Those who have dared to finish a high school wrestling season know a simple truth: Wrestling is hard work.
I refused to wrestle in high school.
I admit that. I hurt too much on my brief excursion onto P.E. and middle school mats.
Current mixed martial arts combatant Dave Bautista is just one of many professional athletes who have stated, “Wrestling is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.”
This weekend, roughly 20 athletes from Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain High School will compete at the Skagway Invitational wrestling tournament.
It will be a defining moment in their dedication to a sport that leaves even the victorious aching, fatigued and dreading the next morning.
“Kids find that out after the first day,” JDHS coach Kris Mercer said. “If they make it through a week that shows something special.”
The JDHS and TMHS wrestling teams are seeking to restore the passion of combat and competition to a sport that has seen a decline in numbers and fan attendance over the last 20 years.
The small school/large school split, opposite wrestling seasons, competing sports such as hockey or basketball, time dedication, managing weight and diet, and, well, hard work.
With the current infatuation with youth into combat sports, it makes sense that wrestling should be one of their high school sports of choice. The best MMA fighters have a good ground technique.
“It is not a glamour sport,” Mercer said. “It isn’t basketball with cheerleaders or football pep rallies. It is the biggest one-on-one test with team implications.”
First year Falcons coach Jake Jacoby, a JDHS alum, stated the first hope and main goal is to grow the program.
“Last season we ended with seven athletes,” Jacoby said. “We currently have 18. We need to keep the program alive and in order to do that we need to keep the numbers high. Wrestling doesn’t have the publicity of being on the basketball team.”
The Falcons team will be showing aggression.
Although coach Chad Requa stepped down this season he left behind essential building material.
Jacoby and co-coach Gary Reid, a JDHS state champ, and assistant Jason Boyer are preaching an ‘Oregon Ducks’ football philosophy of using a fast, unrelenting style of never giving their opponent a break.
“The Alabama coach thinks it should be illegal,” Reid told the Falcons as they worked on the mat. “Because it didn’t give his defense time to set up. That is exactly what we want on the mat. Don’t give your opponent time to set up, don’t let him get a break, don’t let him rest.”
Falcons’ senior Jackson Pavitt will give no quarter on the squares covering gym floors in the region. A state qualifier at 160-pounds last season, Pavitt has also taken a liking to the Alaska Beatdown competitions, and has maintained a fitness level few will match when face-offs begin.
Pavitt and seniors Hunter Nicholson (138), Selene Smith (145), Nicholas Kotrlik (152) and Corwin Kelly (220) will also be called upon to help develop a core of freshmen that have stepped up from Floyd Dryden. Numbers are key when building a competitive team.
Edwin Meyer (106 pounds) leads a stellar class of frosh including state middle school champ Blake Phillips (160), Hunter Boyer (132), Ron Hansen (120), Brandon Aguilar (120), Q’on Bear-Clark (160), Tyler Cole (132), Bradley Gile (145), Nathan Herron (113), and Lianno Vejar (195).
“With a young team we are going to have to find victories where we can,” Jacoby said. “Even if it is a victory in defeat. We need to keep spirits up.”
Falcons’ returners include Juniors Dylan Taylor (145) and Brylie Yadao (138) and sophomore Dante Taylor (145), all of who can make a state push. Sophomores include Austin Drueckhammer (145), and Rick Johnson (285).
The Crimson Bears will be showing brutality.
Coach Mercer is back at the helm after five years in the middle school ranks, taking over for John Smith, and has assistant help from coach Bob Cox, Eddie Michno, and former JDHS wrestlers Jordan Savland and Gerry Carrillo.
“I want your opponent to remember who you are,” Cox said as wrestlers tumbled and fell around him. “I want them to be thinking about you and dreading having to wrestle you again.”
JDHS opponents will dread 195-pound junior Jerry Hudson and 120-pound David Dumesnil. Hudson qualified for state at 182 last season and Dumesnil at 113. Both have muscled up a bracket.
Senior John Nichols (160) and Junior Malik Brown (145) will be searching for a region title. Sophomore Riley Moser will be a surprise for Ketchikan’s 145-pounders as will freshman Alexander Muir (132). Moser wrestled in middle school and in club competitions.
Limited numbers include returning junior talent Samual Adams (152), sophomore Austin Gonzales (145), and freshmen Braiden Helf (132), Stetson Durand (145), Taylor Sutak (169) and Tulensa Timothy (220).
Senior Billy Palmer (180) is expected to bring his football prowess onto the mat along with sophomore Tevita Maake (205). A sleeper may be junior Bethany Carlile (98) who wanted to be manager but showed some tenacity on the mat.
“The group is really focused,” Mercer said. “They should be a pleasure to travel with. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We have 11 kids and that is more than last year. There is nothing easy about wrestling, that’s for sure. It is the hardest workout I have ever had to do. But we are focusing on improvements and building on what we have. Even in this first week our intensity level is pretty exciting.”
The Brandon Pilot Invitational, named in honor of a freshman wrestler who died in a rollover auto accident on Fish Creek Road in November of 2000, will not be held this season. It will be a rotational tournament with Ketchikan’s Bill Weiss Invitational. The teams will travel a bit before the region championships.
An Alaska School Activities Association ruling allowing for two wrestlers from each weight class at the Region tournament to advance to state, should also help promote interest for athletes in the sport. More opportunities attract more competitors.
“It is a long season,” Mercer said. “We go into February and it only takes 10 practices to be eligible. So we are still open for contenders. We don’t have a lot of studs yet, but by the end of the year we will make these guys into something.”
Yes, the Crimson Bears and the Falcons finished 18th and 19th, respectively, at last season’s state championships. Southeast champion Ketchikan finished 15th.
Rebuilding a program takes strength and dedication. Rebuilding a sport takes a school and fan base.
I was hooked on the Vikings in high school. My senior classmates were some of the best in the state at a time when one season brought all the schools together on the mat, and our bleachers were full with screaming schoolmates, parents and travelers from afar.
To date, Petersburg always draws a big home fan base.
Perhaps one of my most memorable moments came in 2004.
Covering the Region V tournament at Mt. Edgecumbe I watched Vikings’ senior female wrestler Alenna Nilsen, ahead on points in a semifinal, try a difficult move and end up losing by one.
Her face showed it all. No tears. The gym darkened in her eyes and she focused on one singlet across the mat. Her next opponent, the region’s second ranked wrestler, would be a win-and-go-to-state match.
I felt so sorry for that young man from Mt. Edgecumbe. His muscled body was thrown about like a prop in a Hollywood movie. At one point he cried and at one point the referee stopped the match so his coach could attend to him.
Nilsen just crouched in the center of the gladiator’s ring. Her right knee a pedestal for her right elbow, which supported her chiseled arm, in turn supporting a menacing jaw. Her coach knew not to approach her. Nilsen’s mind was in a place that only superior athletes find.
The match ended with a pin and Nilsen’s arm raised by the referee high in the air. That was her third straight trip to the state championships.
She was third in regions her sophomore year, second her junior. At the Brandon Pilot Invitational her senior year Nilsen finished second to current JDHS assistant Gerry Carrillo, then the defending state champ.
Nilsen went on to wrestle at Oregon’s Pacific University and lost in the finals of the national championship.
Nilsen had stated, “I like to think of myself as a wrestler first, not a woman wrestler. Wrestling is hard work. It made me a better person and showed that I can do anything else now. Nothing will be this difficult.”
The Region V tourney will once again be held in Juneau.
Last season Ketchikan took the title, bringing with them a fan base that outnumbered the hometown crowd.
In the Juneau bleachers were a smattering of parents, girlfriends and people who wandered in because they saw the lights on.
The gym felt like a day care where kids were dropped off to tire themselves out before being picked up and brought home and put to bed.
Except these kids had just completed a day of the toughest sport in the city.
Don’t believe me?
Check out a match for yourself. The wrestling schedule to date is:
Nov. 9-10 JD/TM at Skagway.
Nov. 16-17 JD/TM at Ketchikan.
Nov. 30-Dec. 1 JD at Soldotna.
Dec. 14-15 TM at West Anchorage.
Jan. 4-5 JD at North Pole, TM at Colony.
Jan. 11-12 JD/TM at Ketchikan.
Jan. 26 Region V at Juneau.
Feb 1-2 State at Bartlett.