The middle of October can be an interesting time at Nikiski High School, and not because of the impending frights of Halloween.
From 2011 to 2015, the Bulldogs football team had played well into the darkening days of fall with a state trophy on the line, meaning a later arrival of football players turned wrestlers.
But this autumn, the state dream fell early.
The good news was the wrestling squad received a boost of athletes earlier than normal. Head wrestling coach Adam Anders, not accustomed to an influx of athletes in mid-October, said the positive side is that the wrestling room is bursting with activity and athletes are raring to go.
“We’re not used to that, but it’s good,” Anders said. “It’s been a good atmosphere, we have a young team, and I’m excited to see them come out enthusiastic.”
The football team only missed out on one week of action after losing a semifinal game, but Anders said it is business as usual.
One thing the Bulldogs will surely have to deal with are the reigning 1-2-3A state champs, the Homer Mariners, a formidable squad that finally broke a long state title drought last winter.
It had been since 1986 that Homer had ruled as state wrestling champions, but their lengthy skid was snapped last year by a stacked Mariners team, one that featured a mix of experienced upperclassmen that combined with a slew of talented freshmen to outscore their nearest competition 212 to 168 points.
However, Homer coach Chris Perk isn’t ready to predict another title, as last year’s second-place team Bethel returned many of its tournament-high 21 state wrestlers.
“It will be a much closer race this season,” Perk wrote in an email. “Homer is already missing two of their placers from last season, thus making each returning wrestler (have) to earn 2-4 more points each at the state meet.”
Seward co-coach Chad Hinders said he could see Homer’s success coming for the last couple of years.
“I was happy for them,” Hinders said. “They’ve had some good guys, but their team numbers have fluctuated, and (Perk) drives his team hard and they responded last year.
“It was his time to shine.”
Having to contend with a powerhouse like Homer hasn’t made it easy for the Nikiski team, but Anders said he relishes the opportunity to have his athletes compete against the best in the state, especially when it’s just a short drive down the Sterling Highway.
“It’s nice to have them in our region,” he said. “We don’t have to travel far to wrestle the best in the state.”
At the 4A level, the only two peninsula state champions from 2015 are gone to graduation, so both Soldotna and Kenai Central will have to reload if individual success is to be expected.
The Bulldogs lost two figurative heavyweights in seniors TJ Cox and Luke Johnson, who took a combined four state championships with them after they graduated last year.
“They were great leaders,” Anders said. “Having them gone has forced these other guys to step up.”
Anders said the Bulldogs, which number around 20 strong right now, are a younger unit than last year with nine freshman currently on the roster. The lone senior is Dakota Hupp, who is competing at 195 pounds.
However, Anders has six returning state qualifiers in the mix on the mat.
The list includes a junior class consisting of 220-pounder Tyler Litke, 152-pounder Donovan Smith and 132-pounder Tyler Olsen. Among the returning sophomores are Gabe Smith and Malcolm Yerkes, both state qualifiers at 126 pounds, and Cameron Maxie at 138.
“I’m just excited to see what these guys can do,” Anders said.
Nikiski finished fourth behind Homer, Bethel and Kotzebue in the state team standings last year, and Anders predicted Bethel to come back strong for the 2016 campaign. Nikiski will travel to Seward and Anchorage Christian School for meets before hosting the Peninsula Duals in Nikiski on Nov. 11 and 12.
The Stars rolled to an eighth-place finish at state last year, highlighted by two senior state champions. Seth Hutchison won at 126 pounds and Dalton Best claimed gold at 285.
Hutchison became just the ninth grappler in Alaska high school wrestling last winter to complete a four-year sweep at state, and it was the 11th state championship for his family, which includes four-time champion Eli, two-time champion Zeb and one-timer Michaela.
The last member of the Hutchison siblings, sophomore Gideon, is still at SoHi, and he made his state debut last year with a third-place result.
Hutchison is currently wrestling at Minnesota State University in Moorhead, Minnesota, a Division II school, while Best is playing football at Montana State-Northern, an NAIA school.
So what’s head coach Neldon Gardner to do with the loss of two winners? The same reloading process he’s become accustomed to for the past 26 years on the peninsula.
“Every year you have your top two or three kids drop, and we always have two to five seniors we lose who are our best kids,” Gardner said.
Gardner, a 1974 Kenai Central grad who began his Alaska coaching career at Skyview High in 1990, explained that while the Stars lost two champs, the program is beginning to round out with a little more depth in the middle.
SoHi returns most of its state qualifiers from last year, including fifth-place finisher Bechler Metcalf, now a junior at 152 pounds, sophomore Logan Craig at 98 or 106 pounds, Hutchison at 113 or 120, freshman Brady Wolfe at 126, freshman Joe VanHout at 132, junior Brenner Furlong at 182, senior Austin Schrader at 170 or 182, senior Joey Street at 170, senior Talon Musgrave at 160, and senior Abe VanHout at 160 or 170, who was one win away from placing last year.
“I think Austin, Abe, Brenner and Bechler can get in and fill the gap, and we could get a couple more state champs,” Gardner speculated.
The veteran coach said the teams with depth that could challenge South Anchorage for the 4A team title this year are Colony, Wasilla, Lathrop and North Pole. Gardner said he would like to see the Stars finish the year among the top 5.
Friday at the Homer Invite, Gardner said SoHi went 1-2 in the dual format, even as three regulars were missing due to state football eating up time in the early weeks of the season.
“We have a lot of young kids making mistakes, but we’re looking to improving on that by the end of the year,” he said.
By virtue of breaking their 29-year state championship drought, the target is now placed squarely on Homer’s back as the team to beat on the 1-2-3A level.
Coach Perk seems to believe the Mariners can repeat, but it won’t come without the hard work that got them there.
Last season, Homer put four grapplers in championship matches, with two of them winning. Timmy Woo at 152 pounds and Levi King at 195, both now seniors, won state crowns, and Woo returns to defend his crown, moving up to 160 pounds.
The Mariners got four additional members in third-place matches and two more in fifth-place matches, adding up to a total of 10 scoring wrestlers.
Among the returning seniors will be Jared Brant at 138 pounds and Jaime Rios at 170. Brant and Woo are three-time state placers.
Perk said that Brant took time this summer to fly to Wisconsin for a monthlong wrestling camp, then wrapped up a state-championship winning effort for the Homer boys cross-country running team with a 12th-place finish. Woo, meanwhile, led the Homer football team in tackles.
Among the junior class is Tyler Johnson at 145 pounds, Chris Cudaback at 160 pounds, Tristen Cook at 170, Kyle Wells at 195 and Richard Brock at 285.
The sophomores are led by Wayne Newman at 106 pounds. Newman just missed out on a state title as a freshman last season with a 10-9 decision at 98 pounds, then finished fifth at Western Regionals. Perk attributes his sharp technique to his success.
Also in the running are sophomores Seth Inama at 113 pounds, Ian Stovall at 120, Luciano Fasulo at 126 and Jadin Mann at 285. Fasulo finished third at state last year at 126 and collected two Freestyle titles in the spring club season.
Another state champion runner on the team will be junior Alex Moseley, a two-time state placer on the girls side. Moseley finished 15th among the 1-2-3A girls a few weeks ago to help the Mariners to the girls cross-country title for a third straight year. At the girls state wrestling meet last season, Moseley lost in the 106-pound third-place match.
Also on the girls side will be Allison Wells at 126 pounds, Sam Martin at 132 and McKenzie Cook at 145.
Joining Perk on the coaching staff will be Bubba Wells, former Homer wrestler Mick Wells and Simeon Daigle, as well as Danny Rios for portions of the year.
Kenai ended the 2015 campaign with a 16th-place team finish at the state meet, highlighted by a third place from Zack Koziczkowski in the 285-pound class and a fifth place from Keyshawn McEnerney at 152.
Koziczkowski is gone to graduation, but head coach Stan Steffensen said the wrestling room is full with just over 20 athletes out for the team.
“There’s not as much experience as you always want, but the kids are improving every day,” Steffensen said. “We’re a fun wrestling squad that’s enjoying each other.”
Among the returning studs is senior McEnerney, who competes at 160 pounds. Steffensen said he believes McEnerney is capable of winning a state title by the end of the season.
Also in the mix for Kenai is junior Tyler Vaughn at 120 pounds — who missed last year but is back after a state run his freshman year — junior Byron Dunham at 182 pounds, sophomore Jacob Anderson at 145, and a pair of freshmen at 113 pounds — Pierce Peterson and Seth Segura.
The Kardinals also feature two girls in senior Natalia Chavez at 106 pounds and freshman Hanna Wilson at 132 or 138.
Steffensen said his squad is targeting a successful season on the individual level, as the team’s T-shirts read at the recent Luke Spruill tournament.
“’Success is no accident, it’s hard work,’” Steffensen recited.
The Seward wrestling program returns a pair of coaching stalwarts in Ronn Hemstock and Chad Hinders. Andrew Scrivo is also an assistant.
Hinders, who brought previous coaching experience from Chevak and Nome when he arrived in Seward seven years ago, said the Seahawks started the season with at least a dozen kids on the mat, with more rolling in as the football and cross-country years wrapped up. Hinders said the number has grown to about 22.
“This team is solid all the way through,” he said. “It’s a young team this year, but I like the way they match up in the wrestling room.”
Returning stars include senior Chris Hettick at 152 or 160 pounds, junior Simon Estes at 125 or 132 and junior Cameron Bunch at 132. Add to the mix freshman Isaiah Bivens at 112 or 119, and Hinders said Seward is looking stout.
“We’re looking forward to getting out there and competing,” Hinders said. “Coach Hemstock has been doing this since the Cretaceous period, and every year, it’s all about family. Kids are there to teach each other and learn, they help each other out.”
Seward’s lone state placer last year was senior Justin Schutter, who lost the 285-pound fifth-place match by pin. The Seahawks will get to host their annual King of the Mountain meet, a duals format event on Oct. 28 and 29, and Hinders is expecting at least 15 teams to show up.