State wrestling preview: Homer going for 3rd title in 5 years

Dynasties are etched in stone over years, not months. The mark of a dynasty is the return to power year after year, season after season.

In the small fishing town of Homer, the boys and girls wrestling teams have come to define the region and state wrestling championships over the last half decade. Since 2015, the Mariners boys have racked up five Kachemak Conference titles and two state titles, while the girls have rung up two straight conference crowns in a burgeoning program.

The two Homer programs will be tested one last time this decade as the boys shoot for a third state title in five years and the girls go for their first this weekend at the Division II state wrestling championships at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage. The Division II tournament will also include peninsula programs from Kenai Central, Nikiski and Seward.

The Division I championship meet will run adjacent to the smaller-schools tournament at the cavernous arena, with the Soldotna Stars the lone peninsula representative. SoHi finished fifth at the Division I state meet last year.

Homer qualified 17 total wrestlers to state — eight girls and nine boys competitors — and eight of them are seeded in the top six of their weight class.

In winning last year’s boys state title, the Mariners put five grapplers in the finals round, with four of them coming out the victors.

This year, first-year head coach Justin Zank came over from the Voznesenka program, which was shuttered after last season. Zank joined longtime Homer coaches Chris Perk and Bubba Wells and the three have combined their coaching skills in keeping the program going strong.

Zank said he hopes to be in the championship mix come Saturday night, but acknowledged the boys will need to extract every ounce of their potential to contend with the likes of perennial favorites Bethel, Glennallen and Dillingham.

“There’s always a chance,” Zank said. “There are some tough teams out there that have qualified a bunch. If we’re going to repeat, we’d have to wrestle extremely well.”

In staving off Redington by three points for the Kachemak crown last week, Zank said Homer was able to score a lot of points through pins (worth six points) and a handful of wrestlers who finished above their seeded spots. Zank said Homer needs more surprise points this week to contend.

“Our focus this week is to be a little better than we were,” Zank said. “We need to get people on the podium that don’t normally get there. We have a bunch of unseeded guys that need to get on the podium.”

Homer’s best shots to win gold lie in freshman Russell Nyvall at 125 pounds, senior Mose Hayes at 152 pounds, senior Anthony Kalugin at 189 and sophomore Alex Hicks at 285. Those four are the four seeded boys wrestlers for Homer.

Hayes is gunning for a second state title to go with his 2017 crown he won as a sophomore. Last year, Hayes lost the 152-pound final, but returned this year to rack up a 23-1 record, seeding him first at 152 pounds. Hayes’ lone loss came in a tech fall to Division I Colony’s Vincent Cramer at the Lancer Smith tournament.

“Mose has been there, done that,” Zank said. “If he wrestles like he should, he should win another title.”

Kalugin at 189 pounds and Hicks at 285 are both seeded second in their respective weight classes. Kalugin is 25-4 this year while Hicks is 18-7. Both are looking for their first state title. Nyvall is seeded fourth at 125 pounds.

The Homer girls are led by junior Sadie Blake, the top seed at 125 pounds who is also fresh off a Kachemak Conference title. Blake was announced as the Most Outstanding Wrestler at the girls tournament last week, and is 19-1 this year. Her lone loss this year came to Soldotna’s Vydell Baker, an opponent that Blake came back to pin later in the season.

“I think she’s got an excellent shot as the top seed,” Zank said. “She’s wrestling well and has expectations to win it as well.”

Homer also has senior Rayana Vigil, who is seeded second at 189 pounds with an undefeated 12-0 campaign at risk. Vigil comes into the weekend having pinned every opponent she has faced this year.

The girls will also include senior Mina Cavasos, who is seeded fifth at 119, and sophomore Mischelle Wells, seeded sixth at 135.

The Nikiski Bulldogs will bring four wrestlers to state, headed up by two seeded grapplers in juniors Jaryn Zoda and Koleman McCaughey. Zoda is seeded fourth at 130 pounds while McCaughey is sixth at 171 with a 22-9 record this year.

Nikiski also qualified sophomores Ayden Flemming at 125 pounds and Simon Grenier at 160. Flemming lost in last week’s region final, while Grenier won third place with a pin.

Kenai Central made it to state with eight wrestlers, three of them seeded. Leading the Kardinals charge is junior Rocky Sherbahn at 215 pounds, seeded third with an 8-2 season mark.

The Kards also feature sophomore Talon Whicker, seeded fifth at 112 pounds, and junior Tucker Vann, fifth at 171. Vann is fresh off a region title last week and enters state with a 16-3 season tally.

Kenai could also surprise some folks with a quartet of freshmen that made it — Zack Rodman at 103 pounds, Owen Whicker at 112, Rey Perez at 119 and Andrew Gaethle at 130.

The Seward wrestling program qualified two wrestlers, led by sophomore Marcus Lastimosa, who is ranked sixth at heavyweight with a 13-6 record. Lastimosa squeaked into the show with a third-place finish from last week’s region tournament.

The Seahawks could have a darkhorse in the mix in junior Thomas Ooka, the 145-pound Kachemak champion who joined the team late this year and has been a tough out with an unblemished mark of 6-0. Ooka is unseeded entering state but could upset the field.

At the Division I tournament, SoHi will be bringing 17 athletes — 14 boys and three girls — in a bid to improve on their fifth-place team showing a year ago. Six Star grapplers are seeded, led by junior Dennis Taylor, who is seeded second at 152 pounds. Taylor is 22-12 on the year.

The Stars also have championship potential in junior Sean Babitt, seeded third at 171 pounds, junior Zach Burns, seeded fourth at 140, and freshman Scott Michael, seeded fifth at 125. Babitt has amassed a record of 25-5 this season and received boys Outstanding Wrestler of the meet last week at the Kachemak tournament. Burns, meanwhile, is 24-6 this year with a state podium finish in his sights.

The trio of SoHi girls all harbor huge potential, with championship success to their names already. Leading the way is senior Amanda Wylie, the top-ranked girls wrestler at 160 pounds. Wylie is 16-0 this year but is searching for her first state title after finishes of second and third the previous two years.

SoHi freshman Trinity Donovan is seeded sixth at 145 pounds, one week after pinning her opponent in the conference final, while senior Vydell Baker is unseeded at 125 pounds, even after winning an NLC title last week. Baker is 13-3 this season.

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