Juneau-Douglas High School senior Jake Ritter didn't have the best of times when he went to last year's Class 4A state wrestling meet.
Ritter was undefeated and the top-ranked wrestler at 215 pounds, but he was upset in the semifinals and then suffered another loss en route to taking fifth place.
As he prepared for this weekend's state meet at Chugiak High School, Ritter said he's in a much better frame of mind. He's been beaten a couple of times this year and he's only ranked fourth in the most recent rankings posted on AlaskaWrestling.com, but Ritter thinks he's better prepared for state this time around.
"We're all going in psyched up," said Ritter, who, like his teammates, was sporting red-dyed hair after Wednesday's practice. "I think I'm more mature. I've already taken my losses this year."
Alaska prep wrestler rankings from AlaskaWrestling.com and the Local Sports Page
Ritter is one of 13 Crimson Bears who will be competing at the state meet, and he's one of seven Juneau wrestlers listed in the state rankings. The meet opens at 9 a.m. today, with the championship semifinals starting at 7:30 p.m. On Saturday, consolation rounds start at 9 a.m. with the consolation finals (the third-fourth place and fifth-sixth place matches) at 5 p.m. and the championship finals at 7:30 p.m.
Even though one of the wrestlers ranked ahead of him (No. 3 Mike Petrovich of South Anchorage) opted to move up to the heavyweight division, Ritter still has to deal with two former state champions in his bracket.
Bartlett's Bobby Dunbar, who's ranked No. 3 nationally at 215 pounds according to Intermat, is undefeated in Alaska and is a two-time Class 1A-2A-3A state champion from Anchorage Christian Schools who transferred to a larger school this year. North Pole's Josiah Bush won last year's Class 4A state championship at 215 pounds and is ranked second behind Dunbar.
While the bracket is tougher this year, Ritter doesn't think that's a bad thing. His coach, Kris Mercer, considered moving Ritter up to heavyweight, but Ritter wanted the challenge at 215. He said he expects to face Bush in the semifinals and to be the third seed at state.
"From the whole top five, there are a bunch of tough guys," Ritter said. "I saw what happened to me last year. ... I think it will help (being under the radar)."
Ritter is looking for redemption at the state meet, but the other Crimson Bears have different goals.
Besides Ritter, the other ranked wrestlers are sophomore Dante Santos (second at 103 pounds), junior Gerry Carrillo (first at 112), senior Sungie Musarra (second at 112), senior Jordan Saceda (fourth at 119), junior Cody Wolf (fifth at 125) and senior John Kuterbach (second at 171). The ranked wrestlers all want to make the finals and possibly win a state title.
Then there's a group of darkhorses, such as sophomore Joardan Savland (135) and sophomore Matt Barry (140), who were among the eight Crimson Bears who won Southeast Conference titles last week in Sitka and could win a medal at state. And there's another group of wrestlers who took second place at the Southeast meet to earn berths at state. That group includes freshman Steven Dyer (130), junior Clinton Clark (140), sophomore Garret Cox (145) and junior Jake Mason (189), and they plan to use the meet as a learning experience for next year.
Last year, Juneau sent just seven wrestlers to state as the Crimson Bears took 12th place with 59 points. Four of those wrestlers reached the semifinals, and Carrillo won the 103-pound title for Juneau's first state championship in three seasons. This weekend, the Crimson Bears want to better that performance.
"Everyone on the team has the potential to do very well," Musarra said. "The rankings don't matter any more. It'll be a team effort, and we've got a tough bunch of kids."
Juneau's best shot for a state title will be at 112, where Carrillo and Musarra could make for an all-Crimson Bear championship bout. The two wrestlers have alternated weeks bumping up a weight class, so they're used to wrestling the heavier guys at 119. Carrillo expects the road to be tougher this year as one of the eight returning state champions, but having Musarra in the same bracket will take some of the pressure off him. Musarra took third place two years ago, but missed the state meet last year because of shoulder surgery.
"I feel all right. I've worked pretty hard this year," Carrillo said. "I was top-ranked (last year) so it'll be the same. It's great to have two guys because both of us can score team points. Wrestling at 119 gives me exposure to new guys and new styles. (The state meet) is one of those things where everyone can get caught, but I feel like I'm there."
"I have mixed emotions," Musarra said. "It's my senior year, so I'm excited. But it's weird feeling that it'll be over after this meet."
Savland missed much of the season, but returned just in time to win a Southeast Conference title. Even though this is his first trip to state, he thinks he has a chance to medal.
"It's been a pretty sketchy year, and I had a small bracket (at regions) and had already beaten my opponents," Savland said. "I might catch an unwary high-ranking guy. We're bringing more quality wrestlers."
Barry was a late addition to Juneau's state roster last year because of an injury to another wrestler, and he spent more time focused on getting back down to his wrestling weight than preparing for state, where he posted a 1-2 record.
"Last year I went in all wide-eyed," Barry said. "This year I've got a better perspective. And I've maintained my weight."
Barry and Clark will be Juneau's other chance to double up in a weight class, and Clark qualified for state despite missing some time this season. In last weekend's Southeast final at 140, Barry won a 16-10 decision.
"I was rusty, but that should be gone now," Clark said. "It feels too soon to be the end of the year. I think I've got a decent chance. I know I can wrestle better."
Meanwhile, Dyer and Mason said they're just happy to be at state. Both of them lost to opponents who were ranked (Dyer lost to Sitka's George Wathen and Mason lost to Sitka's Jake LaDuke), so they think they're ready for state.
"I feel pretty good. I always looked forward to state this year," said Mason, who returned to Juneau this year after six years in Ohio. "I have to improve in some areas, but I had some good matches."
"I think I wrestled really well," Dyer said. "I wrestled George Wathen ... really well. I'm excited. I want to go all out and do my best. I want to place in the top four, if that's possible."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.