After being handed a dual loss by Kenai earlier this season, the Soldotna Stars wrestling team was looking for redemption before the season comes to an end.
In the final regular season meet of the year, the Stars finished strong, topping Kenai Central 48-32 in a dual meet Thursday.
The Stars lost a 45-36 dual meet to the Kards in early December, but with wrestlers finally beginning to get healthy again after a season of illness and injury, SoHi coach Neldon Gardner was happy to see his team come away with the win.
“I would rather do duals like this than a long tournament any day of the week,” Gardner said, adding that he believes the dual format works the best in the longer season in which the large schools compete.
“We used to pack the bleachers for these meets back in the day, and if we had more of these dual meets, I think we’d get our fan base back,” he said.
Gardner said the turnaround from the previous meeting with Kenai and Thursday’s dual came down to two key matchups. Phillip Lawton gained six points for SoHi in the 113-pound bout, notching a pin of Kenai’s Natalie Chavez with 54 seconds to spare. Lawton did not make weight last time, which created a 12-point swing.
The other turnaround match came in the 138-pound bout, which Soldotna senior Ryan Winter won with a pin on Kenai’s Matt Vandermartin with just 40 seconds left. At the previous dual at Soldotna, Vandermartin got the win by pinning Winter.
“After Christmas break, our whole team put in a lot of work, we worked our butts off, and came out and it’s starting to show,” Winter said shortly after his match. “This is a big (meet) today.”
Vandermartin came out strong against Winter, using two takedowns to eke out a 5-2 lead after the first two-minute round.
However, Winter scored a takedown in the final few seconds of the second round to lead 7-6 heading into the third and final round. At the end, points didn’t matter, as Winter caught Vandermartin in a pin.
“I was using leg rides, I’ve been working that on him,” Winter said. “The kid is really tough. I just beat him on top, and I tried to stay off my back.”
Winter, who enters next weekend’s region meet as one of the favorites in the 138-pound division, said Thursday’s meet was important to fine-tuning his craft.
“I’ve got a couple tough kids in my weight class, but I think I have what it takes to be in the finals,” he said.
After the 160-pound bout that saw Kenai’s Ellery Steffensen pin Soldotna’s Hunter Bourgeois with 11 seconds left in the first round, Kenai and Soldotna were tied on team points with 24 apiece.
The Stars took a 30-24 lead after Kenai forfeited the 170-pound match, but Dylan Carter of Kenai brought the Kards back to within a point of the Stars in the 182-pound final, gaining five points with a technical fall on James Gallagher of SoHi with 22 seconds left in the second round. Carter led 7-1 after the first round, and continued to extend the lead in the second.
“He’s a lot stronger than I thought he was, but I think I tired him out a bit,” Carter said. “We always like to compete with (Kenai), and I feel like if Kenai can keep their numbers up, it can be a really good rivalry.”
Carter, who was leading 16-1 at the time of the call, is another favorite for SoHi to grab a region title. Carter claimed the triple crown of wrestling at the Alaska State Wrestling Championships last May, winning all three matches in folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman grappling.
“I think I can do it, and all this mat time is helping out,” Carter said. “My weight’s close now, I feel like it.”
After Carter’s match, Soldotna claimed another six points off a Kenai forfeit in the 195-pound match, giving them a 36-29 lead, then clinched the dual win with a forfeit in the 220-pound match. Overall, Kenai gave up six matches to forfeits, which proved to be the difference.
“It’s been a real roller-coaster or yo-yo year,” Gardner said about the season. “We’ve not had a one hundred percent lineup all year. It’s probably the worst year I’ve had as far as kids sitting out for sickness and injury.”
Soldotna High School will host the Region III wrestling meet next weekend, starting Jan. 30.
Thursday at Kenai Central High School
1. Soldotna 48 points; 2. Kenai Central 32.
98 — double fft.; 106 — Tyler Vaughn, Ken, fft. unknown; 113 — Phillip Lawton, Sol, pinned Natalie Chavez, Ken, 5:06; 120 — Austin Craig, Sol, pinned Shayna McKinley, Ken, 1:27; 126 — Seth Hutchison, Sol, fft. unknown; 132 — Cody Quelland, Sol, fft. unknown; 138 — Ryan Winter, Sol, Matt Vandermartin, Ken, 5:20; 145 — Keyshawn McEnerny, Ken, dec. Talon Musgrave, Sol, 16-9; 152 — Paul Steffensen, Ken, pinned Eli Damon, Sol, 4:39; 160 — Ellery Steffensen, Ken, pinned Hunter Bourgeois, Sol, 1:49; 170 — Bailey Blumentritt, Sol, fft. unknown; 182 — Dylan Carter, Ken, tech. James Gallagher, Sol, 16-1; 195 — Sage Hill, Sol, fft. unknown; 220 — Taylor Macrae, Sol, fft. unknown; 285 — Zach Koziczkowski, Ken, pinned Dalton Best, Sol, 3:33.