On Saturday, Dec. 21, the Bethel Warriors won their seventh team state title of the decade with a string of dominating championship-round performances at the Alaska Airlines Center. After being outscored on the first day of competition, the Warriors pulled ahead of runner-up Glennallen, 191.5 to 176. The win capped a historic high school career for senior Hayden Lieb, who is now just the 12th wrestler in Alaska’s history to win four state championships.
“Nothing in my career has compared to this one,” said Lieb after a string of championship round victories by his teammates. “I have so much adrenaline going through me right now. Holy cow.”
Headed into the finals, the tournament narrowed to a two-way race between Bethel and Glennallen. It was either team’s to win. Glennallen’s Alex Buck hit the mat first and pinned his opponent, setting a high bar for the Warriors to overcome. Next up was BRHS’s Nelson Evans. Competing in his first state championship match, the senior had returned to the sport after several years away.
“Just watching wrestling, it brought me back. I missed the intensity,” said Evans. His presence would prove momentous for the Warriors. After going up 12-0 in the final, Evans put his opponent, Emilio Mangrobang of Mt. Edgecumbe, on his shoulders with less than 20 seconds left to secure the pin, the 135-pound state championship, and earn extra team points for Bethel.
“He’s my brother, and watching him get that fall, I was jumping everywhere. I was pumped,” said Lieb, who has competed with and against Evans for years.
Warriors Head Coach Darren Lieb, Hayden’s father, said that the win lifted the whole team.
“Nelson got that big pin. Our kids saw how he went out, and I think that flipped the switch.”
Up next was BRHS freshman Axel Madson at 103 pounds. As perhaps the biggest question mark in Bethel’s final’s lineup, Madson put any doubts aside quickly, pinning Riesen Seyer of Houston in 25 seconds flat.
“I felt he was pushing against me, so I did a duck under,” said Madson. “He left his leg out; I got it. Got the cradle, and then the pin.”
Then came the main event of the evening. All eyes were on Mat 3 as Lieb stepped in, undefeated on the season and hoping to claim his fourth state title against 160 pound Kole Sperl of Petersburg. Lieb used the first period to feel out his opponent, earning a single takedown late in the period to go up 2-0. He scored eight more in the second period. Then, in the final period, Lieb got a takedown and near-fall points to win by technical fall, 15-0.
He ran straight to his father, Coach Lieb, to embrace him before being declared the winner by the referee. He signaled with four fingers to commemorate the moment as his hand was held up. Lieb was also named Outstanding Wrestler of the Year.
The final Bethel matchup of the night included another coach-son combination. Assistant Coach Martin Smith was in the corner as his son, sophomore Landon Smith, entered the match undefeated on the season and hoping to win his second state championship a year after his first.
“This one I was more prepared and ready to go,” said Smith.
Facing off against Darius Tilden of Dillingham, Smith proved why he was the favorite going into the tournament.
“Once I got that half [nelson], I knew immediately what to do and I just did it,” he said.
Smith broke down Tilden’s ground defense to win the 112-pound match and the state title by pin, one minute and 42 seconds into the first round.
“It’s pretty amazing that we had all of us win. Very exciting; unexplainable,” said Smith.
“How about the symbolism,” said his father, Coach Smith. “Hayden’s fourth individual title and we had four champions. No better feeling in the world.”
The team championship caps the end of a decade of Bethel wrestling domination that includes seven team titles (2010-2014, 2016-17, 2019), two second place finishes (2014-2015), and a third place finish (2018). Coach Lieb said that the dominant victories at the end will be unforgettable.
“I’ve had years where we had six in the finals and never won a match, but we still came up with the team championship,” he said.
At the tournament, the coaches focused not just on winning, but on unrelenting aggression. The Warriors declared their intentions, wearing specially made shirts that read “ON THE HUNT”.
Coach Smith, along with Assistant Coach Hans Holkesvik, promised the team that they would each perform 30 push-ups for a per pin, but nothing for victories by points. Sophomore Jamin Crow said that the move provided inspiration.
“Our goal was 1,000 push-ups for them,” said Crow.
By the tournament’s end, the coaches, in their blue, collared shirts with yellow ties, had completed 1,050 push-ups over the two day event.
By next season, Hayden Lieb will be wrestling at the University of Wyoming, a Division 1 collegiate program. For Coach Lieb, who has been taking his son to tournaments since his infancy, it will be a big change.
“It’s kind of surreal thinking he’s going to be gone,” said Coach Lieb. “It’s going to be difficult. He’s a great teacher; he’s good with the kids. We’re going to miss him.”
The newly crowned champion, Nelson Evans, will be graduating as well. He believes that the Warriors’ prowess will continue into the next decade.
“I hope they do the same thing: keep doing what they’re doing and get more state titles,” said Evans.
The 2020 season will open with another father-son duo striving to reach the pinnacle of high school wresting success. Landon Smith, with coaching from his father, says that he’s aiming to become the state’s next four-time state champion.
Complete team scores:
1) Bethel - 191.5
2) Glennallen - 176
3) Homer - 118.5
4) Redington - 113
5) Dillingham - 111
6) Sitka - 92
7) Tie: Grace Christian, Craig, and Mt. Edgecumbe - 87
10) Eielson - 85
11) Wrangell - 80
12) Nome - 62.5
13) Kenai Central - 57.0
14) Petersburg - 54.5
15) Unalaska - 54
16) Napaskiak - 34.5
17) Houston - 34
18) Anchorage Christian - 31.5
19) Barrow - 30
20) Haines - 29
21) Kotzebue - 28
22) Savoonga - 24
23) Nikiski - 23,5
24) Susitna Valley - 17
25) New Stuyahok - 16
26) Tie: Seward and Delta - 12
28) Tie: Noatak, Stebbins, and St. Mary’s - 10
31) Emmonak - 9
32) Tie:Hutchinson, Scammon Bay, and St. Michael - 7
35) Tie: Valdez, Nunapitchuk, and Bristol Bay - 5
38) Tie: Gambell and Kivalina - 4
40) Shishmaref - 3
41) Tie: Aniak, Galena, and Shaktoolik - 1
Other Y-K Delta Podium Finishers:
119 - Stephen Maxie, Napaskiak - 4th
125 - Tyler Laraux, Bethel - 5th
140 - Terrell Jimmy, Bethel - 6th
145 - Jamin Crow, Bethel - 6th
160 - John B Charles, Emmonak - 6th
189 - Kevin Valadez, Bethel - 5th
215 - Isaac Joekay, Napaskiak - 5th
285 - Ayden Alstrom-Beans, St. Mary’s - 6th