It's been a long time since Southeast Alaska hosted a high school state tournament - in any sport.
But this weekend that state-less streak will end as Ketchikan hosts the Class 4A state wrestling tournament on Friday and Saturday at Ketchikan High School's Clark Cochrane Gymnasium. The first round starts at 9 a.m. on Friday, with championship semifinals scheduled for 7:30 p.m. The meet continues on Saturday with consolation bracket matches starting at 9 a.m. The championship finals take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
The Juneau-Douglas High School wrestling team will be sending 10 wrestlers to state, and most of them have never seen a state tournament in Southeast in their lifetimes.
The last state wrestling tournament in Southeast took place before they were born (1981) and the last state tournament of any sort to take place in Ketchikan was basketball in 1984. The last time a state tournament of any sort was held in Southeast was in 1991, when Sitka hosted the Class 4A basketball tournament.
"When I started coaching, it was always one of my goals to host state," Ketchikan coach Rick Collins said during last weekend's Region V-Class 4A meet in Juneau. "It was so difficult to get the votes, because the road system pools together. I'd given up on it, but things worked out for us this year."
The state's wrestling program went through a split three years ago, when several of the large schools in Fairbanks, the Mat-Su valleys, Kodiak and Anchorage decided they didn't want the wrestling season to be during the fall anymore. So, for the past two school years, there were unclassified seasons in the fall - which featured most of the state's small schools, the four Class 4A teams from the Kenai Peninsula and the three Class 4A teams from Southeast - and in the spring, for the 11 Class 4A teams that split off and five other small schools.
Wrestling went back to its size classifications this year, but the state tournament site wasn't picked until October when Ketchikan, the only place to submit a timely bid, beat out last-minute bids from Kodiak High School and Anchorage Christian Schools. Since Ketchikan won the bid, there have been howls of protest over the cost of sending teams to Southeast, and some of the Fairbanks schools even threatened a boycott. But Collins said Ketchikan is ready to make this a state tournament to remember.
"We're trying to increase the hospitality," Collins said. "That's the one thing that's been stained up north. There's no real contact with the teams outside the gym. We've set up some deals, like we got the bowling center to offer low prices, so the teams have something to do. We hope it's educational and we hope to put on a good show so there will be more state tournaments in Southeast."
Even though the tournament's not in Juneau, the Crimson Bears feel like the state tournament is almost a home meet.
"We'll be relaxed," Juneau coach Bob Mahon said. "We'll be housed out, we're not staying at a hotel."
"We know all the Southeast folks will be cheering for us, too," Juneau junior Dennis Hall said.
With just 10 wrestlers, Juneau may not have the numbers necessary to compete for the team title, especially since there are teams with twice as many state qualifiers. Service has 20 wrestlers going to state, Lathrop and Skyview have 19 each, Wasilla has 18, and West Valley and Chugiak will send 14 wrestlers apiece. Like Juneau, Ketchikan will send 10 wrestlers to state, while Sitka has eight qualifiers.
Even with the low numbers, the Crimson Bears think they be among the leaders in the team standings, with several saying they expect to finish among the top five or six teams. While Juneau doesn't have the largest team at the state meet, the Crimson Bears think they've got enough quality wrestlers who can pick up enough points to keep them competitive with pre-meet favorites Skyview (which won fall-season state titles), Wasilla, Service, Chugiak (which won last year's spring-season crown), Lathrop (which won the spring-season title two years ago) and West Valley.
In the early 1990s, Palmer only sent seven wrestlers to the state tournament but lost to eventual champion Service by just two points, even though Service had 22 or 23 wrestlers at the meet. That proves a small team can be competitive in a state meet.
"The schools like Lathrop and Skyview have the numbers, but man-for-man I feel we can compete with the best in the state," said senior 145-pounder Isaac Cadiente, who is Juneau's best hope for an individual state champion.
Cadiente is Juneau's only top-ranked wrestler this year and he's hoping to keep Juneau's three-year streak with at least one state champion alive. Cadiente took second place in last year's fall-season state meet and he's looking to move up this year.
"I definitely want to improve," Cadiente said. "Second sucks, so I definitely want to move up. Everybody expects to do well. It all depends on the young guys. The kids in the lower weight classes, if they do well, will fire us up, and if they don't that will fire us up. The freshmen all did middle school state, so they're not fearful of state. They've got no pressure, while seniors like me, this is my last shot."
Of Juneau's 10 wrestlers going to state, eight were listed in the last statewide rankings posted on the AlaskaWrestling.com Web site run by Eric Wade of Palmer. A couple of Juneau's wrestlers have changed weight classes, but they may be more competitive in their new weights.
Besides Cadiente at No. 1, Juneau has two wrestlers ranked No. 2 - freshman Cody Wolf at 103 pounds and Robert Vicario at 189. Sophomore Sungie Musarra is ranked third at 112 pounds, while senior David Liliedahl is fifth at 140 and 10th at 130 (he'll wrestle at 135), sophomore Gerry Carrillo is sixth at 103 (he'll wrestle at 112), sophomore Jake Ritter is sixth at 189 and Hall is eighth at 119. The other two wrestlers going to state for Juneau are sophomore Logan Harvey at 125 pounds and sophomore Buckley Svinicki at 140.
"I've faced, like, everybody that's good I need to wrestle, except Camron Hagen (of Homer, the state's top-ranked 103-pounder)," said Wolf, who won the 103 title at the West Valley Invitational. "I think if we wrestle good we're as good as any of these teams. We'll do pretty good."
As for the return to a unified Class 4A, the Crimson Bears expect stronger competition than they faced when they went to the fall-season state tournament last year.
"I think it will be a little higher caliber than last year," Ritter said. "I think everyone can rise to the occasion. I just plan to wrestle whoever I wrestle. I don't really pay attention to who I'm wrestling."
"The brackets aren't as big as they were last year, but there are a lot of good guys in there," Svinicki said. "There's less guys in the bracket, but they'll be tougher."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.