The Juneau-Douglas High School wrestling took a small team to Anchorage for the Class 4A state tournament today and Saturday at Chugiak High School, and the Crimson Bears are hoping that small package is dynamite.
Juneau only had seven wrestlers qualify for state - including freshman 140-pounder Matt Barry, who found out this week he was replacing an injured wrestler from Sitka - but it's a top-loaded group.
Two Crimson Bears - sophomore 103-pounder Gerry Carrillo and junior 215-pounder Jake Ritter - are undefeated in their weight classes this year and are the top wrestlers in the current AlaskaWrestling.com state rankings. Two more Crimson Bears - junior 119-pounder Jordan Saceda and senior 125-pounder Dennis Hall - are ranked fourth in their weight classes.
Add in junior 160-pounder John Kuterbach, who was named most outstanding wrestler at last weekend's Region V-Class 4A tournament, and freshman 112-pounder Dante "Jephty" Santos, and the Juneau wrestlers are feeling like they might be able to beat a few teams with twice as many state qualifiers. The late addition of Barry helps.
The Crimson Bears don't have the numbers to match several deep teams, such as Wasilla with 20 qualifiers and two top-ranked wrestlers or Skyview with 17 qualifiers and three top-ranked wrestlers. The last time a small team with seven wrestlers really competed for a state title was in 1993-94, when Palmer's seven wrestlers and two champions lost by two points to Service's 20 wrestlers and no champions.
But the Crimson Bears might be able to better last year's eighth-place finish. They also could beat teams with more qualifiers - Service (22), Lathrop (19), Chugiak (16) - that don't have any top-ranked wrestlers.
"What we've got is good quality," Juneau coach Kris Mercer said. "It'll be the Jake and Gerry Show, but we're feeling strong. We'll win some matches. It all depends on the seeding."
"We're small, but strong," said Hall, the team's captain who said his goal is to finish in the top three in his weight class. "We'll see if everyone does good. It's my senior year so I've got to give it everything I've got."
Ritter, who is 27-0 this season, and Carrillo, who is 21-6 with all of his losses coming at higher weight classes, will be expected to carry the team at state. During Wednesday's practice, both wrestlers said they don't plan to accept anything less than first place.
"I've got to wrestle harder than I ever have," Ritter said. "There always have been big upsets at state, and I don't want that to be me. From No. 5 on up, all of them have been No. 2 this year, so I'm looking at everyone. I don't expect any easy matches. I've been doing it all year and if I lose now the reason will be because I didn't leave it all on the mat."
"I'm totally excited," Carrillo said. "It's all our hard work, we get to see if it pays off. I'm sure everyone else is out to get me, so I'll have to go harder than I've ever gone. I definitely want to win it. I want to stay up there. I can't accept anything but first."
Ritter, Carrillo and Hall are the only wrestlers who went to state last year, but the other Crimson Bears are also looking to do well. Saceda said he wants to beat second-ranked Dustin Killion of Colony.
"I haven't wrestled him and I've barely seen him, but in his matches against people I've wrestled he's had close decisions," Saceda said. "I thought he'd blow them out. I didn't think my record would be as good as it is. I've done better than expected. I know we've worked three times as hard in practice than any other team."
Kuterbach said winning the region title at 160 pounds and the outstanding wrestler award gave him a boost of confidence heading into the state tournament.
"I'm a little nervous, but it helped a lot, especially since winning the outstanding wrestler award was such a surprise," Kuterbach said. "I want to place at least. I did pretty well the last time I wrestled the No. 3 guy (Service's Ben Breakfield)."
Santos also said he's nervous, but he's been able to face several of the top wrestlers in his weight class this season because they were in Southeast. Besides Carrillo, Santos also wrestled several matches against Ketchikan's David Mann who won last year's 103-pound title and is No. 2 at 112, and he wrestled junior teammate Sungie Musarra, who was ranked No. 3 at 112 before a shoulder injury ended Musarra's season.
"I'd at least like to place, but I don't know if I have a chance to win," Santos said. "I'm going for the experience for next year."
Barry thought his season was done when he took third place at 140 pounds at last weekend's region meet, but Region V champion Ty Wagner of Sitka was injured and couldn't go to state. Barry was the alternate, so this week he's been trying to get his diet back on track after a few post-season pizzas.
"I just want to do as best as I can," Barry said. "I want to at least make semifinals."
So even though the Crimson Bears have a small team, they have high hopes for state.
"Everyone has the potential to come out of this with a medal," Ritter said.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Juneau-Douglas High School wrestlers who will be competing at the state meet this weekend:
103 pounds: Gerry Carrillo*
112 pounds: Dante Santos
119 pounds: Jordan Saceda
125 pounds: Dennis Hall
140 pounds: Matt Barry
160 pounds: John Kuterbach
215 pounds: Jake Ritter*
* Carrillo and Ritter are ranked first in the state at their weight classes.