Soldotna wrestling head coach Neldon Gardner has been telling his team since the beginning of the season that it’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish.
The Stars showed they are not finished yet on a dominant Saturday at the Northern Lights Conference tournament at Soldotna High School.
“He says since the beginning of the season, ‘It really doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you finish,” said Soldotna’s Hunter Richardson, who won the title at 189 pound to improve to 29-0. “We’ll just be hoping to finish next weekend.”
Both the Soldotna boys and girls won the conference title. The boys had seven champions. Gardner, who has been coaching on the central Kenai Peninsula for 40 years, said he’s fairly certain SoHi’s only other three conference titles came in 1988, 1989 and 1990. The girls had six champions to win their first conference title.
Soldotna’s Trinity Donovan, who won the title at girls 145 pounds to move to 26-0, was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler for the girls. Palmer’s Cody Vansiegman won the title at 140 and was named Most Outstanding Wrestler for the boys, while Wasilla’s Cory Crane was named Coach of the Year.
“Our team wrestled above and beyond this weekend,” Gardner said.
The boys scored 456.5 points to take the conference title from Colony, which had 376.5. Last season, Colony won with 351.5 points, while Soldotna had 351. The SoHi girls had 184 to top the 129 of runner-up Palmer.
Gardner said his 2001 team at Skyview High School put 13 in the finals, winning eight, and scoring 375 points. So the 456.5 was a conference high for Gardner.
“It’s just a matter of one more week and wrestle as good as we did this weekend, and we’ll finish how we should,” Gardner said of the hunt for a first state wrestling title for the Soldotna boys.
Gardner has already said he will step down as head coach after the state tournament, which will be Friday and Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The Stars boys had 12 in the finals. The first wrestler, Jacob Strausbaugh at 112, provided the biggest roar of the evening when he was down 4-0, but got Palmer’s Kael Salisbury in a cradle for the pin.
“That’s last year’s state champ who beat Jacob in the finals of the state tournament,” Gardner said of the two, who have since moved from 103 to 112. “That’s the first time Jacob’s ever beat that kid.”
The champions kept rolling in from there. Ezekiel Miller pinned Colony’s Evan Holmes at 125, Hunter Bras pinned Palmer’s Wil Lindsey at 135, Isaac Chavarria pinned Palmer’s Carson Corbridge at 152, Collin Peck scored a major decision over Thomas Weller at 171, Richardson pinned Colony’s Raif Floresta at 189 and Liam Babitt pinned Wasilla’s Liam Brown at 215.
Richardson credited Pete Dickinson for stocking the program through the Soldotna Whalers club team.
“We’ve all been wrestling for a long time,” Richardson said. “We’ve all had a common goal for a long time. And we’ve finally got all the guys in the room.”
Babitt, a senior, also is undefeated at 16-0. He won undefeated state titles as a sophomore and junior after quitting the sport after just two weeks as a freshman.
Babitt credited Gardner with getting him back into the sport by talking to him the summer before Babitt’s sophomore year.
“I’m thankful that he’s been here and been in my corner through it all,” Babitt said.
Babitt said when peers and opponents ask him the secret to his success, the answer is simple.
“I listened to what the coaches told me,” he said. “They look at my wrestling stance and how I wrestle. They’re like, all right, these are the things you need to fix, and this is how to do them.
“I listened to that, and I performed better than the rest of the kids.”
Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that Babitt is 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, and can do a standing backflip.
Michael Dickinson (130), Scott Michael (140), Trevor Michael (145), Edgar Land (160) and Logan Katzenberger (285) also made it to the finals for Soldotna, but lost.
The top five in each weight bracket earn automatic berths to state.
Also earning those automatic bids for the Stars are Samuel Strouse in third at 103, Samuel Henry in fifth at 103, Jace Guilliam in fourth at 103, Mason Bock in third at 119, Tustin Keller in fifth at 119, Ryan Buchanan in fourth at 119, Liam Peck in fourth at 152, Logan Duyck in third at 160, Kenai Lepule in third at 285 and Kevin Steger in fourth at 285.
Gardner said the 22 boys wrestlers going to state is a new personal record for him, beating the 20 set by the 2001 team.
A big difference between the 2001 Skyview team and this year’s SoHi team is that Gardner did not take a seat in the coach’s corner for any of the SoHi championship matches this time.
That’s because he wanted the freedom to coach both girls and boys title matches, which were being held concurrently on side-by-side mats.
“We’re just super excited about the girls because we only have two seniors and the junior high is bringing in probably five or six girls this year,” said Gardner, adding SoHi has another girls wrestler who would have been a state finalist but had a previous commitment to soccer this wrestling season.
One of those seniors is Donovan, who will try to become the third Alaska girl to win four state titles. Donovan lost six times as a freshman, but went undefeated as a sophomore and junior, and has a chance for another undefeated season.
“I kind of feel like there’s a lot of pressure on me to do it,” Donovan said. “It’s a couple of my coaches’ last years. It’s my last year to do this.
“At the same time, I feel pretty mellow about it. Like, yeah, I got it in the pocket. Everything’s fine. Just keep your head up and just go for it.”
Donovan said there were just four girls on the SoHi team when she was a freshman, and now the number is up to 12.
“The sport’s really growing and it’s really an inspiration for all the younger kids, and especially the girls, to come out and try the sport,” Donovan said.
Donovan pinned Palmer’s Selene Harris for the title. Other championships came from Jessica Leclair pinning Colony’s Hayden VanderPool at 107, Angelina Chavarria pinning Palmer’s Emma O’Brien at 114, Kaytlin McAnelly pinning Kodiak’s Hannah Finley at 132 and Daisy Hannevold pinning Palmer’s Nena Trout at 138. Alyssa McDonald also won a title at 165 unopposed.
The top two girls in each weight class automatically make state, with additional at-large berths available. The Stars also had Kellyn Hansen (120) in the finals to earn an automatic bid.
Monday, the Alaska School Activities Association announced that Soldotna’s Keeley Moore (100), Megan Whittom (107), Taylor Whittom (114) and Erin Bell (152) had received at-large berths to state, meaning the Stars are sending 11 girls to state.