Clipboard in hand, Kris Mercer stood at the edge of the mats and smiled as about two dozen Juneau-Douglas High School wrestlers went through their paces Tuesday afternoon.
Mercer is the new head coach for the Crimson Bears, and one of his biggest goals is getting more wrestlers out for the team - a team that ended last year with only a dozen healthy bodies but still finished eighth in the Class 4A state meet. Mercer, the long-time coach at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School, takes over from Bob Mahon, who moved back to Oregon.
"We've got 25 to 28 guys who are showing up on a regular basis," Mercer said. "There are 19 in Sitka and a few more in Ketchikan. We've got the biggest team, which is the way it should be."
But Mercer's not satisfied. He'd like more wrestlers coming out for the team, because the best squads almost always are the biggest squads. Some teams in Anchorage and Fairbanks have as many as 60 to 80 wrestlers.
"The biggie for me is filling the room," Mercer said. "I've got 60 kids out at DZ, and Geoff Harben has about 40 out at Floyd Dryden. But in the past only five of them would come out for the (high school) team as freshmen. I'm trying to get more folks involved and I'm trying to get wrestling out of the shadows of basketball, football and other sports."
The Crimson Bears open their season this weekend when 18 of the wrestlers will head to Hoonah for a meet Friday and Saturday with the host Braves, Mount Edgecumbe, Skagway and possibly Sitka.
At the end of last season, while Juneau only had 12 wrestlers healthy or eligible for competition, 10 of them made state. Ketchikan and Sitka both had larger teams at the end of the season, and they both finished higher than Juneau in the Region V-Class 4A meet due to their depth.
"The biggest difference is the numbers," said junior 215-pounder Jake Ritter, who said that the extra depth could help Juneau qualify more wrestlers for the state meet. "It gives us more guys to work out with."
Helping Mercer out are two former college wrestlers - Lee Kadinger, who attended Lakeland College in Wisconsin, and Darren May, who attended Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. Mercer said he plans to bring other former college wrestlers in to help with the team, which will expose the Crimson Bears to more wrestling styles.
During Tuesday's practice, Kadinger, who competed in the 2002 NCAA Division III National Championships, did most of the demonstrating of new moves. He worked with Ritter and senior Dennis Hall to show the other Crimson Bears how to create space so they can escape several types of holds.
"Lee runs an incredibly high-energy practice," Mercer said. "He's got a lot more technique than I do. We're definitely going to get a lot more technique."
"It's good to change it up once in awhile," said Hall, who was a state qualifier at 125 pounds last year but didn't place in the top six. "In a couple of years the team will be strong. We're just getting used to the changes."
The Crimson Bears will open their season with a young team, with only three seniors and seven juniors on the roster. There are five sophomores and 11 freshmen among the regulars at practice.
"We've got a pretty young team; we only lost three seniors," said junior 112-pounder Sungie Musarra, who took third place in last year's state meet and is the team's top returning state wrestler. "We've got quite a few kids who came out, and the returners are all looking tough. We've got some good freshmen. There's definitely some talent."
"Within a couple of years, we'll have a big team," said sophomore Gerry Carrillo, a state qualifier at 112 pounds last year. "It's definitely different, the atmosphere."
Hall leads the small group of seniors, which also includes heavyweight Pat Lumba and 171-pounder Chris Pleasants.
Besides Musarra, the top juniors include Ritter, who finished fifth at state at 189 pounds. John Kuterbach, a 189-pounder this year, and 119-pounder Jordan Saceda both wrestled last year but didn't make state (the top two in Region V qualify; Kuterbach was third at 152 and Saceda was fourth at 130). Other juniors on the team are heavyweight Alika Bradley, 215-pounder Luis Highley and 171-pounder Rich Ritter (Jake's cousin).
Sophomore Gerry Carrillo was a state qualifier at 112 pounds last year, but will drop to 103 for some meets this season. Other sophomores on the team are Tim Katasse (215), Jamaal Bailey (125), Clinton Clark (135) and Chase Thomas (160).
One of the keys for the Crimson Bears this year will be the development of their freshmen class.
Tyler Casperson-Zimmerman was a state champion in middle school from Fairbanks last year, but he moved to Juneau and will wrestle at 171 pounds. Other freshmen include Alex Hunt (103), Chad Carson (112), Dante Santos (112), Logan Spencer (119), Matt Barry (140), Garret Cox (140), Dylan Mores (145), Liam Campbell (152), David Quintanilla (189) and Samson Keeney (215).
This weekend's meet at Hoonah will feature a mix of small schools, who are in the second month of their season, and large schools (Juneau and possibly Sitka), who have been practicing for just two weeks.
"It'll be a good starter match for us," Kadinger said.
After this weekend, Juneau will see primarily Class 4A schools for the rest of the season. Juneau travels to Sitka for dual meets Nov. 7-8, then goes to Ketchikan for dual meets Nov. 14-15.
The Crimson Bears host the annual Brandon Pilot Invitational meet Nov. 21-22, which will feature the three large Southeast schools and some of the small schools. Juneau may travel to Anchorage for Bartlett's Jerry Palmer Team Tournament on Dec. 5-6 (that event is tentative), then will host Ketchikan and Sitka on Dec. 12-13 for a series of triple-dual meets. Juneau is tentatively scheduled to attend the West Anchorage tournament on Dec. 19-20, then closes out the regular season with dual meets in Ketchikan on Jan. 9-10 and in Sitka on Jan. 16-17.
The Region V-Class 4A meet is Jan. 31 in Ketchikan, and this year's Class 4A state meet is Feb. 6-7 at Chugiak High School.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.