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The little guys will take center stage when the Juneau-Douglas High School wrestling team competes in the Southeast Conference Championships today in Sitka.
The smaller Crimson Bears will be expected to carry a heavy load for Juneau as it sets itself up for a run at next weekend's Class 4A state tournament at Chugiak. Only the top two finishers in each weight class advance to the state tournament, and Juneau has five wrestlers ranked among the state's best in the four lightest weight classes.
"There's a different feel to practice, everybody's more intense," Juneau senior Jordan Saceda said earlier this week.
"We're pretty stoked for regions," junior Cody Wolf added.
The region tournament - now officially the Southeast Conference-Class 4A Championships - takes place today at Sitka High School. Wrestling starts at noon, with the consolation finals at 5 p.m. and the championship finals starting about 7 p.m. Only the wrestlers who make the championship finals will advance to state.
In tournament action, having a strong group of lightweights can set a team up for big results in the higher weight classes. If the lightweights win, then the excitement feeds into the rest of the team and heavier wrestlers can use that energy in their matches.
There are seven Juneau wrestlers ranked among the state's top-five wrestlers in their weight classes, according to Alaska-Wrestling.com, and five of Juneau's ranked wrestlers are lightweights. Dante "Jephty" Santos is ranked second at 103 pounds, Gerry Carrillo is first at 112, Sungie Musarra is second at 112, Saceda is fourth at 119 and Wolf is fifth at 125. The other ranked Juneau wrestlers are John Kuterbach (second at 171) and Jake Ritter (fourth at 215).
That strength in the lightweights could get the Crimson Bears rolling at the Southeast meet, since the only other Southeast wrestler ranked in those four weight classes is Sitka's Jim Jurczak (fifth at 119).
Also, the lightweights train with each other so they make the group stronger as a whole. Juneau's Buddy Howard, who will compete at 119, isn't ranked, but when the Crimson Bears went to the West Valley Invitational in Fairbanks he took third at 112 pounds. Most of the wrestlers have competed in two weight classes, so they've had a chance to see a variety of wrestlers.
"Wrestling the bigger guys helps me," Santos said. "I'm the only 103-pounder, so it gets me stronger. It's some of the hardest competition I get."
"Wrestling Jepthy (Santos) helps me keep my speed up," said Carrillo, who won a state title at 103 pounds last year. "It gives us more exposure when we wrestle in two weight classes."
Musarra said he sees different challenges when he competes at 112 pounds and when he wrestles at 119.
"At 119, it's more about technique because the guys are stronger," Musarra said. "At 112, they're just quicker."
Wolf is at the top end of the lightweight group, so he not only trains with Saceda but he also wrestles 130-pounder Steven Dyer, 135-pounder Joardan Savland and 140-pounders Matt Barry and Clinton Clark in practice. Barry took second place at the West Valley Invitational in January and was third in the West Anchorage Christmas Classic in December.
"I've been wrestling the same guys all year, and I wrestle Matt and Clinton, too," said Wolf, who took fourth place at state at 103 pounds two years ago. "They (the lightweights) are quicker than the big guys, but the big guys are bigger and stronger."
In addition to Jurczak and the seven Juneau wrestlers, the other ranked Southeast athletes are Sitka's George Wathen (fourth at 130), Sitka's Dylan Bergman (fourth at 152), Ketchikan's Iain Brown (second at 160), Sitka's Jake LaDuke (third at 189) and Ketchikan's Jon Hamilton (first at 275). Hamilton is a two-time defending state champion.
Besides the lightweights, another advantage for Juneau at the Southeast meet will be its depth. The Crimson Bears will take 21 wrestlers to the meet, which means Juneau has a chance to qualify two wrestlers for state in some weight classes. Juneau won't have a 160-pounder at the meet, but the Crimson Bears will be able to double up in eight weight classes.
"Both our varsity and JV guys can score up north, so hopefully we can get some of them to state," Saceda said. "Hopefully, we'll get a lot of people going to state. It's a whole different feeling, it's serious now."
"Some of our big guys this week are Clark, Barry, Dyer and Savland," Juneau coach Kris Mercer said. "If we can get a bunch of guys to go north, we have a pretty good chance at state. Our big deal is getting guys in the finals, since there are so few guys in Southeast. We've got to get our JVs scoring points, so we can get more critters to the state meet. The ones who aren't ranked will be big for us."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.