The Juneau-Douglas High School wrestling team went through a season of transition last year, with a new coaching staff and a team dominated by younger wrestlers.
The Crimson Bears were happy to take baby steps through the season, and they wound up with a state champion in 103-pounder Gerry Carrillo. They also had two wrestlers finish in fourth place in their weight classes (Jordan Saceda at 119 and departed senior Dennis Hall at 125), while 215-pounder Jake Ritter's bid for an undefeated season ended with two losses at state and fifth place.
As the Juneau wrestlers prepare to open the new season, the Crimson Bears are done with baby steps. They're ready to take a big step forward.
"We're getting some quality kids out, we're getting some tough kids," said Juneau head coach Kris Mercer, who is assisted again this year by former college wrestlers Lee Kadinger and Darren May. "We've got about 35 kids out, about 10 more than last year."
The Crimson Bears open their season this weekend in Sitka, though this week's meet will be small. The wrestlers will compete in round-robin matches on Friday, then will wrestle in a bracketed double-elimination tournament on Saturday. Mercer said he's only planning on taking about 14 of his wrestlers to Sitka, and most of the wrestlers will be younger.
Led by Carrillo, a junior who will move up to either 112 or 119 pounds this season, this season's Crimson Bears could have as many as four or five wrestlers in contention for state titles. As an added bonus, the younger guys are more experienced - and that could mean Juneau has enough mid-bracket points to be among the contenders for a team title.
"Winning the state title has motivated me a lot, but I have to work harder this time," Carrillo said. "It's always hardest to repeat. I'll have to get tougher. Probably my best competition is right here. The top guys from the state are all right here in this room."
Juneau's strength will be in the lighter weight classes, even though right now the only Crimson Bear certified for 103 pounds is a freshman (Ian Otness) on crutches with a leg injury.
Not only do the Crimson Bears have Carrillo at 112-119, but senior Sungie Musarra is back at the same weights. Musarra took third place at state two years ago and was one of the state's top-ranked wrestlers last season until he was forced to miss the region and state tournaments because of surgery to his left shoulder. Add in sophomore Dante "Jephty" Santos, a state qualifier at 112 last year, and Juneau should dominate the 112 and 119 pound divisions.
"It just feels tighter," Musarra said of his shoulder, which isn't at full strength yet but also isn't popping out on him like it did last year. "In January I had surgery, so it was 10 months ago. I'm trying to work on my muscles, so it'll be strong when it counts. I'll get there. The team is looking strong."
Moving up a weight to 125, Juneau gets back junior Cody Wolf, who took fourth place at state two years ago at 103 pounds but sat out last season to concentrate on baseball. Mercer said Wolf looks stronger than he did two years ago, and Wolf realizes how much he missed the sport.
"I missed it a lot, but I was getting sick of losing weight," Wolf said. "I'm pretty rusty, but it's good to wrestle again. I couldn't wait to get out on the mats. It's going to take a lot of hard work, but it'll be fun."
Saceda is a senior and he'll wrestle at 125 or 130 this year, making Juneau strong in four straight weight classes.
"We'll have four guys battling every week, and anything can happen," Carrillo said of the intrasquad competition, which he feels will make all of them better in those weight classes.
"From 112 to 125, we're rock solid, and to 130 with Saceda," Mercer said. "In the middle weights we're still working things out, and then we're solid in the upper weights with Jake."
Ritter, who is a senior this year, took a 23-0 record and the state's No. 1 ranking into last year's state meet. But he was upset twice and wound up taking a disappointing fifth place. Now former small schools state champion Bobby Dunbar, who transferred from Anchorage Christian Schools to Bartlett, could wind up in Ritter's weight class. Ritter, who is battling a sore right ankle and right knee from football, said he welcomes the competition.
"I blew an easy state championship last year, and this year Bobby Dunbar's down there," Ritter said. "That will help me get the intensity up. We both have something to prove. I want to show I can win a state title, and he wants to show he can win a large schools title."
The Crimson Bears add a lot of depth this year, with a good mix of wrestlers with state experience, some transfers, some experienced freshmen from the middle school ranks, and some first-year wrestlers.
Among the other returners last year's squad are senior John Kuterbach at 171, senior Alika Bradley at 275, senior Luis Highley at 189, junior Clinton Clark at 135, junior Chase Thomas at 160-171, sophomore Samson Keeney at 189, sophomore Chad Carson at 130, sophomore Matt Barry at 140-145, sophomore Garret Cox at 140-152 and sophomore Joardan Savland at 130-135.
Older newcomers are senior Carl Lundquist at 125, senior Aaron Bruce at 145-152, senior Justin Mathers at 189 (from Washington state), junior Kevin Wilkins at 275, junior Josh White, junior William "Buddy" Howard, sophomore Cody Barril at 130-135, sophomore Dylan Mores at 152 and sophomore Jake Mason (from Ohio) at 189-215.
The new freshmen are Steven Dyer at 125 (from Utah), Otness, Phillip Moser at 152-160, Ramiro Lamas at 140, Elias Daugherty at 125 and Nathan Ord at 112-119. Moser was undefeated in middle school competition last year until the unofficial state tournament (the Tanana Middle School Championships in Fairbanks).
"I'm looking forward to working with Jake Mason, he could definitely be tough," Mercer said. "We had Kuterbach back wrestling with the club (the Juneau Tornados), and Matt Barry did a lot of club stuff this year and he didn't play football so he could focus on wrestling. Among the new freshmen, Phillip is an animal, Utah Steven has a couple of years of experience and Elias has been wrestling with the tough kids."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.