Season wrestling preview: Homer has new head coach, but same stack of talent

Bethel upped the ante last season at the Division II state wrestling tournament. This year, Homer appears ready to return the favor.

In 2015, Homer won its first Division II state title in 29 years. Last season, the Mariners set school records at state with 246 points and 12 state placers. Homer also had five state champs to tie the mark of the 1986 state champs. But in an even more dominating effort, Bethel scored 264.5 points to keep Homer from a title defense.

“We should be deeper this year than last year,” new Homer coach Bubba Wells said. “We’re hoping to score higher this year.”

Wells takes over for Chris Perk, who led the team for the past 15 years and three times earned conference coach of year honors. But Wells has been an assistant coach for six years and also has built a solid Anchor Kings club program in that time. Perk will remain as an assistant, so Homer shouldn’t miss a beat, especially with seven state finalists returning.

“I’m retired,” Wells said. “I have nothing else to do but work with these kids. Most of them I’ve coached since they were 6 or 7 years old.”

Fellow Peninsula Division II schools Nikiski, Seward and Voznesenka all have rosters stocked with promise, but coaches from all three schools say Homer’s depth is so great that the Mariners are destined to take the Kachemak Conference for a third straight season and then battle with Bethel for the state title.

The Kachemak Conference is tough, and this year each weight class gets only three state berths as opposed to the four last year. There will be two at-large berths available statewide determined by and state seeding criteria, according to the Alaska School Activities Association handbook.

“There’s going to be a little more blood at regions because only three berths are guaranteed now,” Seward co-coach Andrew Scrivo said. “Sometimes, it’s a tough region to get kids through to state as it is.”

At the Division I level, Kenai Central and Soldotna will try to carve out a place for themselves in a tough Northern Lights Conference.

Last season, Colony won eight of the 15 weight classes to take home its fourth straight NLC title. The Knights then went on to win state, while NLC rival Wasilla was second.

“Our region is just so stacked,” Soldotna coach Neldon Gardner said. “They used to take the top six to state, but it’s only the top five now.

“The region has two of the top four teams in the state. We’re doing pretty good, and Palmer’s doing as good if not better than us.”

Gardner said with a dim hope of a team title, his wrestlers still have reason to work.

“It’s an individual sport as well as a team sport,” Gardner said. “They need to focus on themselves and their workouts and the coaches helping them.”

Kenai Central coach Stan Steffensen, whose squad is slated to go to Division II next season, also said there are reasons to work other than an NLC team title.

“That’s the key — getting the kids to realize it’s a great sport, get them out, keep them out, enjoy the great challenge of getting in great shape,” Steffensen said. “Get them to do the best they can do, have fun with friends and represent the school, community and parents.”

The following is a closer look at the Kenai Peninsula wrestling programs:

Homer Mariners

Wells has 26 in the room and expects another eight from football. While much of the talk around Homer centers on state performance, it should not be forgotten Homer won its second straight Kachemak Conference title last season, claiming nine individual championships.

Senior Tristen Cook (182) and juniors McKenzie Cook (145) and Luciano Fasulo (132) all won state titles last season.

Tristen has placed all three years at state and was a triple crown recipient at the Western Regional Tournament in Pocatello, Idaho, this summer. McKenzie, a two-time girls state champ, also wrestled Outside this summer and earned two All-American nods. Fasulo, also a standout runner, was 45-0 last season and placed fourth last winter at Gut Check, the toughest tournament in the state of Washington.

Also having success wrestling Outside this summer were senior and 113-pound Kachemak Conference champ Alex Moseley, junior and two-time state finalist Wayne Newman, junior and third-place state finisher Seth Inama, and sophomore Mina Cavasos, who won a girls Kachemak title last season at 120.

As if that weren’t enough, Wells started preseason workouts six weeks before the season and seven wrestlers were consistent, with up to 12 showing up.

“These kids this year, they look way better than when I’ve been here in the last six years,” Wells said. “Their offseason workouts, the different sports they do, they’ve stayed in shape and they’re coming in tough.”

Senior Levi King, a state champ two years ago, and senior Kyle Wells, a state finalist last year, both will wrestle at 220 and have been a big part of the football team’s success. The senior class also returns state placer Chris Cudabeck (160) and state qualifier Richard Brock (285). At 170, Jack Heimbold also returns after a few years off.

Junior Jadin Mann returns at 285 after finishing second at state last season and seeing many of his competitors graduate. Junior Ian Stovall (120 and 126) also qualified for state last season.

The sophomore class has Mose Hayes, a 138-pounder and returning state place winner; and Ryan Hicks at 160 and 170.

The freshmen class has middle school standouts Jared Bradshaw and Aiden Gaedecke, in addition to a strong group of girls in Sadie Blake, Mariah Grimes and Kaya Delke.

“All the programs are feeding the high school right now,” coach Wells said. “I’m thankful for the support from the community. That’s a big factor in it.”

Kenai Central Kardinals

The Kardinals had three state qualifiers last season, but none are on the team this season. Steffensen, who has been coaching wrestling in the area since the late 1980s, is optimistic about the 25 wrestlers he has in the room.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, but I have a definite feeling these kids are enjoying themselves,” Steffensen said. “They’re just a fun bunch of kids.”

Senior Byron Dunham, who will wrestle at 195 or 220, went to state as a sophomore, but an injury last season prevented a probable return as a junior.

Senior Seth Kruse, also at 195 or 220, also is back after a year off.

Steffensen then said he had three “scrappy” wrestlers with a lot of promise — junior Keaton Logston at 126 and 132, junior Brandon Kroto at 132, 138 and 145, and senior heavyweight Jacob Grant.

Young talent comes from freshmen Tucker Vann (138), Sammy Baker (132) and Rocky Sherbahn (182), all borough middle school champs last season.

The coach also said he’s glad to have sophomore Benjamin Grossl (170) and senior John Grossl (182) in the fold. Noting the success of Ben and John Peterson, both wrestling legends who won two Olympic medals apiece, Steffensen joked that the first thing he showed the Grossls in practice was the “Peterson Roll.”

Steffensen also is looking forward to working with sophomore Pierce Peterson at 120 and 126, sophomore Seth Segura at 120 and 126, junior Troy Gilbert at 126 and 132, and senior Ismael Urtubey at 113.

Junior Reya Hale also shows potential in ascending the girls ranks.

“It’s nice to have a variety of kids,” Steffensen said. “That’s what’s special about the sport — to have younger, littler kids all the way up to the big kids.”

Nikiski Bulldogs

Adam Anders started his 10th year at the helm with 15 wrestlers in the room.

The Bulldogs will be led by senior Tyler Litke, a returning state finalist. Litke was second at 220 and Anders said he will be at 220 or 195 this season.

After that, Nikiski has a lot of wrestlers that have been to state and are looking to make the next step.

“These guys are just hitting their stride,” Anders said. “It’s a young group that’s growing and improving, and that’s good.”

Nikiski wrestlers that have been to state are sophomore Joey Yourkoski (120), sophomore Jordan Fleming (120), junior Malcolm Yerks (145), junior Justin Cox (138), senior Donovan Smith (152), sophomore heavyweight Ethan Hack, junior Tyler Olsen (145), sophomore Mason Payne (126 or 132) and junior Dustin Mullins (182).

Anders said several wrestlers are still getting healthy after football.

“We’re looking forward to a great season,” he said. “Thanks to sponsors and parents for their support of our kids.”

Seward Seahawks

Scrivo and Ronn Hemstock will team up to coach the Seahawks. Scrivo said he is grateful to the longtime Seward head coach for giving him the co-head coach title and helping him learn the ropes. Scrivo has been an assistant for five years and said the 16 kids in the room are the smallest in his time with the team.

“I don’t know the exact number, but about half are ninth grade,” Scrivo said. “I’m pretty impressed with all the ninth- and 10th-graders. They look pretty good.”

Senior Simon Estes (132), senior Cole Norcross (120, 126) and junior Jaden VanDyke (138, 145) all made state last season. Junior Chris Kingsland (132) just missed state last season, and Scrivo said he has been working hard to try and rectify that.

In girls wrestling, Rebekah Christiansen broke her ankle last season, but Scrivo said she is back and wrestling tough.

Soldotna Stars

Gardner, who has been coaching wrestling in the area since the early 1980s, will be in his fourth year at Soldotna after coming over from now-closed Skyview High School.

When he was at Skyview, Gardner can remember years when Soldotna and Skyview each had 30 in the mat room. So while happy with the 35 that should be in the mat room after football, Gardner said there’s always room for growth.

“We’ve placed four at state the last couple years,” Gardner said. “My goal as a coach is to get six or more on the podium at state. That should put us in the top five.”

The returning state placers for SoHi are junior Logan Craig, junior Gideon Hutchison and senior Bechler Metcalf. Craig was fourth at state at 98 and Gardner said there’s a chance he could make that weight this year. Hutchison was third at 113 and won an NLC title as a freshman. Metcalf was 3rd at 152 and will wrestle at 152 or 160.

“The three that placed at state should all have state championships on their mind,” Gardner said.

Other returning state qualifiers are senior Brenner Furlong at 182, sophomore Aaron Faletoi at 220 and senior heavyweight Austin Reeves. All three are football players and Gardner is happy to welcome more and more to the program.

Gardner also is happy to have freshman Zach Burns, a borough middle school champ, on board at 132 or 138.

Sophomores Vydell Baker and Amanda Wylie both captured girls NLC titles last season, with Baker winning at 132 and Wylie winning at 145.

“I’m expecting them to go to state, get on the podium and medal,” Gardner said.

Senior Madison Worth also joins the program at 120. Gardner said Worth said she wants a scholarship in girls wrestling, and it looks like she has the potential to do just that.

“I’m just super excited with the turnout and how hard the kids are working,” Gardner said. “I’m happy to have the assistant coaches I have in the room and I’m also getting great help from the parents.”

The only bad thing thus far has been a hairline fracture of the wrist sustained by sophomore Brady Wolf. Gardner said Wolf likely would have qualified for state.

Voznesenka Cougars

In his sixth year in charge, Justin Zank is hoping to have a solid eight wrestlers in the room when the season concludes.

Last season, current junior Max Kusnetsov won just the second state wrestling title in Voznesenka history when he triumphed at 98. Kusnetsov had grown and is up to 113.

“He’s going to work pretty hard and his goal is top three,” Zank said. “He always goes on the conservative side, though. Definitely, his goal is to defend the title.”

Junior Dia Martishev (132), senior Nikit Anufriev (195, 220) and sophomore Anthony Kalugin (170) all made state last season.

“There are guys with potential, but whether it’s fulfilled, I don’t know,” Zank said. “I tell the guys the same thing every year, ‘You can be as good as you want to be, it all depends on how hard you work.’”

Daniel Anufriev, at 145 or 152, just missed state last season and Zank thinks he can make it this season. If everything goes right, Zank said Voznesenka could once again finish in the top 10 at state and possibly even have a squad that could fill most slots at a dual meet.

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