Wrangell wrestler Jake Mork doesn't get shaken by early setbacks. He knows first-hand that success comes to those who stay strong from start to finish.
Mork, who prides himself on the conditioning that gives him endurance in individual matches and throughout the season, will try to claim his second straight Alaska title today and Saturday at the Class 1A-2A-3A state wrestling tournament in Seward.
He is one of 42 Southeast wrestlers who qualified for the state tourney, which will be held on four mats spread across the floor of the Alaska Railroad's Dock Terminal. Spectators will watch from portable bleachers.
Mork, wrestling at 160 pounds for the second straight year, said he and his teammates feel they have an energy edge on their opponents.
"That's the hard part of practice - the conditioning," he said. "But when you get tired, that's when you go to your back and start losing. ...
"In the third (round), when we're not tired and the other guy is - that's when we score points."
That's what happened in last year's state final. Mork found himself trailing Bethel's Sterling Rearden by three points entering the third and final round. But Mork scored the last five points to win a 7-5 decision.
This season, Mork's only loss came in October at the ACS Invitational in Anchorage. Glennallen's Alex McMahan beat Mork in a 6-2 decision in the finals.
McMahan is the top-ranked wrestler at 160 pounds in the most recent AlaskaWrestling.com state poll, while Mork is second. McMahan also beat one of Mork's training partners, Wrangell's Harry Churchill, in the state finals at 140 pounds last season.
Mork is looking forward to putting his conditioning to use this weekend - ideally in a rematch with McMahan.
"It's what I've been training for all season - this one match," he said.
Mork started wrestling in middle school, and won a region title as an eighth-grader. After spending his freshman year in Soldotna, Mork returned to Wrangell for his sophomore year and reached the state tournament, where he went two-losses-and-out.
As a junior last season, his first match of the season was against Petersburg's Jim Smith, a defending state champion.
"Jim was slotted to repeat - he won the state title the last year hands down," said Wrangell coach Ed Garrison, who has coached Mork since middle school. "Jake went into Petersburg's venue, and two times in one night he decimated Jim Smith in front of his home crowd. That showed he was serious."
While Smith came back to beat Mork in last year's region final, Mork finished on top at state.
Going into this season, Mork remembered last year's opening match against Smith. Mork realized that he was now the defending state champ that opponents would try to topple.
"That's what I was thinking about going into this season," he said. "You can't take a break. You've got to stay on top of it and work hard."
Mork won the region title last weekend in Sitka to qualify for state.
This weekend's matches likely will be Mork's last. Mork - among the top students in his class with a 3.7 GPA - plans to devote all his post-graduation efforts to pursuing a career goal of becoming a pilot. A first step will be the aviation technology program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. After that, maybe the Air Force.
Garrison said Mork always has displayed tenacity on the mat. But he's worked hard to gain the skills and endurance to become a champion, and in doing so he's inspired his teammates - including fellow state qualifiers Jon Garrison, Drew Eyon and Dan Sims.
"He's willing to do whatever it takes ... to challenge himself, and he gets the other kids to challenge themselves," Ed Garrison said. "He taught himself to be a well-rounded athlete, and to listen to his coaches. Now he has the tenacity - and the talent and technique as well."
Other top returning state wrestlers from Southeast include Petersburg's Neil Jenny and Mount Edgecumbe's Sam Carney. Jenny beat Carney in the state finals at 145 pounds last season, and again in the 152-pound finals at last weekend's region tournament. There's a good chance the two will face each other again in Seward.
Mount Edgecumbe and Petersburg each have 12 state qualifiers to lead Southeast squads. Defending state champion Anchorage Christian Schools qualified 20 wrestlers for the meet to lead all teams.
A complete list of Southeast state qualifiers, along with the most recent AlaskaWrestling.com state rankings, can be found on the State and Local Sports index page.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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