The key to John Kuterbach's success on the wrestling mat is flexibility - mentally and physically.
Kuterbach, a Juneau-Douglas High School senior who will compete as the Crimson Bears host this weekend's Brandon Pilot Invitational, has found success by keeping his composure and thinking on his feet during matches.
He also manages to get out of jams - and psych out opponents - thanks to extremely flexible joints that allow him to twist out of potential traps.
"I can scramble really well, so I can get out of tight spots," Kuterbach said. "The flexibility helps out a lot."
"He allows wrestlers to get his legs - but they never can finish," Juneau coach Kris Mercer said.
This weekend's wrestling meet begins at 6 p.m. today with the opening rounds. It picks up again at 10 a.m. Saturday, and will continue throughout the day with semifinals at 4 p.m. and championship matches starting at 7 p.m. All matches will be held in the JDHS main gym.
The tournament is named in memory of Brandon Pilot, a Juneau wrestler who died in an auto accident in November 2000. In addition to the Crimson Bears, wrestlers from Ketchikan, Sitka, Hoonah, Skagway, Angoon, Petersburg, Wrangell, Mount Edgecumbe and Metlakatla are expected to participate.
Kuterbach, who will compete in the 171-pound weight division this weekend, started wrestling while at Floyd Dryden Middle School. He stayed with the sport ever since, through school and the Juneau Tornadoes wrestling club.
"I like that it's an individual sport, just you and the other person," he said.
As a freshman at JDHS, Kuterbach started wrestling at 140 pounds. He's moved up a weight class or two each year since, and along the way he said he's learned to wrestle more aggressively.
One of Kuterbach's most memorable accomplishments to date was at last season's region meet, where he wrestled at 160 pounds. Sitka's Anthony Haskins held the top seed in the division, and he had beaten Kuterbach at least twice during the season. But Kuterbach dominated their matchup in the region final, winning with a 13-2 major decision for the Southeast title and his first state tournament berth.
"He just wrestled his style, wrestled aggressively and surprised everyone," Mercer said. "Who knows what he's going to do this year?"
Kuterbach said he learned from his previous losses to Haskins, and knew what to expect going into that decisive match. Once at state last March, Kuterbach did not win a match. But the experience gave him plenty of motivation to work toward another trip to state.
This season, Kuterbach is one of Juneau's captains and has had some early success. He won in the finals of last weekend's meet in Ketchikan, and two weeks ago in Sitka he jumped up to the 189-pound weight class and still finished second.
Fellow JDHS senior wrestler Jake Ritter, who has wrestled with and against Kuterbach since middle school, said Kuterbach turns up his intensity in practice and at meets.
"He's really docile at school - I don't think I've ever seen him get angry - but he works hard at practice, and on the mat he pumps himself up," said Ritter, who added that Kuterbach's flexibility allows him to "bait" opponents into moves he can elude.
Kuterbach, who plans to attend college and is applying for an Army ROTC scholarship, said wrestling has taught him discipline in school and in life.
"It gets hard, but all the pain is over after a little bit," he said, reflecting on the team's intense practice on Wednesday. "It hurts, but you've got to do it to get better."
This weekend's meet is one of just two home events for the Crimson Bears this season. They'll also host Ketchikan and Sitka for dual meets on Jan. 21-22, the week before the region meet at Sitka.
For Class 2A and 3A schools - everyone at the meet except Class 4A Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka - this weekend will be one of the final tuneups before their region meet Dec. 3-4 at Mount Edgecumbe High School. Since most of the Class 2A/3A schools don't have football, the small schools have a different season schedule than larger schools in Alaska.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.