Nikiski freshman Griffin Gray sizes up Kenai Central freshman Talon Whicker in the 103-pound final at the Kachemak Conference Championship meet Dec. 8, 2018. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Nikiski freshman Griffin Gray sizes up Kenai Central freshman Talon Whicker in the 103-pound final at the Kachemak Conference Championship meet Dec. 8, 2018. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Unpredictable state wrestling tourney set to kick off

The wars waged by the Homer and Bethel wrestling programs through each of the last three years at the Division II state championships have been seismic.

This year, there may be more challengers.

That’s the prediction made by Homer co-head coach Chris Perk, whose Mariners squad is eyeing a fifth state team title in school history and a second in four years. Homer captured the 2015 Division II state crown.

“I think it’s a little more even par this year,” Perk said. “Last year it was us and Bethel, but this year could be a four-team race. Come Saturday we’ll see if the kids get it done.”

Adding up the team point totals from each school at the past three state championships, it’s clear to see how close the Mariners and Warriors have been. Homer has outpointed Bethel by a slim margin of 654 to 639.5 points from 2015 to 2017, although Bethel has won two state titles in that time to Homer’s one.

Perk foresees Dillingham and Glennallen as potential challengers that could join the mix at the top of the standings.

Homer is also fresh off a fourth straight Kachemak Conference crown after holding off Grace Christian last week by a margin of 229.5 to 220 points, but consecutive runner-ups at the state dance have left the Mariners thirsting for more. Homer last won the state crown in 2015, a triumph that broke a 29-year state title drought.

“The seniors have been around awhile,” Perk said. “Hopefully they get to end their careers on a high note.”

The current senior class were freshmen when Homer broke through in 2015, and four seniors on this year’s squad enter the weekend as the top-seeded competitor in their respective weight class.

The Division I tournament will be held in conjunction with the Division II tourney, and with both championships housed at the Alaska Airlines Center for a third straight year, it’s shaping up to be a wild night of grappling. Finals start Saturday at 6 p.m., following two rounds of consolation finals.

The Alaska Airlines Center was flooded with water due to damage from the Nov. 30 earthquake, but event organizers made sure the spacious arena would be ready to host state wrestling in a two-week period.

Soldotna is the only peninsula representative at the Division I tournament after Kenai Central dropped down to Div. II this year, and while the Stars aren’t a big threat to win the team title, they are bringing a sizable contingent with 13 qualifiers, including several strong state title contenders. SoHi holds two top seeds — juniors Aaron Faletoi at 215 pounds and Eli Floyd at 285.

Back at the Division II level, the Kenai Kardinals qualified five wrestlers, Nikiski qualified nine wrestlers, Seward qualified two wrestlers and Voznesenka is bringing five, led by 119-pound region champ and top state seed Max Kusnetsov.

Homer’s chances at a state team title rely heavily on how many names the Mariners can pack into the finals. Last week at the conference tournament, Homer put a lot of wrestlers into Saturday’s finals but was outscored in the consolation rounds by Grace Christian, which picked up valuable points for third- and fifth-place finishing athletes.

The Mariners were able to escape with the team title because of their dominance in the finals — Homer produced six region champs while Grace got two — but at the state dance, they may not be able to rely on that again.

“Hopefully we get a lot of help from a lot of other people in the state,” Perk said. “But that is for sure a situation that would work against us. We can only control what we can control, and we’ll just take it one match at a time.”

Homer put seven wrestlers into the 2017 state finals and came out with four champions.

The group of 11 boys representing Homer this weekend include five No. 1 seeds. Senior Seth Inama leads the 125-pound class with a 33-1 record in 2018. Inama is undefeated against Division II competition this year, and is seeking his second state crown.

Luciano Fasulo enters as the top seed at 135 pounds, and also looks to build on his 107-match win streak that dates back to his sophomore year. Fasulo is 10-0 this year, a shortened campaign after missing time due to minor ligament tears in his right knee.

At 140 pounds, senior Wayne Newman is the top seed at 36-2. Newman was the recipient of the Outstanding Boys Wrestler honor at the Kachemak Conference tournament, and is undefeated against Division II wrestlers this year, but Newman has also never won a state title. Newman has three runner-up finishes to his credit in each year of high school, finishing second at 98, 106 and 126 pounds.

The top seed at 152 pounds, junior Mose Hayes, enters state with a 29-5 mark this year. Hayes is gunning for second state title to complement the 138-pound crown he won last year.

Homer’s final top-seeded wrestler is senior Jadin Mann at 285 pounds. At 18-1 this year, Mann has not lost against Division II competition.

Among Homer’s other state contenders is sophomore Josh Bradshaw, the fifth seed at 152 pounds. Bradshaw prevailed over his teammate Hayes in last week’s conference 152-pound final, and could pull another upset this week.

Bradshaw is also joined by senior Ian Stovall, a sixth seed at 130 pounds, sophomore Austin Cline at 112 pounds, junior Ryan Hicks at 189, senior Hunter Harrington at 215 and freshman Alex Hicks at 285.

Homer also qualified four girls to the state tournament, led by senior McKenzie Cook at 145 pounds. Cook is unbeaten against female competition this year and is looking to join an exclusive club of four-time state champions in Alaska. No girl has ever won four state wrestling titles in Alaska, although girls were only separated from boys recently. The current list of boys four-time state champions is 12 total.

Joining Cook is sophomore Sadie Blake, the fifth seed at 119 pounds, junior Mina Cavasos, the third seed at 125, and sophomore Mariah Grimes, the sixth seed at 160.

Soldotna’s crew of 13 state qualifiers is led by Faletoi at 215 pounds and Floyd at 285. Both grapplers are seeded first entering the weekend and are seeking their first state titles. At 23-1 this year, Faletoi’s one loss came to Homer’s Jadin Mann, a Division II wrestler, so Faletoi has an unbeaten streak to protect against Division I opponents this weekend.

Returning to defend a state crown is senior Gideon Hutchison at 130 pounds, the second seed in that class only behind South’s Jacob Shack. Hutchison is 34-1 this year, his lone loss being a 16-6 decision to Shack at the Lancer Smith tournament.

Hutchison also represents the last of his large family to come through the Alaska wrestling scene. A second state title for Gideon on Saturday would mark the 13th championship in total by a Hutchison sibling, a remarkable line of success that began with Zeb Hutchison’s victory wrestling for Skyview High in 1996.

Soldotna’s last seeded athlete is sophomore Dennis Taylor at 152 pounds, the fourth seed with a 14-4 record in 2018. Also for SoHi, senior Logan Craig seeks his first state title at 112 pounds after taking fourth at 106 pounds last year.

Soldotna also qualified junior Ben Booth at 125 pounds, freshman Brian Kuhr as an alternate at 140 pounds, junior Brayde Wolfe at 145, sophomore Sean Babitt at 171, senior Brennan Werner at 189, sophomore Max Rogers at 215 and junior Melvin Lloyd at 285.

In the girls field, junior Amanda Wylie is the top seed at 160 pounds. Wylie’s only two losses to female competition came against Homer’s McKenzie Cook, a three-time state girls champ that wrestles at the Division II level.

Kenai’s group of five at the Division II tournament includes third-seeded Tucker Vann at 160 pounds and sixth-seeded teammates Talon Whicker at 103 and Rocky Sherbahn at 215. Vann is a sophomore with a 23-4 record, while Whicker is a freshman at 20-8 and Sherbahn a sophomore at 17-7.

Also competing for Kenai is senior Brandon Kroto at 152 pounds and freshman Olivia Easley in the girls tournament at 130 pounds. Easley won the conference girls title last week at the 130-pound level.

With fifth-seeded Dustin Mullins leading the Nikiski charge at 215 pounds, days after winning a region title, the Bulldogs are building on last week’s third-place finish at the conference tournament, a five-spot improvement over 2017.

Joining Mullins is sixth-seeded sophomore Koleman McCaughey at 160 pounds, who finished second at the region meet last week, and recent region champion Griffin Gray, a freshman at 103 pounds.

The Bulldogs also include sophomore Jaryn Zoda at 112 pounds, junior Jordan Fleming at 125, junior Mason Payne at 145, sophomore Caileb Payne at 171 (as an alternate), junior Ethan Hack at 285 and girls qualifier junior Destiny Martin at 125.

Seward’s two state qualifiers are sophomore Thomas Ooka at 130 pounds and freshman Kekoa Albino at 285.

Finally, Voznesenka qualified an impressive five wrestlers to state, led by former state champion Max Kusnetsov, who leads the 119-pound field. Kusnetsov won the 98-pound title as a sophomore in 2016 but lost to four-time state champion Thomas Dyment of Bethel last year.

Joining Kusnetsov is sophomore Afony Reutov at 140 pounds, senior Dia Martishev at 145, senior Daniel Anufriev at 152 and junior Anthony Kalugin at 171. Martishev enters as the sixth seed at 140 pounds while Kalugin is the fourth-seeded wrestler at 171, and Anufriev got in on an at-large bid.

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