Saturday night is setting up to a showdown of epic proportions at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The spacious, new, $109 million venue will play host to three state high school wrestling tournaments this weekend with the Class 1-2-3A and 4A boys meet and the girls meet. It all adds up to a sea of humanity — a total of 525 competitors statewide actually — which could fill up the 5,000-seat arena, a sight to behold.
Some of the sports longest-tenured coaches in the state can imagine what that will look like, because they’ve been there before.
For several years back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the season-ending state tournament was held at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, which now regularly hosts hockey games. The Carlson Center seats over 6,500.
Soldotna coach Neldon Gardner, a 1977 Kenai Central graduate who coached at SoHi in the 1980s before settling into a coaching position with the Skyview Panthers for 24 years prior to the high school’s closing, said the state meets back then were “awesome.”
“It’s neat to see us getting to a bigger venue where everyone can see it and check it out,” Gardner said. “That’s what was great about the Carlson Center, and it’s going to be really neat to watch the other competition going on at some time.”
Homer coach Chris Perk, whose Mariners team is aiming to win a second consecutive state crown, said wrestling at the Carlson Center in the early 1990s as a state competitor was a great experience, and his expectations of the Alaska Airlines Arena are big.
“It’ll be controlled chaos,” Perk said. “It was a similar atmosphere, and from a spectator point of view, you get to see the cream of the crop and every match.”
Kenai Central coach Stan Steffensen, whose coaching resume also goes back many years, said he is on board with the venue change.
“It’s fantastic, what great things for the kids and coaches and the community,” Steffensen said. “A big part of wrestling is having fun and seeing people and the large and small schools.”
Nikiski coach Adam Anders agrees.
“It’s great to have it all under one roof,” he said. “It will really feel like a special event for the wrestlers.”
The Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, which can seat about 8,700, is another former venue of the state wrestling meet, and Gardner said getting the chance to watch the American and Russian national teams compete in an exhibition there prior to the 1988 Summer Olympics stood out in his mind as another big-time stage.
“I think they’re trying to promote it more and more, and make it an event,” he said. “In the Lower 48 you have (the University of) Iowa and Oklahoma State set up a mat on the football fields, and they’ll get thirty to forty thousand people watching a dual match.”
As far as the on-mat competition, big things are in store for local teams.
At the Class 1-2-3A level, the Homer Mariners are eyeing another state crown after breaking a 29-year drought last season. Hot off its second straight Kachemak Conference title last week, Homer is bringing one of the state’s top contingents to the Alaska Airlines Center.
The Mariners claimed 14 overall individual conference championships last week, twice as many as they collected in 2015, and beat runner-up Houston in the team standings by a whopping margin of 311 to 144.5 points. With nine region boys champs and five girls champs, Homer is raring to go against some of the state’s top 1-2-3A competition.
Perk said Bethel looms large as the team most likely to challenge the Mariners’ run of success, but added that Homer’s strength is in numbers, and the Mariners could potentially put eight athletes in the state finals on Saturday night.
“The two programs have seen each other, and (Bethel is) stronger in the lower weights and we’re stronger in the upper weights,” Perk said. “We both have similar amounts of participants, so I can see them putting seven into the finals.”
Last year, Homer won the team championship with 212 points, beating out Bethel’s 168. Bethel put four wrestlers into the state finals and won all four of them, but they all came at 132 pounds and below. The Mariners also put four into the finals, but only won two, ranging from 98 pounds to 195 pounds.
However, the key difference came in the lower, consolation rounds, as Homer placed six wrestlers in the third- and fifth-place matches, while Bethel had four.
“It’s going to come down to the finals, it’s not going to be decided until somewhere there,” Perk forecasted.
Among the names to keep an eye on for a state title is sophomore Luciano Fasulo, who won the region title last week at 126 pounds to boost his perfect season record to 41-0 and claim the top seed for state in his weight class. Perk said Fasulo’s run of perfection is the result of hard work throughout the calendar year.
“I’m not sure if that was the goal to start out the year, his goal was to become a state champion,” Perk said. “But it’s just happened that way, and he’s brought his best.”
Fasulo put in a lot of conditioning through the offseason, Perk said, including a strong cross-country running season. Fasulo finished eighth overall in the boys Class 1-2-3A race in early October, helping the Homer boys to win their first state championship in team history.
“He’s done a lot of running in the offseason, and that extra running has become this mental force that he believes in himself,” Perk said.
Homer also boasts the Kachemak Conference Outstanding Wrestler of the Meet in 138-pound champion Jared Brant, who boosted his season mark to 40-1 after his region title. Brant enters the state meet as the top seed in his weight class.
Senior Timmy Woo, a state champion at 152 pounds last year, is gunning for another title, this time at 160 pounds. Woo has compiled a 39-1 record this year and is the top-seeded grappler at 160 pounds.
At 170 pounds, Homer has a top seeded wrestler in Tristen Cook, who is 39-3 this season.
Homer also has four wrestlers seeded second in their weight classes. Sophomore Wayne Newman returns to the big stage at 106 pounds after losing a tight 10-9 state final last year at 98 pounds, and has amassed a 34-2 record this year en route to his second straight region championship. At 182 pounds, Levi King has gone 11-2 this year, and returns to defend a state title, which he won at 195 pounds last year. Kyle Wells is at 34-2 in the 195-pound division, and Jadin Mann is 33-5 at 285 pounds.
Also among the seeded wrestlers are Seth Inama, who is fifth at 113 pounds, Chris Cudaback, who is fourth at 152 pounds, and Jaime Rios, ranked sixth at 160 pounds.
“I like to use the term cautious, but optimistic,” Perk said. “I have no reason to believe the team’s not going to rise to the challenge and win a state title.”
The Mariners also qualified five girls competitors for the girls tournament, which does not separate 1-2-3A athletes from the 4A athletes. Homer boasts region champions in Alex Moseley at 113 pounds, Mina Cavasos at 120 pounds, Allison Wells at 132, McKenzie Cook at 145 and Heather Harrington at 220.
After claiming two state titles last year due to now-departed seniors, the Nikiski Bulldogs are eyeing a strong finish to the season.
Last week, Nikiski took home third-place honors at the Kachemak Conference tournament, beating out Grace Christian by the slim margin of half a point.
“Everyone contributed, we really can’t credit one individual,” said a proud Nikiski coach Anders.
With eight wrestlers competing this weekend at the state meet, Nikiski is in the running for individual success. For the first time in a long while, Nikiski had no state-ranked wrestlers in the top-six entering the region tournament last weekend, but two Bulldogs stepped up into the state mix after strong conference showings.
Nikiski took its only region championship last week at 220 pounds, when junior Tyler Litke won a 10-8 sudden victory decision in the title round. Litke bumped his season record to 37-5 with the victory.
Seeded sixth at 195 pounds is senior Dakota Hupp, who finished fourth at the region meet. Hupp enters the state meet with a 27-11 season record.
“We’re looking for a great meet and hopefully everyone performs at their best,” Anders said.
Anders also praised the performance of Nikiski freshman Ethan Hack, who won the tournament third-place match at 220 pounds with a pin.
Also joining the Bulldogs in the state mix is freshman Jordan Fleming at 106 pounds, freshman Mason Payne at 113, junior Donovan Smith at 160 and sophomore Dustin Mullins at 170. Mullins enters the weekend with a strong 26-9 season record.
Seward qualified four wrestlers to state, including Isaiah Bivens at 113 pounds, Cole Norcross at 120, Simon Estes at 132 and Jaden VanDyke at 138.
At the Class 4A level, Soldotna is bringing nine boys and two girls, while Kenai is taking three boys.
After an 0-for-4 day in the region finals last weekend left Soldotna with a fourth-place finish in the team standings, SoHi coach Gardner said he felt like his Stars were performing at about an “80 percent level.”
“If each of the kids wrestle to their ability and are peaking at the right time, we could have five or six in the top six,” Gardner said. “There are four or five kids, if they have the tourney of their year, that could be in the finals.”
Leading the way for SoHi is junior Bechler Metcalf, who is seeded second at 152 pounds. Metcalf has worked his way to a 34-6 record this season.
However, the 152-pound weight class is stacked. For example, fourth-seeded Kenai senior Keyshawn McEnerney has beat the top-seeded Andrue Shepersky of Wasilla, who has beaten second-seeded Metcalf twice, including a loss in the region title bout, but both have been close battles. McEnerney has split two matches with Service’s Quest Lema, who is seeded fifth.
“You can flip a coin at 152,” Gardner said.
Another athlete who suffered a rare loss was sophomore Gideon Hutchison, who lost the 113-pound region final to Colony’s Rush Fannon, who pinned Hutchison in a minute. Hutchison, who was ranked second in the state entering the weekend, one spot ahead of Fannon, was handed just his second loss of the season in the match, leaving him at 34-2, with both losses coming at the hands of Fannon.
Hutchison is seeded third for the state tournament.
At 182 pounds, Brenner Furlong also reached the conference finals before losing and is looking to make amends at state.
SoHi senior Austin Schrader is seeded fourth at 170 pounds for the state tournament. Schrader was ranked third coming into the NLC championship weekend, but ultimately fell into the fifth-place match last Saturday, winning it with a pin on Wasilla’s Jacob Anderson.
Schrader had worked his way through the bracket to meet Palmer’s Christian Kurka in the semifinals. Schrader lost an 8-5 decision, then lost a consolation round match 8-7 before winning the fifth-place match.
With the completion of the region tournament, Schrader’s season tally moved to 8-2, a shortened record after the SoHi senior lost time due to the football team’s playoff run and the removal of his wisdom teeth.
Also expected to make a deep state run is sophomore Logan Craig, seeded fifth at 98 pounds with a 24-11 season record. SoHi freshman Aaron Faletoi at 220 pounds could make some noise, along with junior Austin Reeves at 285 pounds.
SoHi also qualified a pair of region champions to state on the girls side in freshmen Vydell Baker and Amanda Wylie. Baker won at 132 pounds and Wylie claimed the crown at 145 pounds.
Kenai qualified three wrestlers to state — McEnerney at 152 pounds, Tyler Vaughn (seeded fifth at 120 pounds) and Jacob Anderson (seeded sixth at 138 pounds). Anderson has amassed a 29-7 record this year.
McEnerney was ranked first in his weight class for much of the season, but a brief sickness left him tired and weakened at last weekend’s region championships, and he finished fourth.
As a senior who has racked up a 32-7 season record, Steffensen said McEnerny is eyeing a state championship, even if he has to do it the hard way.
“Maybe it’s planned for Keyshawn,” Steffensen opined. “He came in as the fifth seed at the Lancer Smith (tournament), and came away carrying the jacket. He’s already been there once, it’s the state tournament, so I told him to enjoy the journey.
Whatever happens, happens.”