Soldotna, Kenai face tough task at NLC wrestling tourney

The math this weekend at the Northern Lights Conference wrestling tournament is pretty simple. If you finish among the top six in your weight class, you earn a trip to Chugiak High School for the state championships.

Of course, the math may be easy, but pulling through in one of the toughest regions in the state is another equation.

Six grapplers from each weight class are ranked on a weekly basis by top coaches and wrestling experts in the state, and according to AKmat.org, out of 90 total ranked competitors in 15 different weight classes in the state, 44 belong to a school in the NLC, most of the three conferences.

Thirty-five wrestlers belong to the Cook Inlet Conference, consisting of all Anchorage-area schools, and the remaining 11 hail from the Mid-Alaska Conference, which consists of Fairbanks-area schools.

The Colony Knights currently lead the state with total of 15 ranked wrestlers, while South Anchorage is second on that list with nine.

The dilemma in front of Soldotna coach Nelson Gardner and Kenai coach Stan Steffensen will be to pack as many wrestlers into a state qualifying bid as they can.

“They’re just gonna be hard to beat,” Gardner said about the conference competition. “I think Soldotna, Kodiak and Kenai will be battling for third, with Palmer behind them. Kenai has the fewest kids, but they have very good kids.”

Both Gardner and Steffensen agreed that Colony and Wasilla remain as the favorites heading into this weekend’s NLC tournament, which begins at noon today at Soldotna Prep School. Semifinal matches begin tonight at 6 p.m., and championship finals begin Saturday at 2 p.m.

Steffensen attributed the strength of the conference to an abundance of community and parental support,

“We have great kids in the conference, good parents that support wrestling,” Steffensen said.

With three active wrestling clubs in the central Peninsula region and five in the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, the interest level for the sport has rocketed, which in turn has seen returns of state championship success.

“The key thing is, you look back at some of the best clubs in the state, and kids have the opportunity to get around and see the sport and get involved,” Steffensen said.

Colony is looking to defend its 2014 region title, while Wasilla is looking to take it back after winning the 2013 crown. The two schools have finished 1-2 in the team battle the last two years.

One year after seeing Skyview High School close its doors and reopening as a middle school, Gardner returns to the Class 4A level of competition by hosting the tournament with the Stars.

“It’ll be good to have it here at our home gym, where the local people can come and watch and see some good wrestling,” he said. “We have some very good quality kids.”

Gardner added that the event will double as Soldotna’s senior night, since the only home meet SoHi has had this year was a dual with Kenai in December. The seniors on the team will be celebrated prior to the championship finals Saturday afternoon.

Gardner said he hopes to celebrate the seniors by getting as many of them to state as possible. With around 22 athletes on the current roster, Gardner said he would happy to see at least a dozen qualify for state.

“We’ve had good practices this week, and we’re excited about finishing this weekend and getting on to state next week,” he said. “We’ve lost a few to injury that are not gonna be in the tournament, and then we’ve had a couple move out of state, a few drop due to grades .. we have six less than last year at Skyview at the end of the year.”

The longtime coach said this season has been among the worst in injuries and sickness. But it is something that every team is seemingly battling.

“It’s pretty much you’ve got what you’ve got,” Gardner said.

Among the leading statebound candidates for SoHi are a pair of former Skyview grapplers — junior Seth Hutchison and senior Austin Craig, both of whom are ranked No. 1 in their weight class.

Hutchison is a two-time state champion at the Class 1-2-3A level with Skyview, and is the top-ranked wrestler at 120 pounds. Craig is the defending 1-2-3A state champion at 106 pounds, but is the top gun at 113 pounds this year.

“Seth and Austin should be in the finals and win a region title,” Gardner said.

Three other Soldotna wrestlers are ranked in the top six in the state; Ryan Winter (sixth) at 132 pounds, Bailey Blumentritt (sixth) at 152 and Sage Hill (second) at 195.

As far as the unranked guys, Gardner said he expects good things from Hunter Bourgeois at 160 pounds, Eli Damon at 145 and Dalton Best at 285.

Kenai Central is currently down to no less than a dozen wrestlers on the roster, which Steffensen said will make it a tough battle in the team championship. However, he is not worried about individual results.

“They’re all capable of doing it. It’s gonna be interesting to see,” Steffensen said.

Like SoHi, Steffensen said the Kards are battling through sickness and other ailments, but the last of the affected individuals are on the rebound.

After a dual meet against SoHi last week, Steffensen said the on-mat competition was a much-needed gauge to test the Kards and make some final plans in preparation for the last two weeks of the season.

“Competition is a great thing in America, whether it’s business or athletics,” Steffensen said. “It gives you a chance to see what you’re doing well, and what you need to work on. It puts the spotlight on you and it’s an excellent time to take a look at where you’re at.”

As far as who will be leading the charge, there are six current Kenai wrestlers ranked among the state’s best.

Senior Ellery Steffensen is No. 1 in the 152-pound division, and is a former state champion for Kenai. Steffensen will be looking for a clean sweep of region crowns in his high school career, after winning three in his first three years.

“It’s pretty exciting,” coach Steffensen said. “I don’t ever consider it a given, but Ellery alone, looking at the competition, he’s looking really good.

“He’s wrestling as well as when he was a national champion (in 2010).”

Ellery’s sophomore brother, Paul, is also trying to defend his region championship from a year ago, and is ranked third at 145 pounds. Joining Paul in the weight class is another sophomore, Keyshawn McEnerny, who is looking for his first region title after missing out last year due to an injury.

Of course, McEnerny may have to go through his teammate if he wants to win.

“We may have Paul on one mat, Keyshawn on the other,” coach Steffensen said, adding that assistant coaches Ryan Moss and Devin Carter will be busy trying to rally the two wrestlers should they be competing at the same times.

“That’s what’s exciting about wrestling, and we have had wonderful people help me off and on throughout the year,” Steffensen said.

In the 170-pound division, Dylan Carter is ranked third, and if past accolades are a sign of things to come, Carter may be a state guarantee. The Kenai senior won the “triple crown” of wrestling at the Alaska USA Wrestling state tournament in Wasilla in May, claiming wins in freestyle, folkstyle and Greco-Roman styles of the sport.

At 138 pounds, senior Matt Vandermartin is ranked sixth and is working on his first region title.

Finally, at the heavyweight division (285 pounds), junior Zach Koziczkowski is currently ranked fifth among his state counterparts, and is looking for his maiden region crown.

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