Competing under the lights in a home meet, the Kenai Central and Soldotna wrestling squads had a lot on the line to fight for Friday and Saturday at the Northern Lights Conference championship tournament.
A total of 20 peninsula competitors — 12 from SoHi and eight from Kenai — will be making the trip to Chugiak High School next weekend for the season-ending state tournament.
The Colony Knights secured their second straight Northern Lights Conference crown by racking up 387 points, edging out Valley rival Wasilla for a second season in a row to win by 15.5 points. Soldotna finished third in the team race with 196.5 points and Kenai finished sixth with 140.5.
While lacking the numbers to threaten powerhouse schools Wasilla and Colony for the team title, the Stars and Kards still came away with several feel-good victories.
SoHi junior Dalton Best knocked off one of the state’s top heavyweight competitors with a semifinal win on Friday. It took Best 55 seconds to pin Wasilla senior Zech Rockstad, the No. 3-ranked wrestler in the state in the 285-pound division, and tops among NLC wrestlers.
“That was a pretty big deal for me because I’ve wrestled him about three or four times before and he’s beaten me in all of them,” Best said. “It was just a lot of hard work.”
Competing in his first region final Saturday, Best said the biggest obstacle he had to overcome to pull off the upset was getting over the mental nerves.
“I was definitely nervous,” Best said. “I’ve never wrestled under the lights before.”
Facing Best was Colony senior Mitchell Daigle, who entered the weekend with a 34-4 season record. Daigle scored two early points on Best with a takedown in the first round, then steadily worked on Best in the second round before getting the pin with 13 seconds left.
Best went to state last year, but failed to finish in the top six. This year, he is looking for more.
“I’m just going to keep working hard,” he said. “Try to stay healthy.”
Earlier in the night, a pair of brothers from Kenai claimed region titles within the span of a few minutes. Kenai sophomore Paul Steffensen took the gold in the 145-pound final for his second region crown, and was followed shortly by senior brother Ellery in the 152-pound final, who clinched a clean four-year sweep of region titles in his high school career.
“It was definitely different, it was nice,” Paul said about the home crowd. “It was a pleasure to wrestle in front of them.”
Paul used a takedown on Wasilla’s Justin Gentz in the first round of the 145-pound bout to take a 2-0 lead, then extended it to 6-0 in the second round with two more takedowns. However, none of that mattered in the end as he pinned Gentz with 13 ticks remaining in the round to continue to remain unbeaten against Gentz.
“I kind of knew his style and tried to tire him out and pin him,” Paul said.
Both Steffensens rely on superb fitness and stamina to exhaust their opponents, which played into their battles Saturday.
“Sometimes with these first-period guys, they come out with a lot of energy, but then that second period becomes a conditioning battle,” Ellery said. “I could feel him getting a bit tired, so I thought I’m gonna go for the pin now.”
Ellery was leading 2-1 when he took down Colony’s Spencer Adams in a pin with 1:09 remaining in the second round in the 152-pound championship match.
With his region-winning pin, Ellery also continued to stay perfect in 2014-15. The elder Steffensen currently holds a 33-0 record this year — all on pins, according to coach Stan Steffensen — with only the state tournament looming ahead.
“It’s something you can really look back on as kind of fun,” Ellery said. “It makes it all the more special.”
Coach — and father — Stan Steffensen added that the sibling rivalry continues to run deep with all his kids. Hope Steffensen, a 2013 graduate, won two region titles in four attempts.
“He can be a little more comfortable, he’s tied his sister for titles,” Steffensen quipped. “Now he’s got some bragging rights.”
Kenai senior Dylan Carter nearly added a third region title for Kenai, but was ultimately pinned by Wasilla’s DJ Morrow with 49 seconds left in the second round and had to settle for the silver medal.
“Knowing that DJ is pretty tough on top, he was going for riskier moves,” coach Steffensen said. “He almost got it, but almost doesn’t count when your playing horseshoes and hand grenades.”
Soldotna came away with two region champs early in the evening.
Senior Austin Craig won a 13-1 major decision over Kodiak’s Jacob Alwert, while junior Seth Hutchison came away with a 11-1 major decision over Berit Sturgeon of Wasilla.
Craig, who won his third straight region crown, improved to 25-1 for the season with a dominant match in the 113-pound final that saw him score the first nine points on four takedowns and an escape.
“I just set it up, saw the angle and shot,” Craig said. “Just like my coaches tell me and how I practice every day this year.”
Craig had faced Alwert twice this year, winning both, and said he felt very confident in Saturday’s third matchup, especially when both competitors were on their feet.
“I’m happy with all I’ve accomplished,” he said. “I’m proud of our team.”
When asked if he could win a state title next week, Craig made his intentions clear.
“Do you think I could?” Craig asked. “I hope I can. I’m ranked first, but I’m not gonna get too far ahead of myself.”
Hutchison improved to 30-2 this season with a similarly dominant win in the 120-pound final, taking Sturgeon to class with two takedowns in the first round to grab a 4-0 lead, then extending the lead to 9-0 with two more takedowns and an escape.
“I’m just a little more experienced, and I went out there ready, not as nervous,” Hutchison said.
Saturday was the first time going against Sturgeon, and Hutchison said he used one of his trademark moves — the “Russian tie” — on the Wasilla sophomore.
Hutchison claimed his third straight region championship in his third attempt, but first with Soldotna. A former Skyview competitor like Craig, Hutchison said that while the number of schools and competitors are less than the small-schools class that Skyview belonged to, the quality of competition is no less.
“It’s a little harder, but it just makes you feel better about winning,” Hutchison said.
Hutchison will try for a third straight state championship next weekend, something that older brother Eli has accomplished.
Senior Ryan Winter, competing in his first region final, had the pro-SoHi crowd on its feet in the final round of the 132-pound title bout, but was defeated in a slim 7-6 decision by Levi Fried of Kodiak.
“I just pushed him with my conditioning,” Winter said. “I had a lot better conditioning than that kid, and I just pushed him and ended up capitalizing on mistakes.”
Down 6-0 after the second round, Winter needed every second of the final two minutes to make up the deficit. He started by scoring two points on a takedown, then let Fried off with an escape point before scoring another takedown to close the gap to 7-4.
“I got him in a head and arm out of bounds, and that started the momentum change,” Winter said.
Ultimately, Winter was left to watch the final seconds tick by when he could not finish a pin near the mat boundary. But, second place still earned him a trip to state.
“It’s about what we were hoping for,” Gardner said. “It could’ve been as low as eight guys, but we’ll take as many as we’ve got.”
Northern Lights Conference
Friday, Saturday at Soldotna Prep
1. Colony, 387 points; 2. Wasilla, 371.5; 3. Soldotna, 196.5; 4. Kodiak, 155; 5. Palmer, 142.5; 6. Kenai Central, 140.5.
(Top 6 qualify for state)
98 pounds — Micah Mathis, Was, pinned Robert Zimmerman, Col, 1:33; 106 — Dillon Simpson, Was, dec. Sam Sisco, Col, 5-4; 113 — Austin Craig, Sol, maj. dec. Jacob Alwert, Kod, 13-1; 120 — Seth Hutchison, Sol, maj. dec. Berit Sturgeon, Was, 11-1; 126 — Jay-Ar Small, Kod, dec. Caleb Hopkins, Col, 6-1; 132 — Levi Fried, Kod, dec. Ryan Winter, Sol, 7-6; 138 — Jordan Nero, Col, dec. Wyatt McGann, Pal, 3-2; 145 — Paul Steffensen, Ken, pinned Justin Gentz, Was, 3:47; 152 — Ellery Steffensen, Ken, pinned Spencer Adams, Col, 2:51; 160 — Kamber Lucas, Col, forf. Robert Haan, Col; 170 — DJ Morrow, Was, pinned Dylan Carter, Ken, 3:11; 182 — Robert Nash, Col, pinned Forrest Pearce, Was, 1:32; 195 — Austin Farris, Pal, pinned Isaiah Christy, Col, 1:34; 220 — Ben Button, Pal, dec. Nolan Wandersee, Kod, 5-1; 285 — Mitchell Daigle, Col, pinned Dalton Best, Sol, 3:47.
3rd place matches
98 — Gabe Whisman, Col, pinned Bryan Gonzales, Kod, 2:18; 106 — Cayden Wall, Was, pinned Wade McGann, Pal, 2:08; 113 — Daniel Colley, Col, pinned Bruce Hill, Was, 0:38; 120 — Christion Alexander, Was, dec. Russel Delacruz, Kod, 4-3; 126 — Chace Booth, Col, maj. dec. Isaiah Elvsaas, Was, 12-1; 132 — Hayden Steiner, Was, dec. Troy Newland, Was, 10-6; 138 — Samuel Wolff, Was, dec. Matt Vandermartin, Ken, 8-4; 145 — Tyler Loutzenhiser, Col, pinned Weston Wall, Was, 2:33; 152 — Hayden Foster, Kod, dec. Eli Damon, Sol, 5-1; 160 — Bailey Blumentritt, Sol, dec. Andrew Shannon, Was, 1-0; 170 — Dawson Nash, Col, pinned Christian Kurka, Pal, 1:47; 182 — Chayse Eby, Col, pinned Jacob Ouellette, Kod, 4:59; 195 — Sage Hill, Sol, pinned Chase Minnick, Was, 3:00; 220 — Zachariah Doan, Col, pinned Chandler Gagnon, Was, 2:12; 285 — Zech Rockstad, Was, dec. Zach Koziczkowski, Ken, 11-6.
5th place matches
98 — Daniel Richards, Pal, bye; 106 — Natalie Chavez, Ken, forf. Tyler Vaughn, Ken; 113 — Matthew Lacy, Col, pinned Walter Brewer, Kod, 0:45; 120 — Anthony Miley, Col, forf. Joel Valdez, Kod; 126 — Logan Albrecht, Was, dec. Sean Walton, Kod, 8-6; 132 — Scott Larionoff, Kod, pinned Jason Watkins, Pal, 2:31; 138 — Brennan Easley, Col, pinned Logan Schrader, Sol, 4:49; 145 — Keyshawn McEnerny, Ken, dec. Talon Musgrave, Sol, 4-2; 152 — Cole George, Was, dec. Nicholas Gross, Was, 6-4; 160 — Hunter Bourgeois, Sol, pinned Bryan Dyer, Pal, 2:14; 170 — Eli Leonard, Was, forf. Christopher Ray, Col; 182 — byes; 195 — Kristian Palaniuk, Was, pinned James Gallagher, Sol, 2:56; 220 — Taylor Macrae, Sol, dec. Lucas Santana, Pal, 13-12; 285 — Garret Williams, Pal, pinned Raden Anthony, Was, 3:30.