The Juneau-Douglas High School wrestling season gets underway today in Sitka at the Mount Edgecumbe Invitational.
The Crimson Bears, fresh off a second-place finish at last year's inaugural fall season state wrestling tournament, are looking to climb that last rung of the ladder to claim a state team title this season.
But according to Crimson Bears head wrestling coach Bob Mahon, who is in his eighth season, the team's first goal this season is to dethrone four-time defending Region V champion Ketchikan.
Although Juneau defeated Ketchikan at last year's Thanksgiving Classic in Juneau, the Kings rebounded to win the region tournament in Ketchikan with 249 points. Juneau finished second with 228 points.
"Our first goal is to win the region," Mahon said after a practice session on Thursday. "Ketchikan won the region, but we came back and beat them at state. In a way we have looked past the region and we had losses we shouldn't have had."
Lost from last year's squad to graduation are Anthony Manacio III, who placed fourth at state at 125 pounds and Brian Thatcher, who took third at 171 pounds.
But the Crimson Bear's biggest loss is Jestin Hulegaard, who won the state title at 130 pounds and was named the tournament's outstanding wrestler as a sophomore. Hulegaard moved out of the area with his family in the off-season and will be sorely missed by the Crimson Bears.
However, this season's optimism comes from five returning Crimson Bears who placed sixth or higher at last year's state meet. The group is led by senior Anthony Manacio IV, who placed second at the 112-pound weight class, and junior Patrick Carrillo, who took second at 119 pounds. Seniors Jerrod Harvey and Justin Rasmussen placed third and sixth, respectively, at 215 pounds and senior Vernon Perry placed fourth at 103 pounds.
The Crimson Bears also have 10 wrestlers in the top-five in Alaska Wrestling.com's preseason state rankings, highlighted by three wrestlers with No. 1 rankings -- Carrillo at 119 pounds, junior David Liliedahl at 130 pounds and Harvey at 215 pounds.
The other Juneau wrestlers with preseason rankings are: Perry (fourth at 103 pounds), Manacio IV (second at 112), senior Willy Dodd (fourth at 119), senior Isaac Cadiente (fifth at 135), senior Jonathan Moore (fifth at 189), Rasmussen (fourth at 215) and senior Robert Vicario (fifth at 275).
Moore, Dodd and Rasmussen will join the team after the high school football season ends. The new fall season wrestling schedule conflicts with the high school football season, forcing athletes who compete in both sports to miss the beginning of wrestling season.
Last year was the first of the new unclassified, dual wrestling season. Under the format, two separate wrestling seasons were formed -- one in the fall and one in the spring -- and the smallest schools compete with the largest schools in the state.
This has been a sore spot for Mahon.
"The state of Alaska needs to be aligned with the rest of the country," Mahon said. "This will probably be my last year because I'm in this for the kids and this is not good for the kids. I got kids who play football who, by the time football ends and they get here, put in their two weeks of getting in shape, the season is almost over. We need to reclassify the schools, because it hurts the schools in the Bush. Wrestling is a winter sport and that's what it comes down to."
Two of the new Crimson Bear wrestlers to watch are senior Kyle Monti, who left the program for two years, and freshman Reid Dihle, who was undefeated all the way through middle school according to Mahon.
"We have a real good core of wrestlers and some new guys who will score points for us, too." Mahon said. "We can do well if everything goes our way -- if everyone stays healthy and eligible. We got 10 guys in the top five. It's great."
Ketchikan, which finished fourth at last year's state meet, has six wrestlers ranked in the state's top-eight, led by defending state champion Matt Hamilton at 275 pounds and sophomore Jay Fulk who is ranked No. 1 at 171 pounds.
Petersburg also could give the Crimson Bears some trouble this season. The Vikings, who placed a solid third at last year's region meet and sixth at the state meet, return seven ranked wrestlers.
Petersburg senior Joey Boggs is ranked No. 1 at 160 pounds and Mike Nielson and Ian Williams are each ranked second at 140 and 145 pounds, respectively. Senior Drew Ware is third at the 171-pound class.
Outside the Southeast schools, Mahon sees the defending state champions from Skyview, as well as Soldotna, as the teams to watch out for.
"Soldotna is coming on. They have a great team and a great coach," Mahon said. "And Skyview is always good. Kotzebue is going to be tough, they are going to surprise some people."
The Mount Edgecumbe Invite will be run in an informal fashion. No team scores will be kept, but entries are limited to two wrestlers in each weight class. In addition to Juneau and Mount Edgecumbe, Sitka and Skagway will be the only other teams at the meet.
Mahon will not be sending his entire team to Sitka. Cadiente, Harvey, Perry and Vicario will be the only varsity members making the trip, in addition to a large contingency of freshmen and newcomers.
"I'm trying to get as many matches as possible for the kids," Mahon said. "They are not keeping team scores and are only allowing two kids in each weight class. It will be a good meet to get some of the younger kids some experience."
Jeff Kasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.