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Story Last modified at 10:43 p.m. on Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wrestling reunion
Gathering of grapplers a springtime freestyle festival

BY MATT TUNSETH
Alaska Star

photo:Sports

A pair of young wrestling fans watch as Bibek Girung of the Anchorage Freestyle Wrestling Club pins Tyler Tulare of the Chugach Eagles during the Eagles' annnual freestyle tournament at Chugiak High on March 19. Girung won the Schoolboy/Girl division's 135-146 pound weight class at the tournament. Tulare, whose only loss came against Girung, placed second.
STAR PHOTO by Matt Tunseth

What's a good family gathering without a little bloodshed?

More than 600 wrestlers – and likely twice that many volunteers, parents, fans, girlfriends, boyfriends, disinterested babies, paramedics, grandparents, referees, coaches and custodians – poured into Chugiak High March 18 and 19 for the Chugach Eagles Wrestling Club's freestyle wrestling tournament, an annual contest that's one part battle royale and one part wrestling reunion.

"We're all just really a big, tight family," said Chugach club president Paul Wenzel. "Everyone knows everyone."

Wenzel also served as tournament director for the event, which attracted 23 Alaska USA wrestling clubs from as far away as Bethel, Fairbanks and Prince William Sound. He said an army of volunteers – mostly parents – made the big tournament possible.

"It can be a task, for sure," he said. "Not one person could do it. But I'm lucky, I've got a good core of parents and support people."

The Anchorage Freestyle Wrestling Club won the overall team title at the event, which was open to wrestlers in eight different age categories ranging from 5 years old (Pre-Bantam class) to adult (Open). The Eagles finished fourth. In all, 116 individual titles were awarded for the various brackets, including nine members of the host club, which is based in Eagle River.

Winning individual championships at the tournament were Christopher Pajinag (Bantam 47-49), Dillan Vogus (Intermediate 49-52), Matthew Pajinag (Intermediate 67-68), Joey Lerch (Intermediate 78-82), Camden Lerch (Novice A 118-122), Marcus Amico (Schoolboy/Girl 75-82), Solomon Harris (Schoolboy/Girl 123-132), Alex Medeiros (Cadet 184-196) and Dominic Taus (Junior 148-151). For complete tournament results, visit www.trackwrestling.com, where all Alaska USA wrestling events are posted.

In order to accommodate so many wrestlers in the various age groups and weight classes, 12 mats were set up between the school's main gym, auxiliary gym and cafeteria area, with a maximum 24 wrestlers in action at any given time during the two-day wrestle-fest.

Along with nonstop wrestling action, the event also included a Saturday morning breakfast that included pancakes and biscuits and gravy – for just five bucks a plate.

One unique feature of the organized chaos were the referees, a mix of seasoned vets familiar to fans of high school tournaments and the wrestlers themselves, who sometimes hustled between their own matches and those of their fellow competitors. Wenzel said that the young referees – who are supervised by older refs as part of the certification process – earn money by helping out and gain valuable insight into the sport from a different perspective.

"It gives them another angle on how to see wrestling," he said.

Wrestlers also get to see their coaches in a different light at freestyle tournaments, where the Open division attracted several grapplers whose high school and even college days are in the rearview mirror.

"It's kind of like having a mentor to see their coach out there," Wenzel said. "It helps them a lot."

The tournament also kept the coaching staffs hopping between the many different matches, with some having to run to mats in different parts of the school at a moment's notice. While being interviewed in the main gym, Wenzel paused to take a phone call from someone telling him that an important match was about to begin in the cafeteria.

"Where at? Mat 12? Ok, let me tell (coach Mark) Faller," he said into the phone, before hollering to the club's head coach. "Hey Mark!..."

Wenzel said more than 100 wrestlers from the Chugiak-Eagle River area competed for the Eagles in the tournament, and after Faller headed out, he noted that the former Chugiak High head coach and current Alaska Pacific University philosophy professor is one of the driving forces behind the club's success.

"He just loves it, it's in his blood," he said.

Wenzel said Faller and the club's other main coach, Lance Bodeen, both deserve high praise for their tireless work with young wrestlers in the community.

"They help us out so much," he said.

So do the many selfless volunteers – one key woman insisted on not being named in this story despite Wenzel's effusive praise – who Wenzel said are the real champions of such a tournament.

"Without the parents' help it would be something that's impossible to do," he said.

He said so many people come together to put on such an event for the young athletes who work all season to challenge their peers from across the state.

"It's hard to keep 'em away from tournaments," he said.

By getting together once in a while to match abilities, Alaska's freestyle wrestling family continues to grow up together.

"These kids, they just make each other better," he said.

Contact Matt Tunseth at matt.tunseth@alaskastar.com or 694-2727



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, March 23, 2011.