Soldotna senior Dalton Best and Kenai Central senior Zach Koziczkowski have traded helmet and pads for singlets, turf for mat and (in Koziczkowski’s case) bushy, primal beard for clean-shaven face.
But they still can’t stop running into one another, with another meeting coming during Soldotna’s 59-29 dual meet victory over the Kardinals on Tuesday at Soldotna Prep.
Both were key players on the line for their football teams this season, as SoHi topped Kenai for the Northern Lights Conference title on Oct. 3, then repeated the victory for the medium-schools state title on Oct. 17.
By Saturday, they had transferred to the wrestling mat, with Best pinning Koziczkowski 4 minutes, 55 seconds, into a 285-pound match at the Colony Wrestling Invitational.
Koziczkowski said that before Saturday, he usually had the upper hand against Best on the mat. Tuesday, he got back on top by pinning Best 4:41 into the match.
“The difference was he beat me last weekend,” Koziczkowski said. “I had a little more motivation than he did.”
Both Koziczkowski and Best earned laurels for their performance on the football field this season, with Koziczkowski getting medium-schools Lineman of the Year and first-team guard and interior defensive line honors, and Best holding down first-team center.
But Tuesday’s match proved that wrestling is a different animal than football.
“Wrestling shape is definitely more intense than football shape,” Koziczkowski said.
Kenai coach Stan Steffensen said both wrestlers deserve credit for making the quick turnaround from football to wrestling. Koziczkowski said he has already lost 15 pounds since football season, and added he needs to do a lot of running to lose even more.
“That takes a lot of courage for both of them to get out there and work that hard for six minutes, or 8 1-2 minutes if there’s overtime,” Steffensen said. “That’s a big difference — 8 1/2 minutes vs. 8 1/2 seconds.”
Koziczkowski picked up a pair of takedowns in the first period and led 4-1 heading into the second.
Best then chose to put Koziczkowski in the down position, but the Kenai wrestler was able to escape just 24 seconds into the period.
“That was the pivotal point in the match,” Soldotna coach Neldon Gardner said.
The coach explained that Best had tried a cradle, a move that works for him on smaller wrestlers. When Best got too high, Koziczkowski was able to escape.
Gardner would like to see Best stay lower on Koziczkowski and grind down his conditioning. Gardner said that’s the plan that worked Saturday. Of course, the coach added that a new plan may need to be hatched as Koziczkowski gets in better shape.
After Koziczkowski escaped, the wrestlers spent the rest of the second breathing heavy and pawing at each other.
“They’re big boys,” Gardner said. “It’s not the most exciting match to watch, but you’ve got to remember they’re pushing a lot of weight around.
“Dalton is 255 and Zach is about 280.”
In the third, Koziczkowski caught Best in an arm spin and pinned him.
The two likely have many big matches left as two of the top heavyweights in the state. Brandon Pili of Dimond, who beat Best in the Colony title match Saturday, is the only heavyweight state placer returning this season, so Gardner said Best and Koziczkowski could be two of the best three Class 4A heavyweights in the state.
The rest of the dual was characterized by forfeits. Soldotna had seven wrestlers win by forfeit, while Kenai had two wrestlers win by forfeits.
The forfeits meant the three wrestlers ranked by akmat.org at the meet — SoHi’s Gideon Hutchison, Seth Hutchison and Talon Musgrave — didn’t get to wrestle. Best and Koziczkowski aren’t ranked because they just started wrestling.
The other notable occurrence at the meet came in the last varsity match of the night, when Paul Steffensen pinned Austin Schrader in 3:52 at 170.
Steffensen, a junior, won a state title at 126 as a freshman and 145 as a sophomore.
But he hadn’t wrestled in a match this season until Tuesday.
“Paul will be Paul,” Stan Steffensen said of his son. “He’ll help us in practice and hopefully we’ll get to see him again at a meet.
“Wrestling’s not the only thing in life.”
Steffensen was wrestling up a weight class, as was Kenai’s Keyshawn McEnerny, who notched a technical fall over Emmanuel Van Hout at 160.
Winning matches for Soldotna were Paul Wilcox with a pin at 195 on Seth Kruse, Noah Schmelzenbach with a pin on Lucas Chircop at 220, and Logan Craig with a technical fall on Natalie Chavez at 98.
But what really had coach Steffensen beaming was an exhibition match where Kenai’s Kaden McKibben pinned Dan Grubb at 138 for his first victory.
“Things like that are the biggest things for me,” Steffensen said. “There are things that happen that most observers don’t notice, but that can make a huge difference in a kid’s life.”
Both Soldotna and Kenai will be at the Peninsula Duals at Nikiski on Friday and Saturday.
Soldotna 59, Kenai 29
182 — Byron Dunham, Ken, won by forfeit; 195 — Paul Wilcox, Sol, p. Seth Kruse, 3:19; 220 — Noah Schmelzenbach, Sol, p. Lucas Chircop, 0:31; 285 — Zach Koziczkowski, Ken, p. Dalton Best, 4:41; 98 — Logan Craig, Sol, t.f. Natalie Chavez, 3:39; 106 — Charles Meyer, Sol, won by forfeit; 113 — Gideon Hutchison, Sol, won by forfeit; 120 — Phillip Lawton, Sol, won by forfeit; 126 — Jacob Anderson, Ken, won by forfeit; 132 — Seth Hutchison, Sol, won by forfeit; 138 — Logan Schrader, Sol, won by forfeit; 145 — Bechler Metcalf, Sol, won by forfeit; 152 — Talon Musgrave, Sol, won by forfeit; 160 — Keyshawn McEnerny, Ken, t.f. Emmanuel Van Hout, 3:15; 170 — Paul Steffensen, Ken, p. Austin Schrader, 3:52.
Exhibition — 138 — Kaden McKibben, Ken, p. Dan Grubb, 1:45; 170 — Byron Dunham, Ken, p. Brennan Werner, 3:47; 170 — Abraham Van Hout, Sol, p. Byron Dunham, 1:24.