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A Southeast-backed proposal to reunify the state's high school wrestling seasons was defeated last week by the Alaska School Activities Association board.
In a 4-3 decision, the board voted against moving the Class 4A, or large school, wrestling season from the winter to the fall, aligning it with Class 1A-2A-3A competition. The idea was supported by the Class 4A Sitka and Ketchikan wrestling programs, which face high travel costs to find matches under the current system.
Alaska had a unified wrestling season until 1996, when ASAA split the season in a major schedule restructuring. This school year, the small-school competition season ran from Oct. 1 to the state meet on Dec. 10-11. The large-school season started Nov. 5 and extended until the state meet on Feb. 4-5.
Southeast schools have about one month of meets to compete as a whole before the small schools' season ends. After that, the three Southeast Class 4A teams - Juneau-Douglas, Ketchikan and Sitka - are left with two months to wrestle each other, take costly out-of-region trips or not compete.
Juneau usually takes a couple of trips outside Southeast each season, and coach Kris Mercer said he stayed fairly neutral in the season debate. But budgets are tighter in Ketchikan and Sitka, and the last two months of the season often have large gaps in competition.
"It's just a bad deal for Ketchikan and Sitka because it's so much more costly for us to participate in this longer season, without the small schools," Kayhi wrestling coach Rick Collins said.
Collins estimated Ketchikan's travel costs run $15,000-$35,000 higher with a split season than with a unified season, depending on junior varsity inclusion.
Doug Rhodes, activities director at Craig High School and Southeast's representative on the ASAA board, voted for the season switch. He said opponents cited several concerns, including a conflict with the fall football season and a strain on gym facilities at Anchorage schools, which already house gymnastics and volleyball in fall.
Rhodes said Region VI - which includes Fairbanks - offered to explore the possibility of scheduling trips to Southeast.
"There is some understanding that Southeast has some problems that need to be worked out," Rhodes said. "They are going to extend their hand to Southeast."
While welcoming the idea of getting more competition in Southeast, Sitka coach John Hedden questioned whether the Region VI schools have the travel budgets to make those trips happen. And Kayhi and Sitka still would face high travel costs.
"We're still going to have to travel as much," Collins said. "I know they're concerned about football overlap, but that's the way it is (in every other state)."
Hedden said he was "disgusted" by the vote, especially after the vast majority of Class 4A wrestling coaches voted in favor of the switch at last month's state meet.
"I've been fighting this battle since 2000," Hedden said. "I've had at least four proposals to ASAA that have been denied."
Hedden and Collins said they would consider asking to wrestle with the small schools while forfeiting the chance to compete for the team title at the state meet. Or, they might wrestle in the fall and head south for a season-capping meet - though it would not be the same as a state tourney.
"We're willing to risk that," Collins said. "We're willing to not go to the state championship."
In addition, Collins said the Ketchikan School Board is considering mandating that Kayhi wrestling occur in the fall to save on travel costs.
The ASAA board's next meeting is in May in Wrangell, and Hedden and Collins said they are planning to attend to re-state their case for switching the season.
"I don't care when we wrestle," Collins said. "I just want our whole region to wrestle together, united."
The Juneau Empire sports desk can be reached at email@example.com.