Small-school wrestlers await state spotlight

The darkening days of winter have taken a firm hold of Southcentral, but when the sun sets Saturday evening, a single spotlight will be hoisted high above the mat that championship wrestlers will face each other on at Bartlett High School in Anchorage.

The spotlight represents the final appearance of the top grapplers in the Class 1-2-3A state wrestling tournament, which begins today at 10 a.m. with preliminary, quarterfinal and semifinal matches that will go until 8 p.m.

Consolation matches begin Saturday morning at 9 a.m., followed by consolation finals at 2:30 p.m., which determine the crucial third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place positions.

Finally, the lights will dim and the spotlight will shine up above for the championship finals at 5 p.m.

“It’s special,” Homer coach Chris Perk described. “It’s a pretty neat moment to soak up and be the focus of attention. In wrestling it’s just you and your opponent.

“It’s a balance of calming your nerves and trying to enjoy the moment.”

This weekend will be different than past years for one important reason. For the first time in state history, a separate girls state tournament will be contested alongside the boys.

In a week in which former Skyview state champion wrestler Michaela Hutchison’s 2006 state title was celebrated as this year’s Alaska Sports Hall of Fame “moment,” it’s appropriate that girls will be given the chance to compete only against other girls for a state wrestling crown.

Homer is the only Peninsula school that will be bringing athletes to Anchorage to compete in the girls state meet, as Alex Moseley in the 98-pound weight class and Heather Harrington in the 220-pound division earned automatic berths to state by being the lone wrestlers in their respective weight classes. Perk said he believes that the tournament can be a springboard to greater future success.

“I think next year will gain even more interest,” he said. “When you’ve got girls coming home and showing off their state championship medals, it’ll create more interest. Others will want to join and try to win a state championship.”

Perk mentioned that during Thursday’s coaches meeting at Bartlett, the topic of seeding for the girls tournament surfaced. Because girls have continued to compete with boys during the course of the regular season, many of them haven’t had the chance to wrestle other females in the state yet, which has made it nearly impossible to determine the rankings for each weight class.

“They’re totally unknown,” he said. “They’re like, seeding is pretty much impossible. They’ll just have to go off with what we’ve practiced and use the tools they have.”

In Homer’s corner, Moseley and Harrington are competing with two different approaches. Harrington, a junior, comes in with several years of experience under her belt, while Moseley, a freshman, is using the sport of wrestling mostly as a means of conditioning for other sports, such as cross-country running. Moseley was a part of Homer’s state running team that won the Class 1-2-3A team title in October.

On the boys side, Bethel may have trouble winning a fifth-straight state team championship, as they will have to hold off a hungry Kotzebue squad that has finished second to Bethel the past two years. The last team not named the Bethel Warriors to win a state title was Dillingham in 2009.

Homer is fresh off a third-place result in the Kachemak Conference tournament last weekend. In that meet, the Mariners were a scant 2.5 points behind runner-up Nikiski,

“We are cool and confident,” coach Perk said. “We feel really good.

“The coolest part is we had a stretch there in the middle of the season where some of our kids had bronchitis, and now the team’s healthy and positive.”

Perk is bringing 12 wrestlers — 10 boys and two girls — to Anchorage, including region champions Sean Blaine (98-pound winner) and Timmy Woo (138-pound winner). Woo, a sophomore, is the only Mariners grappler that is seeded, and Perk said Homer will be looking for as many points as Woo can bring them.

Blaine, a freshman, is brand new to the sport and Perk said there is no telling how far he could go. Blaine is one of eight underclassmen that Homer is bringing to state.

“Each guy has come up with his own quote that we’re responsible for yelling at them to keep them motivated during the match,” Perk said. “It’s all positive and determination stuff, but for us, we just want everyone to wrestle the best six minutes they can.”

Freshman Kyle Wells (at 152 pounds), freshman Tristen Cook (160 pounds) and senior Antonio Ochoa (170 pounds) enter the state tourney as region runner-ups. The remainder of the team is rounded out by sophomore Jared Brant (120 pounds), sophomore Ravi Cavasos (126), sophomore Jaime Rios (132), freshman Tyler Johnson (132) and junior Matthew Pollack (182).

The Nikiski wrestling team rolls into the weekend with a head of steam after taking second place in the Kachemak Conference tournament, 16 points behind team champion Houston. The Bulldogs managed to get more wrestlers into championship finals (8) than Houston (7), and ended with more individual titles (5) than the Hawks (4), but Houston placed more athletes in the consolation rounds than the Bulldogs, which proved to be the difference in the team standings.

Since 1972 — the year a statewide championship tournament was first held — Nikiski has accrued four team crowns and 33 individual state titles, tied for the most with Anchorage Christian Schools and Bethel.

Nikiski head coach Adam Anders said that every accomplishment that a Nikiski grappler has earned throughout the years has come through hard work and grit.

“It’s just awesome to be a part of this wrestling tradition and community here at Nikiski,” Anders said. “That’s something we use to motivate kids. You can’t help but be motivated by it. It’s a special thing.”

The Bulldogs qualified 13 athletes — the most among Peninsula teams — to this year’s state meet.

“We’re right where we need to be,” Anders said. “The kids are ready and should have a good weekend.”

Of those 13, five are region champions. TJ Cox at 120 pounds, Tyler Handley at 152, Nathan Carstens at 160, Jon McCormick at 195 and Luke Johnson at 220 claimed region titles last weekend. Both Carstens and Johnson are ranked No. 1 in their class. Anders said each of those five competitors have the potential to be a state champion.

“It’s all about them rising to the occasion and wrestling like they’re capable of,” Anders said. “Their work ethic and commitment to the sport has made all the difference, as well as having parents and the community supporting them.”

Johnson is the only one of that Nikiski group that returns to defend a state title, after winning his maiden crown a year ago in the 195-pound final. Johnson hasn’t lost a match since the beginning of the 2013 season and last week at the region meet, pinned his way through the tournament.

Austin Ozbun (98 pounds), Tyler Olsen (106) and Donovan Smith (113) also made their respective finals at the region meet and are looking for more success at state. Bill Medetov (106 pounds), Luck Broussard (113), Dylan Broussard (160), Ian Johnson (182) and Will Olsen (285) make up the remaining statebound athletes from Nikiski.

Anders also thanked every parent and team supporter that has made the 2014 season a success.

“It’s just helped us try to inspire them,” he said. “They have to have a passion for the sport to do well, and all our helpers have reminded them that (state) is everything they’ve worked for.”

The Seward wrestling team finished the year with a 16-man roster, and last week at the region meet, qualified nearly half of that list to the state tournament. Seven Seahawks made the cut to state, with all but one earning their very first trip to the big dance.

“It’s amazing,” said Seward coach Ronn Hemstock. “It was just an eye opener for all of them.”

None of the seven athletes are seniors, and for one of them — junior Tom Zweifel — it is their first year of wrestling.

“We had a great run (last week),” Hemstock said. “We have a real team unity. Other coaches commented on how well the team works together, they march out there with their hoods up and determined, and we’re hoping for the same thing at state.”

Among the statebound grapplers are freshmen twin brothers Simon and Case Estes, both of whom have shown the type of gritty, determined resiliency that the entire Seward squad has shown this season. Hemstock summed up that no-quit attitude with an anecdote from last year.

“Simon wrestled a kid in junior high that had pinned everybody that year, and he couldn’t beat Simon with a pin,” Hemstock recalled. “He beat him, but couldn’t pin him. That’s the way it is with every one of these kids. Others may beat them, but they’ll remember their name.”

The determined approach paid dividends last weekend, and Hemstock said there’s no reason why his team can’t have another big weekend to end the season.

“They’re ready. They’re geared up for battle,” Hemstock said. “They know there are guys with 30-0 records in weight classes that they know they won’t topple, but they can make them remember their name.”

The lone Seward wrestler to make a return trip to the tournament is junior Justin Schutter in the 285-pound weight class. Hemstock said he believes Schutter can earn a podium result.

Among the remaining athletes, Seward is bringing sophomore Nick Woodard (126 pounds), Zweifel (145), Kris Hettick (152) and Matt Morris (170).

“None of them are looking for a title,” he said. “We’re hoping to make it and weigh in Saturday. That’s always an accomplishment. If you can make the second day at state, that’s an accomplishment.”

Hemstock said he believes the battle for the team title will be a closely fought contest, with any one of four teams in the running to claim it, including favorites Bethel and Kotzebue. Houston and Nikiski also hold outside chances to emerge victorious, according to Hemstock.

The tiny Voznesenka team qualified a pair of grapplers to the state tournament — the 145-pound region champion Gavril Kalugin, and Michael Kusnetsov, who took fourth in the 170-pound division.

Kalugin, a senior, is currently ranked third in his weight class, but is facing a steep challenge if and when he is confronted with three-time state champion Emery Booshu of Nome.

“The goal for Gav all year long has been a top three at state,” said Voznesenka coach Justin Zank.

Kalugin has a tough task ahead of him if he should become only the second Voznesenka grappler to earn a state title, after Joe Martishev broke through for the Cougars in 2011.

Last weekend, Kalugin claimed his first region championship after finishing second and third the past two seasons, beating Graysen Sorenson of Grace Christian in an 8-6 overtime affair.

“He came out fired up since he’s never won one before,” Zank said. “We’ve been developing his style the past three years, and now he’s taken my style that I’ve coached and melded it with what he’s learned before.”

Kusnetsov, a sophomore, is taking on the state meet in his first year of competing. Zank said he hopes to see Kusnetsov nail down a few wins in the bracket stage, then see where he finishes.

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