Season preview: Seward coach enters wrestling season for last time

Season preview: Seward coach enters wrestling season for last time

The dawn of another high school wrestling season also marks the swan song of a longtime coaching presence on the peninsula.

Seward head coach Ronn Hemstock, 59, is calling it a career with the Seahawks after this season ends, leaving behind a quarter century of success. Hemstock said his decision to retire from the job was rooted in spending more time with his family and his grandson, adding that the time commitments with both aspects of his life were tearing at the other.

“I’m going out on a high note,” Hemstock said. “The kids deserve somebody to have it be their life. They need someone with the fire and enthusiasm to coach them, and so I’m stepping aside and letting someone come in and lead the way.”

Hemstock’s decision to step down is the biggest preseason news for peninsula wrestling, which officially got started last weekend with a meet in Homer. The host Mariners are the defending Kachemak Conference and Division II state champions and enter the 2019 season hungry to repeat.

On the Division I level, Soldotna remains the peninsula’s lone team, and the Stars enter the year looking for team success in a very competitive division with another longtime coaching icon, Neldon Gardner, who begins his 36th year coaching wrestling on the peninsula.

But 2019 will be Hemstock’s 25th and final year with Seward. The Seahawks stalwart has overseen and uplifted the Seward wrestling program since 1995. As a former Alaska state coach of the year for small-schools wrestling, Hemstock brought Seward the school’s first region championship, presided over nine state champions and coached the Seahawks to the 1999 state team championship for small schools.

Hemstock said while he’ll miss watching athletes grow and reach their goals in the mat room, he decided this year had to be the final one in order to avoid missing something more special with his family.

“I’ve enjoyed every bit of it,” he said. “It’s been my life since I was a very young person. It’s bittersweet, there’ll be things I miss.”

When Hemstock leaves, current assistant coach Andrew Scrivo will step up into the head coaching role.

SOLDOTNA STARS

Gardner returns to coach SoHi for a sixth straight year. Gardner said there are currently about 35 kids in the wrestling room with a handful coming in this week from the football team, which is fresh off a Div. II state championship.

Last week in Homer, the Stars took second, only behind defending small-schools state champion Homer, giving Gardner hopes that the team can finish in the top three at the state meet after a fifth-place finish in 2018.

“If everyone stays healthy and grade eligible, we’ll see how it shakes out,” he said.

The starkest contrast to recent seasons is the lack of Hutchisons on the team this year. The 10 Hutchison siblings dominated the sport of wrestling in Alaska from the mid-90s to last year, when the youngest, Gideon, stepped off the mat at the state meet with a silver medal. Since 1995, five Hutchison siblings racked up 12 state championships, including four each by 2006 Skyview grad Eli and 2016 SoHi grad Seth.

Gardner said the Hutchison line coming to an end was an inevitability, even though it still hasn’t sunk in.

“As a coach, it is weird,” Gardner said. “We’ll still get Eli coming around helping in coaching, but it’s been a great run with that family, a great success story. It’ll be a little different without (parents) Mike and Mary there every weekend.”

The Stars return four of their six boys state placers last year, and their lone girls state placer as well. Leading that group is senior Aaron Faletoi, who is looking repeat as state champion at 215 pounds.

“He should do very well,” Gardner predicted. “He had some challenges last year, so it won’t be just a cakewalk through it, but if he stays solid and keeps at it, he should do well again.”

Gardner said he’ll be relying on points from Faletoi and others because two regular points scorers will be gone this year — Brayde Wolfe moved with his family to Reno, Nevada, while senior Hudson Metcalf is out for the season with a football injury. Gardner said Metcalf would have been a solid state placer at 189 pounds.

“Losing those 30 or 40 points with those two missing, that’s huge,” he said.

Other potential state placers from SoHi include seniors Melvin Lloyd and Eli Floyd at heavyweight, juniors Max Rogers and Hunter Secor at 112 pounds, junior Zach Burns at 145, sophomore Wayne Mellon (an East transfer who won a Cook Inlet Conference title last year) at 152 or 160, junior Dennis Taylor at 152 or 160, and junior Sean Babitt, who took fourth last year at state at 171 pounds.

Gardner said SoHi also features a talented freshmen class that includes Salvator McMaster at 103, Ezekiel Miller at 125, Scott Michael at 125, Isaac Chavarria 130 or 135, Jakob Brown at 135 or 140, Hunter Richardson at 145 and Liam Babitt at 171.

“Freshmen win titles if they’re willing to put the time in,” he said.

On the girls side, a pair of seniors return looking for championship hardware in Amanda Wylie at 160 and Vydell Baker at 125. Gardner said Wylie could wrestle down to 145 pounds, where he expects her to make it to the state finals again. Wylie finished second at 160 last year.

Gardner also noted freshman Trinity Donovan at 135 pounds, indicating that she has a lot of potential.

“She could win it all as a freshman,” he said. “She’s that talented, she’s got grit.”

KENAI KARDINALS

Stan Steffensen returns to coach the Kardinals, which are staying steady at 25 kids, he said.

“For our goals, we just want each kid to get better than before,” Steffensen said about the young team.

The longtime peninsula coach said Kenai made up T-shirts this year with the slogan, “The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday,” printed upon them. Steffensen said that suits a team like Kenai, which is targeting individual glory.

“That’s our goal,” he said. “We’re still in the process of making some goals as a team.”

Steffensen said the biggest battle will be staying healthy, because there are several potential state placers in the Kenai weight room.

Last year, the Kards got three state placers — Talon Whicker finished fourth at 103 pounds, Tucker Vann was third at 160 and Rocky Sherbahn was sixth at 215.

This season, Whicker is a sophomore at 112 pounds, Vann is a senior at 171 and Sherbahn is a junior at 215. Steffensen said having all three guys back is a big relief for the team.

“A good goal is to have all three guys place again in the state tournament,” he said. “A better goal would be to get five or six guys to place, and then after that, who knows?”

Vann is the only senior on the team, but is a clear leader, Steffensen said. Behind Vann, Kenai will have potential point scorers in junior Quinn Baze at 145, sophomore Isaiah Ticknor at 135 and a loaded class of freshmen. Steffensen said the freshmen class provides a lot of depth for a Kenai team in need of it.

The rookie class includes Zack Rodman at 103 pounds, Owen Whicker at 112, Rey Perez at 119, Andrew Gaethle at 125, Jason Koenig at 152 (a state placer at the Tanana Invitational for middle school last year), Dakari Robinson at 160, Zach Halstead at 160, Julian Yakunin at 189, Branch Keller at heavyweight and Jaden Garner at 125 (a school district champion in middle school).

NIKISKI BULLDOGS

Head coach Adam Anders returns for another season with 23 athletes in the room. Anders said he has a good mix of grapplers this season.

“Some have been doing it forever and some are trying it for the first time,” he said. “The club team’s been doing good, a lot of kids that come into our school have that experience at the club level.”

The 2018 Bulldogs squad finished third as a team at the Kachemak Conference meet with two individual region champions — Griffin Gray at 103 pounds and Dustin Mullins at 215.

The bad news is that Nikiski lost both region champs. Mullins graduated and Gray transferred to another school.

The good news is that Nikiski had a lot of athletes that came close to winning or placing at state last year, and the returning crop of kids could make up for the deficit, Anders said.

“It’s early but there’s no reason we can’t have a better result,” Anders said about 2019 expectations. “We have every reason to. We’re bringing back a lot of talented kids with more experience and another year under their belt.”

Also returning among region finalists is junior Jaryn Zoda, a 2018 runner-up at 112 pounds and junior Koleman McCaughey, a region runner-up at 160. Zoda moved up to 130 pounds this year, while McCaughey will compete at 171.

Behind them, Anders said Nikiski has state potential in senior Jordan Fleming at 135 pounds, sophomore Simon Grenier at 160, senior Mason Payne at 152, junior Caleb Weeks at 140, senior Joey Yourkoski at 119, freshman Dwight Mullins at 160 and junior Caileb Payne at 189.

On the girls side, Nikiski returns seniors Destiny Martin and Tawnisha Freeman at 130 pounds, both of whom could contend for a state title, Anders said.

HOMER MARINERS

The defending state champions and the four-time defending Kachemak Conference champions have already shown glimpses of brilliance as they chase another championship this fall, starting with team victories at the Bidarka Round Robin Rumble Oct. 19 in Homer and the Luke Spruill Memorial tournament Saturday at Kenai.

And, head coach Chris Perk said that is without three top-ranked wrestlers that are currently sidelined with injuries from football season.

“We definitely have a new young crop with enthusiasm, and as a whole, a new group that we’re looking forward to working with,” Perk said.

For the early part of the season, the Mariners will miss junior Josh Bradshaw (took fourth last year at state at 152 pounds), sophomore Kamdyn Doughty at 215 pounds and freshman Carter Tennison (a Tanana Conference champion in middle school) at 215.

“That’s a big setback,” Perk said. “Hopefully we can keep them mentally focused with us.”

Perk said the team’s biggest challenger at the region meet this year could be Redington, which has seen a burgeoning roster of wrestlers, while he predicts Bethel and Glennallen will yet again clash with the Mariners for the state title in December.

Joining Perk this year on the coaching sidelines is Justin Zank, who has officially taken over as the head coach of the team. Zank formerly coached at Voznesenka and produced several state champions, most recently Max Kusnetsov last year. Zank will lead a coaching staff of Perk, Bubba Wells and Adam Diaz, among other volunteers on the team, and said the meeting of minds between Zank and the rest of the Homer staff has been a huge bonus.

“It’s neat to bring him in,” Perk said. “I’d call myself a student of the sport, and I like what he brings in. This is cool. For years, we would watched the Voz kids do a spiral half ride move, and I was always wanting to know, how does he set that up? Now we get to see it first hand.

“He has good command, he’s a good teacher and really breaks the moves down.”

Zank and company will need to figure out who will replace the point-scoring quartet of last year’s state champions — Seth Inama at 125 pounds, Luciano Fasulo at 135, Wayne Newman at 140 and Jadin Mann at heavyweight. All four are gone to graduation.

“It was an amazing group,” Perk explained. “Those guys came in as freshman and made a big impact. When we won (state in 2015), we had these freshmen that placed higher than we thought they’d ever before. It was an incredible group and we were able to ride that group of athletes for four years.”

The returning cast to watch for this year includes senior Mose Hayes at 160 pounds (state runner-up last year), senior Ryan Hicks (a conference champion at 189) at 215, senior Anthony Kalugin at 215, junior Austin Cline at 125, freshman Russell Nyvall at 125 (a triple-crown winner at the club state tournament) and sophomore Alex Hicks at heavyweight.

Homer also graduated 2018 Girls Outstanding Wrestler of the Year McKenzie Cook, who won a fourth state title last year at 145 pounds. While Cook is gone, the Mariners still have nine girls on the team, led by junior Sadie Blake (sixth at state last year) at 125, senior Mina Cavasos at 125, senior Rayana Vigil from New Mexico (Perk said Vigil is ranked top 10 in the nation at 189 pounds), senior Autumn Daigle at 112 and junior Mariah Grimes at 160.

SEWARD SEAHAWKS

In Hemstock’s final year of coaching, the Seward wrestling team has seen a jump of nearly threefold in team size, from five kids last year to 14 this year.

“I think we were just down in numbers (in 2018) and then we had a couple kids coming out and try it out, they’re putting their toes in the pond,” Hemstock explained. “I think it’s a good crew.”

Thomas Ooka was Seward’s only state placer last year with a sixth-place result at 130 pounds, but Hemstock said Ooka is not returning this year.

For the rest of them, Seward has some potential, Hemstock said. On the girls side, the Seahawks return Naomi Ifflander, the defending region champ at 112 pounds, as well as senior Priscilla Stoltz at 135 pounds.

The Seward boys return region placers in senior Jaden Van Dyke at 152 pounds, sophomore Steven Harshman at 171 and sophomore Kekoa Albino at 215. From there, Seward could get consistent points from senior Dillon Marcus at heavyweight and junior Lucas Brockman at 160.

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