s Mayaac Schmit scores an escape on Barrow’s Uatahouse Tuifua before losing the Division II state title match Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Nikiski’s Mayaac Schmit scores an escape on Barrow’s Uatahouse Tuifua before losing the Division II state title match Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Jacob Strausbaugh celebrates winning the Division I state title at 112 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Jacob Strausbaugh celebrates winning the Division I state title at 112 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Central’s Owen Whicker defeats Grace Christian’s Colton Merriner for the Division II state title at 135 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Central’s Owen Whicker defeats Grace Christian’s Colton Merriner for the Division II state title at 135 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Central’s Jaxson Young defeats Akiachak’s Jason Ekamrak for the Division II state title at 103 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Central’s Jaxson Young defeats Akiachak’s Jason Ekamrak for the Division II state title at 103 pounds Saturday, Dec. 18, 2022, at the state wrestling tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

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