For years, girls wanting to take in the sport of wrestling had a difficult route ahead.
Competing with boys has been and will never be easy for girls wrestlers, due to the strength advantage of many of their male competitors.
This year, however, may be the beginning of a new road for female wrestling.
The high school wrestling landscape will receive a shakeup this season on a number of fronts. For the first time, the season-ending state tournament for all four classes (1A, 2A, 3A and 4A) will see the addition of a girls state tournament bracket.
Girls will still be competing against boys during the regular season, but will be seeded against fellow female grapplers for the region and state tournament weekends. For Peninsula teams, that includes the Kachemak Conference tournament Dec. 5 and 6 at Houston High School and the Class 1-2-3A state tournament, which is scheduled for Dec. 12 and 13 at Anchorage Christian Schools.
The minimum number of girls statewide needed to trigger the change was 100, and after interest hit that level, the Alaska Schools Activities Association went ahead with the change. Another standard that ASAA wanted to see was at least four girls in each weight class, of which there are eight — 98, 106, 120, 132, 145, 160, 182 and 220 pounds.
Opinions on the addition of a girls tournament vary. The arguments in favor are that girls will now be paired up in an equal environment against other girls.
“I think it’s great,” said Nikiski coach Adam Anders. “I think girls wrestling will help build the sport. It’s a really positive thing.”
On the other hand, girls that are sorted into an entirely different tournament could cost some teams valuable team points on the boys side. Recent Peninsula teams have benefited from athletes such as 2006 state champion Michaela Hutchison of Skyview and 2011 state champion Hope Steffensen of Kenai Central. Both wrestlers gained team points with their finishes.
Homer coach Chris Perk is in a similar dilemma. Jadzia Martin won the 98-pound title for the Mariners at the Kachemak Conference tournament last December, and is back this year as a junior to defend her crown and possibly go further at state.
“We’ve been trying to build the girls program up, and now we have four girls in the room,” Perk said. “It’ll be a little tougher this year without her points.”
Seward coach Chad Hinders said that while there are no girls competing for the Seahawks this year, the rule change would have hurt Seward in years past. Savannah Fackler was a regular points scorer for Seward just a few years ago, and the loss of those points she garnered would have placed Seward behind.
“To take them out of the lineup and put them in another division, it would be devastating for some schools,” Hinders said.
Another key difference that will likely lead to new faces at the front of the wrestling hierarchy is the disappearance of Skyview High School.
After the school closed after the 2013-14 school year to be converted to a middle school, so went with it the impressive standard of excellence that the Panthers churned out each and every year.
Neldon Gardner, the only coach the Skyview wrestling team ever had in its 23 years of existence, moved (back) up to the large-schools level this year to coach Soldotna, and many of his wrestlers went with him. With a significant chunk of state competitors out of the picture, it has local small-schools coaches feeling optimistic, but hesitant at the same time.
“It definitely will make our region a little less competitive,” Anders said. “Skyview was an extremely well-coached program, and we’ll miss having that competitor.”
Perk said the absence of Skyview will extend Homer’s travel schedule, as Nikiski will now be the only “local” school in the division that the Mariners will be competing against.
“It used to be we’d meet (Skyview) the first weekend of the year,” Perk said. “Now that eliminates one of our best competitors, and tournaments will be farther away.
“But they were a great program, so now hopefully we can qualify more kids to state.”
Nikiski and Seward both got the chance to shake off the cobwebs at last weekend’s annual Throwdown in Snow-Town tournament in Valdez. Houston showed early strength by winning the tournament, beating the defending 1-2-3A state champion Bethel Warriors and 14 other teams in the field. Seward placed sixth and Nikiski was ninth in the team standings.
“I would say Houston is my preseason pick,” Hinders said. “They’ve got a couple of big boys coming through.”
The following is a closer look at each Peninsula team:
After placing 13th at last year’s Class 1-2-3A state meet, the Bulldogs are looking for higher results this year.
“Our goal is top two in state,” coach Anders said. “Bethel will be strong, Houston’s looking really tough, and then there’s Dillingham, Kotzebue, Valdez and Seward and Homer, so we definitely have our work cut out for us.
“I think it’s just the understanding that it’s attainable.”
Of course, Nikiski had to wait for a fourth-consecutive year for a chunk of its team to return from the small-schools football playoffs. The Bulldogs were beaten 55-51 by Eielson in a wild game Saturday night, but win or loss, a significant number of players were moving on to the wrestling season.
Anders said after four straight years of starting with low numbers due to extended football playoff runs, he is used to the major influx of wrestlers.
“It’s just the same thing, we’ve been reviewing our basics, and when the football players come in, we start all over again,” Anders said. “This is just a special group of kids. They’re all pretty tight, they push each other in practice, encourage each other. It’s great to see.”
Among the leading contenders to fight for a state championship is junior Luke Johnson, who is returning to defend his 195-pound state title. Johnson moved up a weight class this year to the 220-pound level. Joining him is senior captain Tyler Handley, a two-time state placer who wrestles in the 152-pound division.
Sophomore T.J. Cox is a returning state placer in the 126-pound class, as well as Nico Castro at 138, Dylan Broussard at 160, Nathan Carstens at 170 and Jon McCormick at 195.
“We’ve got a young group … not a whole lot of seniors but a lot of freshmen,” Anders said.
Anders is joined this year by coaches Kyle McNally and Dylan Hooper. Nikiski will host a Peninsula Duals meet Nov. 14 and 15.
After Homer took seventh at last year’s state meet with five state placers, coach Perk said the goal is to compete for a conference title, then hopefully a top-five finish at state.
“I really feel like Houston, Nikiski and us will be vying for the team title at regions,” Perk said. “If we can stay healthy and implement our attack style, we have a shot at it.”
However, that may be easier said than done.
With the loss of consistent point scorers and state placers Calvin Johnson, Jordan Reynolds, David Woo and Pedro Ochoa due to graduation, the Mariners will be looking to a different cast of characters to guide them to greater heights. Johnson led Homer at last year’s state meet with a third-place result.
“We lost a lot of points at state we need to replace,” Perk said.
Perk said he is implementing a new style of wrestling at Homer this year, straying from a defensive mindset of one-move-at-a-time takedowns, to a more aggressive attack called “chain wrestling.”
Perk said the idea of “chain wrestling” — based on continuous, fluid motion — came to him after watching collegiate wrestlers compete using the style.
“We’re challenging the kids to think three moves in advance,” Perk said. “We’re trying to promote the idea of one move sets up the next move, which sets up the next move.
“So far, they’ve been responding to it.”
Homer will be led this year by the defending Kachemak Conference 98-pound champion Jadzia Martin, a junior this year in the 106-pound class. Sophomores Jared Brant at 120 pounds and Timmy Woo at 138 are two state placers last year that Perk believes can nab podiums this year. Additionally, sophomore Jamie Rios at 132 pounds could be strong. Rios and Woo are both team captains.
Sophomore Ravi Cavasos at 126 pounds, junior Matt Pollack at 182 pounds and seniors Antonio Ochoa at 170 and Julian Richburg at 145 round out the young squad.
Seward will be led by a trio of coaches in 2014. Chad Hinders returns for a fifth year with the team, and will partner up with longtime Seward coach Ronn Hemstock and Andrew Scrivos to lead the Seahawks this winter.
Unfortunately, the team is already suffering with the loss of two key cogs — seniors Howie Hubbard and Terrance Annogiuk.
Both Hubbard and Annogiuk were primed for possible state championship runs in 2014, but both were injured in a state football semifinal game against Nikiski three weeks ago, which Hinders said could leave them out for the entire wrestling season.
“Yeah, that was rough,” Hinders said.
Hubbard took home the silver medal at last year’s state meet in the heavyweight final, and Annogiuk took the bronze in the 120-pound division.
Even without the top-flight talent, Hinders is optimistic of his squad’s chances.
“Our team is probably the most solid from top to bottom since I’ve been here,” Hinders said. “We took twenty-four kids to Valdez last weekend and didn’t have a single senior, and they wrestled really solid.”
Hinders said early meets like the Valdez tournament provide optimal team-building opportunities, as three days of riding on a bus and competing close together will “get the juices flowing.”
Among Seward’s top prospects are twin brothers Case and Simon Estes, a pair of freshman in the 113-pound and 120-pound weight classes, respectively. Fellow freshman Cameron Bunch joins them in the 113-pound class, as well as freshman Brook Berry at 120, junior Paxson Berry at 138, junior Tom Zweifel at 145, senior Ben Miranda at 220 and junior heavyweight Justin Schutter.
“There are no superstars,” Hinders said. “Every year there’s been a couple guys, the top (butt kickers), the superstars of the team. This year with our top guys being lost, everyone’s pulled together and we’ve had a nice unity. Everyone is pulling for each other.”
Seward will host its annual King of the Mountain dual tournament this weekend, which Hinders said will draw at least 10 other teams.