One year ago, after Kake wrestler Matthew Ashenfelter finished sixth at state, he promised his coach, Rick Mills, that he would return to win a title.
When Mills died in a boating accident just weeks later, Ashenfelter's promise became a mission to honor the memory of his fallen mentor - a mission he fulfilled Saturday by winning the 275-pound title at the Class 1A-2A-3A state wrestling tournament in Seward.
"He was with me, by my side the whole night," Ashenfelter said of Mills. "I'm on top of the world because I kept that promise."
Ashenfelter needed just 44 seconds to pin Seward's Gus Linville in the heavyweight final, the last match of a tournament that saw two other Southeast wrestlers claim titles - Wrangell's Jon Garrison at 103 pounds and Mount Edgecumbe's Max Shellabarger at 189.
Anchorage Christian Schools won its second straight team title with 153.5 points, while Dillingham was second with 145 and Bethel third with 126.5. Mount Edgecumbe tied for fifth place with 81 points and was the top Southeast team.
Mills, his 14-year-old son David and a family friend died late last year in a boating accident during a hunting trip. Mills had coached the Thunderbirds wrestling team for many years, and one of his former wrestlers - 2001 Kake graduate Mike James - took over the program.
Ashenfelter, a senior, had to overcome more than the loss of his coach. Soon after the season started, he broke his foot while playing basketball and was sidelined for nearly two months.
Ashenfelter faithfully followed a weight-lifting regimen and returned to competition at the region tournament in Sitka, where he won the title and qualified for state.
At state, he won his first two matches by pins before claiming a hard-fought, 8-5 decision over Nome-Beltz's Kohren Green in the semifinals. Ashenfelter said it was his toughest match of the season, which he finished with a 12-0 record.
In the final, Ashenfelter made quick work of Linville to claim Kake's first-ever state wrestling title.
"I felt confident and strong, because I had the town of Kake behind me," he said.
"It was tough at the beginning, but at the end he was at the top of his game," James said of Ashenfelter. "It was an emotional time for us, to take state and fulfill that promise."
Shellabarger became Mount Edgecumbe's first state champion since 1988 when he won the 189-pound title. Shellabarger, a junior who was born in 1988, pinned Houston's Clinton Banzhaf in 43 seconds. His victory was the first for the Braves since Thomas Akelkok won the 171-pound title in 1988. The only other state champion from Mount Edgecumbe was Steve Carlson at 177 pounds in 1987.
From the scoresheet it appears Shellabarger had an easy time in his match, with a pin in under a minute. But Banzhaf got the first takedown and had Shellabarger on his back early in the match. Shellabarger then reversed Banzhaf, then got him into a cradle and pinned him to finish the season with a 36-0 record.
"He took me down when I kind of slipped," Shellabarger said. "But it didn't really shock me, because he did the same thing at ACS (the Anchorage Christian Schools Invitational). It felt awesome. It's the awesomest feeling. I'm thinking about going undefeated again next year."
Shellabarger's older brother, Nick, was the top seed at 171 pounds, but he was upset in the semifinals by Bristol Bay's Zack Klein. Nick Shellabarger lost the consolation final to Bethel's Sterling Rearden to finish in fourth place, spoiling the brothers' dream of each winning titles. Their older brother, Cliff, took second place at 189 pounds last year when he was a senior.
While Kake was winning its first title and Mount Edgecumbe was winning its first since 1988, Wrangell won a state championship for the third straight year.
Garrison, a sophomore, won the 103-pound title with an 18-5 major decision over Josh Baker of Anchorage Christian Schools. Last year, Wrangell's Jake Mork won at 160 pounds and Harry Churchill won at 135 pounds in 2002. Garrison's title is the 10th won by a Wrangell wrestler.
"Oh, yeah, it was a lot of fun," Garrison said. "I tried to put him on his back in the first 30 seconds and I gained a lot of momentum from there. I was really nervous, but I had a lot of confidence."
Mork was attempting a repeat at 160 pounds, but he lost a 3-1 decision to Glennallen's Alex McMahan in a final pitting two former state champions. McMahan won the 152-pound title last year.
The only other Southeast wrestler to reach the finals was Petersburg's Neil Jenny, who lost an 11-3 major decision to Cody Dunbar of ACS at 152 pounds.
The Juneau Empire sports desk can be reached at email@example.com.
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