The 7.0 earthquake that momentarily stopped Southcentral Alaska in its tracks last Friday left a different kind of shift on the Alaska wrestling scene.
Due to damage sustained at Redington High School near Wasilla, the planned host site of the 2018 Kachemak Conference wrestling championships, state wrestling officials have decided to move the Division II tournament farther south to Grace Christian High School in Anchorage. The tournament runs today and tomorrow, with finals starting Saturday afternoon after the consolation rounds have concluded.
The Alaska School Activities Association also decided to give schools in conference tournaments around the state an additional two pounds of allowance in each weight class, being that the earthquake canceled some competitions and practices due to schools being closed. ASAA also allowed an additional weigh-in for each competitor.
Teams are also scrambling to readjust to the new venue and to change hotel arrangements and other plans as the crucial weekend gets under way.
“It’s a little bit of scrambling but it makes life pretty exciting,” said Kenai head coach Stan Steffensen. “After an earthquake, you look at things a little differently every day.”
At the Kachemak Conference tournament, only the top three wrestlers in each weight class punch their ticket to the Division II state tournament next week.
The Northern Lights Conference tournament, featuring all Division I programs including Soldotna, will still be held at its scheduled site, Palmer High School. In that tournament, the top five wrestlers in each weight class gain a spot to state.
The Colony Knights are looking for a sixth consecutive NLC team crown and have proven they are the favorites once again this year with several tournament team victories and dual wins. The Knights finished second at the Lancer Smith Memorial tournament in November, but first among the NLC competition with 219.5 points, better than Wasilla’s 139.
The Kachemak crown has been won each of the past three years by the Homer Mariners, who have built up an impressive dynasty of wrestling talent with deep programs.
However, as the new hosts of the Kachemak tournament, the Grace Grizzlies are also expected to be a force to be reckoned with, according to Homer coach Chris Perk.
“I think we can (win it),” Perk said. “We’ve had a couple good days in practices … but the question is always depth.”
Grace finished a close second to Homer last weekend at the Grace Grizzly Grappler tournament, scoring 154 team points to Homer’s 158.5 to stake their name as a contender. At the Lancer Smith Memorial tournament in November, Grace Christian was the top Kachemak team with 54 points, with Homer checking in with 42.5 points.
SoHi head coach Neldon Gardner will have a different challenge on his hands at the NLC meet in Palmer. The Division I Stars aren’t favored to challenge for the team title with Colony and Wasilla standing in the way, but Gardner still expects to mix it up with programs like Palmer, which SoHi nearly finished ahead of in the Lancer Smith tournament in November. Palmer beat SoHi for sixth place by three points, 83 to 80.
“The last couple of years, Colony, Wasilla and Palmer have been in the top five and SoHi has been there around sixth or seventh,” Gardner said. “But we’re looking at the two teams ahead of us. We just have a very strong region.”
At the Lancer Smith tournament, Soldotna finished seventh overall and fourth among NLC teams. Gardner said he is bringing 26 athletes to the NLC meet, down from what he was expecting to bring due to grade ineligibilities and injuries, but said he hopes to get around nine to 12 SoHi wrestlers to state.
Among the top contenders to watch this weekend are junior Aaron Faletoi, the top-ranked wrestler at 215 pounds, and senior Gideon Hutchison at 130 pounds. Both grapplers are ranked first among NLC competition in their respective weight classes, and both have just one loss to their name this year — Faletoi is 20-1 and Hutchison is 32-1.
Hutchison’s closest NLC competitor is Wasilla’s Hunter Hayes. Hutchison is 1-0 against Hayes in 2018 with an 8-4 win Nov. 10 at the North/South tournament. Faletoi’s closest NLC competitor in the rankings is Colony’s Jamar Toston. The two haven’t met this year yet, but that could change Saturday.
SoHi also features heavyweight Melvin Lloyd, a junior who is ranked sixth at heavyweight, but second in the region, only behind Colony’s Ethan Connaker. At 171 pounds, SoHi sophomore Sean Babitt enters the weekend ranked fifth in the NLC at 171 pounds. Babitt is 21-11 this year.
Gardner tabbed a handful of other unranked SoHi wrestlers that could potentially qualify for state, including senior Logan Craig (16-9 this year) at 112 pounds, sophomore Hunter Secor (19-9) at 112 pounds, junior Brayde Wolfe (14-7 and coming off a 2017 injury) at 145 pounds, sophomore Dennis Taylor at 152 pounds (12-3 and also hurt last year), sophomore Aiden Willets at 160 pounds, and senior Brennan Werner at 189.
Among female wrestlers, SoHi boasts the No. 1 ranked competitor in the region at 160 pounds, junior Amanda Wylie.
Back at the Division II Kachemak Conference tournament, Homer is looking for more hardware to fill its trophy case. Last year, the Mariners cruised to their third straight conference crown in dominating fashion, winning seven of the 15 region titles.
This time around, the Mariners return four of those region champions in seniors Seth Inama, Wayne Newman and Luciano Fasulo and junior Mose Hayes. The team lost three region champions to graduation in Chris Cudaback, Levi King and Kyle Wells.
Fasulo enters the weekend holding a 104-match winning streak, a remarkable span of dominance that dates back to 2015, but Perk said Fasulo is still working to get into peak tournament strength after missing most of this season rehabbing minor tears of his anterior and medial cruciate ligaments and his meniscus.
Fasulo, who is the top-ranked athlete at 135 pounds, only returned to competition the weekend before Thanksgiving, but Perk thinks he has it in him to win his fourth straight Kachemak crown.
“He’s not looking like the (Fasulo) of the past, but he’s getting himself into wrestling shape,” Perk said.
The other three returning conference champions are all ranked first in their respective weight classes — Inama is 30-1 at 125 pounds this year, Newman is 33-2 at 140 pounds and Hayes is 27-4 at 152. Perk added that sophomore Josh Bradshaw is currently second in the conference to Hayes, setting up a potential title bout between the two teammates.
Senior heavyweight Jadin Mann is the fifth Homer wrestler currently ranked first among region foes, having racked up a 16-1 mark in 2018.
The Mariners also return a three-time Kachemak Conference girls champion in senior McKenzie Cook, who is 20-4 this year but undefeated against female competition. Perk said Cook, who will be wrestling in college, should be able to retain her 145-pound title.
Joining Cook as contenders on the girls side is sophomore Sadie Blake, the top-ranked girl at 119 pounds, and junior Mina Cavasos, the top girl at 125 pounds. Blake is 21-6 this year while Cavasos is 13-2.
Kenai enters the weekend wrestling in its first Kachemak Conference tournament, after being realigned into Division II sports for the majority of its programs. Steffensen said the Kardinals are only bringing eight athletes to the tournament, but he expects high-end results.
It starts with three wrestlers who are currently ranked among region competitors, including freshman Talon Whicker at 103 pounds, sophomore Tucker Vann at 160 and sophomore Rocky Sherbahn at 215.
Steffensen said several other Kards, namely senior Brandon Kroto at 152 pounds and freshmen Isaiah Ticknor and Daemon Duniphen at 125, should be seeded entering the weekend.
Whicker has made an impact with Kenai in his first year, going 19-7 to grab the top ranking and giving Steffensen hope he can win a region title on debut. Vann is seeded second in the region at 160 pounds and with a 20-3 record, could win it, according to Steffensen.
“If Tucker’s a hundred percent, it still could go his way,” he said.
Sherbahn comes in ranked second at 215 pounds after going 14-6 in competition this year.
Kenai’s top girl is freshman Olivia Easley (14-9 this year), who Steffensen said should be seeded second among girls at 130 pounds.
Nikiski finished eighth in the team race last year with no conference champions, but that could change come Saturday. Among the top contenders is senior Dustin Mullins, the top-ranked region wrestler at 215 pounds.
Bulldogs sophomore Jaryn Zoda also comes in with high potential, ranked second in the conference at 112 pounds, only behind ACS grappler Caleb O’Hara, and sophomore Koleman McCaughey enters the weekend third at 160 pounds. At heavyweight, Nikiski junior Ethan Hack is ranked second.
While it doesn’t account for sheer weight room numbers, the small Voznesenka wrestling program outside of Homer tends to bring quality to the season-ending tournaments. This year, the Cougars are bringing eight wrestlers to the Kachemak Conference tourney, three of which are ranked statewide.
Leading the way is senior Max Kusnetsov, the top-ranked region wrestler at 119 pounds. Kusnetsov is the defending region champion at 113 pounds and has a 24-2 mark this year.
Joining him will be senior Dia Martishev, the No. 1 region wrestler at 145 pounds who is 17-6 this year, and junior Anthony Kalugin, ranked second at 171 pounds and behind only Grace’s Elliot Merriner. Kalugin is 23-4 this year.
The lone Seward wrestler ranked entering the weekend is sophomore Thomas Ooka, ranked second at 130 pounds, only behind Redington’s Charles Severance.