Gruening's Jesse Peterson takes down Mirror Lake's Noah Patterson during a tri-meet at Mirror Lake on Feb. 14. The three-team meet, which also included wrestlers from Romig, was the final regular season event before the city championships on Feb. 23 at Goldenview Middle School in Anchorage.
STAR PHOTO by Matt Tunseth
An observer watching the three-team wrestling meet at Mirror Lake Middle School on Feb. 14 would have little clue that the sport is in peril.
A student bagpiper in full Scottish dress played a rousing introduction as the 84-member Coyote team circled around, their faces a mix of eagerness, anxiety and glee. Later, another student sang a stirring national anthem, earning a loud ovation from the sizable crowd in attendance. Outside the gym, students sold pizza and hotdogs while an emcee kept fans apprised of the action going on in the school's two gymnasiums.
Despite the fanfare, Gruening Middle School wrestling coach Kip Bailey said things aren't as they appear.
"Our kids are punished because they wrestle in the Anchorage School District," said Bailey, whose Colts finished second to Mirror Lake at the meet, which also included Romig Middle School.
The tri-meet was the final regular season event before the city championships begin on Feb. 23 at Goldenview Middle School. When they arrive there, most wrestlers will have eight or nine matches under their belts. Bailey said that number is paltry compared to the number of matches wrestlers elsewhere in Alaska rack up by the end of each season.
"The difference is, if you're in North Pole or Wasilla, they have (school-sponsored) tournaments during the weekend," he said.
The ASD doesn't allow weekend meets in any of its sports, said Begich Middle School's Shane Inch, one of two assistant principals in charge of wrestling in the district. He said the district doesn't allow athletes to practice over the weekend, nor does it allow matches against schools outside its boundaries.
Those policies contrast other districts, where weekend tournaments against schools from across the state are the norm.
"This schedule is horrible," Bailey said.
Wrestlers should count themselves lucky to even have interscholastic competition. Middle school sports frequently have been targeted by the School Board for the budget axe, and the programs were only kept in next year's fiscal plan after public outcry and testimony last month from past students, parents and athletes like former Wendler Junior High standout Kikkan Randall.
Bailey believes the programs are at a disadvantage because district administrators believe sports can be better handled by the private sector. Although non-school club teams do travel to meets, not everyone who wants to participate has the means or ability to take part. If funding for middle school sports is cut, Bailey believes many athletes will never get a chance to try the sport.
"At the mid level it's all about trying everything," he said.
Despite the perceived disadvantages, Bailey and other middle school coaches have been busy lately getting their charges ready for the city championships.
"For the Anchorage kids, this is huge," he said.
Bailey's team got a lesson in what it will take to do well at the big meet from their cross-town rival Mirror Lake, which dominated the competition with seven 2-0 wrestlers.
Mirror Lake coach Travis Harrington said he's been pleased with his team's progress and the school's supportive parents.
"The majority of the reason for our success are the people who come and help us out," Harrington said. "It really is an expression of the community."
Harrington got 2-0 performances from Dawson Budke at 105 pounds, Dakota Vikdal (110), Solomon Harris (115), Dustin Holta (121), Tevin Cormier (133), Nick Toombs (140) and Ben Dorsey (HWT). Most of the team's top wrestlers this season are eighth-graders, although Cormier and Toombs are still in seventh grade and Budke is just a sixth-grader.
In one of the day's biggest showdowns, Budke beat Gruening's Cole Matthews by a narrow 2-0 margin, earning praise from Gruening's head coach.
"He's just a tough kid," Bailey said of the Mirror Lake youngster.
Mirror Lake racked up 137 points to easily outpace Gruening (76) and Romig (58), and Bailey said the host Coyotes were definitely on their game.
"They stayed in good position and we just couldn't rattle their cage," he said.
Though his varsity came up short, Bailey said he was excited by the performance of his JV wrestlers, who lost just twice at the meet.
"That was pretty darn impressive," he said.
Gruening's top athletes this season have been seventh-graders Marcus Amico at 75 pounds, Gavin Arnold at 100 and Matthews. Bailey said he also expects big things from 127-pound eighth-grader John Hutchins, who lost twice in the tri-meet but has been steadily improving this season.
"I think he'll mix it up at the city's," Bailey said.
Though the city championships are the final meet of the season, some wrestlers will travel with their club teams to the unofficial middle school championships in Fairbanks next month.
Frustrated by the seeming lack of respect for middle-school sports at the administrative level, Gruening coach Bailey said he's been pleased to see members of the public speaking out about the issue. He said he was especially gratified when Randall a cross-country skier who went from school district races to the winter Olympics took time out of her schedule to testify in front of the School Board on the importance of middle school athletics.
"To watch her come out and sway public opinion, to take a break to come and speak, that was very impressive," he said.
Mirror Lake Tri-meet
At Mirror Lake
Team scores 1. Mirror Lake, 137; 2. Gruening, 76; 3. Romig, 58
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, February 16, 2011.