State wrestling preview: Homer working to regain crown

Wrestling is a numbers game, and the numbers are adding up for the Homer Mariners.

Two years in a row at the Division II state wrestling tournament, heavyweight giants Bethel and Homer have waged a war on the mat. Both have one win and one loss against each other in the team standings.

It will go to a third straight clash between the two schools this weekend at Division II state, which will be held today and Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, along with the Division I state championships.

Championship rounds are scheduled to begin Saturday at 6 p.m., and will crown a total of 38 champions, combining Division I, II and girls competitors.

Homer qualified 11 wrestlers to the meet, while defending state champion Bethel is bringing 14. Bethel features eight region champions, while Homer has seven.

The Mariners’ heavyweight status is undeniable. Of the 14 statebound wrestlers from Homer, including girls, 10 are seeded either first or second in their weight class, while the 11th is a third seed. Five of them are seeded first in their weight class, four of them boys.

Homer head coach Chris Perk said the star power is a result of the drive and determination his athletes carry with them off the mat.

“Watching them in practice the last couple days, they really are state champion caliber wrestlers,” Perk said. “Their dedication, talent and ultimately belief is what they’re going with.”

Last year, the Mariners placed seven wrestlers into the boys finals. This time around, eight Homer wrestlers are seeded first or second, giving the Mariners a solid shot at eight finalists.

“I’d say all eight of them are there,” said Perk, who relinquished the role of head coach to former assistant Bubba Wells this season. “We’re training all eight to be state champions.”

But, Perk said, to beat Bethel, it takes an entire team effort to gain as many points as possible. Last year, Homer racked up 246 points, a school record in a state meet, but it still wasn’t enough to beat the 264.5 posted by Bethel.

Perk credited Bethel head coach Darren Lieb for keeping the Mariners sharp during their current three-year scramble for Division II supremacy, adding that Lieb’s system of training up youth wrestlers through the club ranks mirrors that of Homer’s.

“As a coach, you need a Bethel to stay sharp, you have to have them to keep you forward thinking,” Perk said.

Perk said last year’s battle was defined by pin points, which award six points for a pin, and Bethel racked up the pin points not only in the championship rounds, but in the third- and fifth-place matches as well, and with nine competitors seeded, the Warriors are ready for another state championship battle.

“I don’t think they’re as deep as they are last year,” he said. “So I anticipate it being closer going either way.”

The National Federation of State High School Associations website will be streaming the state finals at nfhsnetwork.com.

The state meet was held at the Alaska Airlines Center for the first time last year, and the spacious, 5,000-seat arena gave fans and families an uninhibited view of the action for both the Division I and Division II championships, held on adjacent mats to each other.

The defending Division I state champion Colony Knights announced their intentions of repeating by claiming last week’s Northern Lights Conference crown. Wasilla finished second to Colony both times, reflecting the strength of the conference.

Fellow NLC rivals Soldotna and Kenai Central are both looking for individual glory this weekend, as both programs have ranked wrestlers going for gold.

The top-ranked peninsula grappler is SoHi junior Gideon Hutchison, who is seeded first at 120 pounds with a 35-3 season record. Hutchison has made it to the semifinal rounds in each of the past two years, but came up short with third-place finishes each time. A state title by Hutchison would give his family 12 overall state crowns, following up on those won by older siblings Zeb, Eli, Michaela and Seth.

Joining Hutchison in the Soldotna camp is junior Logan Craig, seeded third at 106 pounds, and senior Bechler Metcalf, seeded third at 152 pounds. Both Craig and Metcalf lost semifinal matches last year. Metcalf enters the weekend with a 33-4 season.

SoHi sophomore Hudson Metcalf is seeded sixth at 170 pounds, while six other SoHi wrestlers enter the weekend unseeded, including sophomore Ben Booth at 113 pounds, freshman Zach Burns at 138, junior Levi Wahl at 170, sophomore Eli Floyd at 195, sophomore Aaron Faletoi at 220 and sophomore Melvin Lloyd at 285.

In the girls tournament, sophomore Amanda Wylie comes in as the third-seeded athlete at 145 pounds, and will be joined by freshman Lexi Gridley at 120 pounds and senior Madison Worth at 132.

The lone Kenai Central wrestler to enter the state meet with a seeding is senior Byron Dunham, seeded fourth at 195 pounds. Dunham won the NLC title at 195 pounds last week, and is looking for his first state crown with a 31-2 season record on the line.

Claiming one of two “at-large” state berths this weekend was Kardinals freshman Tucker Vann at 138 pounds. Three unseeded Kenai grapplers will join Vann and Dunham, including senior John Grossl at 182 pounds, senior Seth Kruse at 220 and junior Jacob Grant at 285.

The Kardinals will also be represented by a pair of female wrestlers in juniors Raven Patrick at 160 pounds and Reya Hale at 182.

Back in the Division II race, one of Homer’s elite wrestlers is 132-pound junior Luciano Fasulo, the 2017 Kachemak Conference Wrestler of the Year. Fasulo is headed into state with a sterling 43-0 record this year, and holds a longer 93-match win streak in the state of Alaska that dates back to 2015. Fasulo is gunning for two straight crowns, after winning his first last year at 126 pounds.

Perk said Fasulo is the type of wrestler who thrives on leg attacks, and uses a speed and power tactic to demoralize his competition.

“He loves the competition,” Perk said. “If you watch him in track and field, he loves a good race, and he loves a good wrestling match. As the competition gets better, he just ramps up and gets more competitive.”

Other No. 1 seeds this weekend for Homer include junior Wayne Newman at 126 pounds, senior Levi King at 195 and senior Kyle Wells at 220. King is looking for the top step of the podium after winning a state title two years ago. King enters the weekend with a 30-2 record, while Wells is 33-1.

Homer features four No. 2 seeds on its roster, including junior Seth Inama at 120 pounds, sophomore Mose Hayes at 138, senior Chris Cudaback at 170 and senior Tristen Cook at 182. Cook is looking to add to the state championship he won last year at 170 pounds.

Junior Ian Stovall (132 pounds), freshman Joshua Bradshaw (145) and senior Richard Brock (285) fill out the rest of Homer’s boys team unseeded.

On the girls side, Homer is bringing five wrestlers, headlined by senior Alex Moseley at 120 pounds. Moseley hasn’t won a state title, but has placed highly each of the previous three years, including a second-place run as a freshman and a fourth and third.

This year, Moseley has pinned her way through the girls competition, and is 22-2 overall, including against boys.

“It would mean a lot to her,” Perk said. “She came in, never had wrestled as a freshman, and for her to learn the sport, it didn’t come super easy for her at first, but this past season she’s been club wrestling, which has helped.”

Homer junior McKenzie Cook is seeded second at 145 pounds, where she is looking to repeat as state champ. The Mariners also have sophomore Mina Cavasos at 120 pounds, freshman Halle Lapp at 132 and freshman Mariah Grimes at 160.

Last year did not see a state champion for Nikiski, but Tyler Litke came the closest with a second-place finish.

This year, Litke is back as a senior in the 195-pound division, and enters this weekend seeded fourth. Litke is joined by freshman Koleman McCaughey at 152 pounds and sophomore Ethan Hack at 285.

In the girls tournament, Nikiski is represented by senior Chloe Grogan, the second seed at 160 pounds. Grogan is 14-6 this year against boys and girls competitors.

Seward’s lone seeded wrestler this weekend is freshman Clay Petersen at 98 pounds. Petersen is 12-8 in his debut year with the Seahawks.

Joining Petersen will be senior Cole Norcross at 120 pounds, sophomore Jaden VanDyke at 145 and senior Simon Estes at 152.

Seward qualified two sophomore girls competitors in Naomi Ifflander at 113 pounds and Rebekah Christenson at 145.

The tiny community of Voznesenka is bringing five athletes to the state meet, headlined by Max Kusnetsov, who is one of only two Voznesenka wrestlers to have won a state wrestling championship. Kusnetsov last year won the 98-pound state title, joining Joe Martishev from 2011 in the Voznesenka trophy case.

This year, Kusznetsov, a junior, is up two weight classes to 113 pounds, and enters the weekend seeded second with a 32-3 season record, behind Thomas Dyment of Bethel. Dyment is a three-time state champion and enters the weekend with a 31-0 season mark, making Kusnetsov’s job considerably tougher.

Junior Dia Martishev will join Kusnetsov with a shot to win at 138 pounds, where Martishev is the fourth-seeded wrestler with a 31-7 record. Voznesenka also qualified junior Daniel Anufriev at 145 pounds, sophomore Anthony Kalugin at 170 pounds and senior Nikit Anufriev at 195 pounds.

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