State tournament spots are up for grabs this weekend at the Northern Lights Conference and Kachemak Conference championship wrestling meets.
The Northern Lights Conference will advance the top five grapplers in each weight class to the Division I state meet, while the Kachemak Conference advances three wrestlers from each weight class to the Division II state tournament. State is Dec. 20 and 21 at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
Teams from the peninsula will be scrambling to push through as many names as possible. The Soldotna Stars are the lone peninsula team that will compete at the NLC meet at Colony High School in Palmer, while the programs from Kenai Central, Nikiski, Homer and Seward will compete at the Kachemak Conference tournament at Joe Redington Jr/Sr High School in Wasilla.
The Homer Mariners enter the weekend eyeing a fifth straight Kachemak Conference title. In the past four seasons, the Mariners have used the region championship as a springboard to big success at the state tournament, winning two state crowns and finishing second twice in that span.
Homer was highest among Kachemak wrestling teams at the popular Lancer Smith tournament earlier in the season, scoring 46 points over the next-highest squad, Nikiski and Redington, both with 24.
However, last weekend at the Grace Grizzly Shakedown in Anchorage, which gathered many of the state’s top teams, the highest peninsula team was Nikiski, second among Kachemak teams. The Bulldogs accrued 64 points to Homer’s 49.5, while Grace Christian topped all of them with 69.5.
“We’ve hung with Grace and Homer pretty close at meets and tournaments,” said Nikiski head coach Adam Anders. “If we wrestle really well, we can do it, but there are so many factors there too — people are sick, some teams are not having their best guys at meets, so we can’t count our chickens before they hatch. We have to show up and wrestle better than we have all year.”
The Bulldogs’ strength lies mostly in experience, as Nikiski is bringing seven state qualifiers from last year to the tournament. Anders pegged Grace Christian and host Redington as other schools in the mix with Nikiski and Homer.
“(Grace has) come out ahead of us and Homer in a few tournaments, so we just have to wait and see what teams bring to the region,” Anders said.
Kenai may not be deep enough to contend for the team title, but Kardinals head coach Stan Steffensen knows his small squad has a handful of dangerous grapplers that are up for hardware, as long as everyone is healthy.
“It’s been a little of a shuffle when I looked at different teams and kids, you know, have kids been sick or hurt?” Steffensen said. “There’s a lot of questions out there, for me anyhow.”
While host team Redington is looking for its first region wrestling crown in school history and have shown potential this season, Steffensen still believes Homer has the depth to retain the championship.
“Homer, if everything comes through, if those kids that are hurt can come through, they have a fantastic coaching staff and have potential to be region champs,” he said.
The Kachemak Conference meet will also be the last one for Seward head coach Ronn Hemstock, who decided before the season began that 2019 would be his last, ending a 25-year run in Seward.
“It’s eight more days, but who’s counting?” Hemstock said in a Wednesday interview.
Using his experience, Hemstock said he believes Redington and Homer will be the two teams battling for the team title, but didn’t discount the darkhorse status of Nikiski and Grace.
“If you’ve been around as long as I have, you know it’s not the winners (that win the team title),” he said. “It’s the thirds and fourths. It’s really the back side that pulls in the trophy.”
Homer’s biggest shots at individual glory lie with a few experienced hands, including senior Mose Hayes (with a 20-1 record this year) at 152 pounds, senior Anthony Kalugin (22-4) at 189 pounds, junior Austin Cline (14-6) at 119, senior Ryan Hicks (14-6) at 215 and sophomore Alex Hicks (15-7) at heavyweight.
The Homer girls also flaunt a talented cast, including senior Rayana Vigil (undefeated at 12-0) at 189 pounds, junior Sadie Blake (17-1) at 125 pounds, senior Mina Cavasos (12-6) at 119, junior Mariah Grimes (10-7) at 160, and senior rookie Autumn Daigle (10-8) at 112 pounds.
Steffensen said the Kardinals’ best shots to place or win at regions include junior Tucker Vann, who is ranked No. 2 in the state at 160 or 171 pounds with a 10-2 record this season, freshman Andrew Gaethle, ranked sixth in the state at 130 pounds, and junior Rocky Sherbahn, who is seeded first at 215 pounds with a 7-2 record.
Kenai also has two tough competitors in the 112-pound class in brothers Owen and Talon Whicker. Talon (14-7) is ranked sixth in the state but got upset in the finals last year in the region tournament, while Owen is 18-7 this year.
Steffensen also said to watch for freshman Zack Rodman at 103 pounds, freshman Rey Perez at 119, sophomore Isaiah Ticknor at 135, freshman Jason Koenig at 145, freshman Julian Yakunin at 189 and freshman Branch Keller at 285.
Anders tabbed a solid group of kids to place high at regions, including senior Joey Yourkowski at 119 pounds, junior Jaryn Zoda at 130, senior Jordan Fleming at 135, senior Mason Payne at 152, junior Koleman McCaughey (20-8 record) at 171, and junior Caileb Payne (19-8) at 189.
“We have a solid group of kids that have been to state before, and a collection of kids that can certainly contribute,” Anders said, thanking the kids, parents and supporters of the program.
Anders said Nikiski also harbors contenders who haven’t made state before but can debut next week, including senior Caleb Weeks at 140 pounds, sophomore Simon Grenier at 160, freshman Brady Bostic (15-5) at 135, and at 160 pounds, freshman Dwyght Mullins and senior Pedro Souza.
The Seward wrestling squad is bringing nine kids to the Kachemak Conference meet, and while Hemstock said he prefers not to single out individuals, the Seahawks still have several returning region placers.
That list includes junior Thomas Ooka, who returned to the team after missing the opening weeks, at 145 pounds, senior Jaden Van Dyke at 152 or 160 and sophomore Kekoa Albino at 215 (who is returning from a sickness). The Seahawks also have big hopes for girls senior Priscilla Stotlz at 130 pounds.
“I think we’re all going to go there and hit our prime,” Hemstock predicted. “They’re ready, chomping at the bit, and historically Seward peaks at regions, so I hope they go as far as they can go.”
At the Division I level, the SoHi Stars look to build on strong results from early in the season. At the Lancer Smith tournament, Colony won with 247.5 points, beating out runner-up Lathrop with 224.5. Soldotna was fifth overall and second among NLC teams with 108 points.
Last week at the Grace Grizzly Shakedown, the programs at Colony, Wasilla and Palmer all finished ahead of SoHi in the team points, but SoHi head coach Neldon Gardner is expecting a close race for the silver medal this weekend.
“Colony’s the favorite, so it should be a close race between Wasilla, Palmer and us,” Gardner said. “Colony has one foot up on South and Lathrop, they’re the No. 1 team to beat in the state.”
One blow to the team that Gardner had to contend with was the loss of senior Melvin Lloyd, who stopped wrestling two weeks ago. Lloyd left as the undefeated No. 1 ranked wrestler in the state at 285 pounds.
“That was quite a blow,” Gardner said. “That’s 25 or 30 points in a region tournament right there.”
Gardner said he still expects to get 12 or 13 grapplers through to state.
That list includes senior Aaron Faletoi (19-0 this year), who is one of 12 undefeated wrestlers in the state with 10 or more matches under their belt this year. Faletoi will compete at 215 pounds this weekend.
The Stars also are looking at region placers from junior Dennis Taylor at 152 pounds, junior Sean Babbit (22-5) at 171, junior Zach Burns (22-5) and freshman Hunter Richardson at 140 and the Secor brothers — junior Hunter and freshman Simon — both of whom wrestle at 112 pounds.
Gardner also expects strong days from freshman Zeke Miller and sophomore Rollin Madden at 119 pounds, freshman Scott Michael at 125, freshman Jakob Brown (19-6) at 130, as well as freshman Isaac Chevarria at 130 and sophomore Wayne Mellon at 152, who won a region title for the East Thunderbirds last year.
Then there’s junior Aiden Willetts at 160 pounds, freshman Logan Katzenberger at 215 and junior Max Rogers at heavyweight, all of whom Gardner said could make a region run.
The SoHi girls flaunt two exceptional seniors in Amanda Wylie at 160 and Vydell Baker at 125. Wylie is undefeated at 14-0 and is ranked No. 1 in the state at 160 pounds, while Baker is 12-2 overall this year. They’ll be joined by freshman Trinity Donovan (16-6), who was second at the Grace tournament at 135 pounds.