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Both Warrior teams win regional tournament and head to state wrestling competition

It’s dark inside the packed gymnasium at Bethel Regional High School (BRHS). The single fluorescent beam silhouettes the crowd and spotlights the center of the seasoned yellow and dark blue wrestling mat. It’s the championship matches of the regional tournament hosted by the Bethel Warriors, who would dominate the competition by night's end.

The musky air is charged with teenage angst and sweat as the top two opponents face off on opposite sides of the shock absorbent mat.

There’s music blasting from tinny loudspeakers, popping in between announcements, whistle blasts, and crowd cheers. This is wrestling in rural Alaska.

Landon Burk from Bethel wrestling Antwan Buster from Kotlik
Josiah Swope
Landon Burke from Bethel wrestling Antwan Buster from Kotlik.

The finals start with the boys 189-pound weight class. BRHS junior Landon Burke pinned teammate Zachory Jacobs-McDonald. This is the third time the 16-year-old has won a regional championship. Burke has been wrestling for over a decade.

“Going into state, I feel pretty confident in making it to the finals,” Burke said.

At 215 pounds, Jacob Carmichael pinned his St. Mary’s opponent to get his hand raised. The 15-year-old said that he’s pretty confident heading into the state tournament. Carmichael has been wrestling since he was four years old. 

Jacob Carmichael from Bethel Wrestling Matthew Afcan from St. Mary's
Josiah Swope
Jacob Carmichael from Bethel wrestling Matthew Afcan from St. Mary's.

Making his first state appearance is 14-year-old 112-pound freshman Brandon Ayapan. The first place regional champ has been wrestling for the past five years. He said that he enjoys the team aspect of wrestling. 

“This team is good. It's been a fun year and fun team. I've had so much fun traveling with them,” Ayapan said.

Alvino Vasquez won his third regional title in a row. The 16-year-old 119-pound junior is still processing the accomplishment.

Alvino Vasquez from Bethel wrestling Dylan Brown From Quinhagak
Josiah Swope
Alvino Vasquez from Bethel wrestling Dylan Brown from Quinhagak.

“A lot of emotions, being really happy to, you know, be able to compete and win for the third time in a row in front of our home crowd. It's very, very exciting. I love wrestling in front of them too. And just being able to compete in front of my family and my home crowd is amazing,” Vasquez said.

The next Warrior to place first was 130 pounder Aaron Mute. This will be his fourth trip to the state championship. The senior’s goal is to make it to the state finals. He credits his family's support for his success.

Aaron Mute From Bethel wrestling Ace hill from Chevak
Josiah Swope
Aaron Mute from Bethel wrestling Ace Hill from Chevak.

“My dad's been supporting me every day since I joined in the fourth grade. And he's been giving me more confidence [than] even my coaches,” Mute said.

Paul Dyment, last year’s state runner-up at 135 pounds, is eager to reach the top podium in Anchorage.

“I'm just going to wrestle harder than everyone. I know I'm better than them and I can beat them,” Dyment said.

The 17-year-old senior ran through his weight class, pinning all three opponents in the first period.

Freshman Jackson Iverson electrified the crowd with his pin against a tough 140-pound opponent from Chevak. 

“He caught me in a double under, but he had illegal locking hands. So I got out of that one. And pretty much from there, just controlled the match and got him to his back and pinned him,” Iverson said.

Jackson Iverson From Bethel wrestling Ian Chayalkun from Chevak
Josiah Swope
Jackson Iverson from Bethel wrestling Ian Chayalkun from Chevak.

Iverson, who is 15, said that he’s looking forward to the tough competition at state.

To the uninitiated, wrestlers are often revered for their perseverance, grit, and determination. But sometimes they are more. Enter Jonathan Oscar. He is a 19-year-old senior. He has been grappling a lot.

“I don't know, it feels so unreal. I'm still trying to process it. You know, I put in all the hard work. And this isn't for me. This isn't for my family. This isn't for the school. This is for my stepdad. My stepdad passed away at the beginning of the season,” Oscar said.

Jonathan Oscar from Bethel Wrestling Cassian Fisher from Kwethluk
Josiah Swope
Jonathan Oscar from Bethel wrestling Cassian Fisher from Kwethluk.

According to a report from the Alaska State Troopers, Oscar’s stepfather, Donald Johnson Sr., was shot and killed in his hometown of Unalakleet at the beginning of the season in mid-October. He always attended Oscar’s wrestling matches.

“He meant a lot to me. This is my senior year. And every year, my high school career, he showed up to every regionals, every single one of them whether he's out of out of the state or out of town. He didn't live here. He lived up north, but, you know, he showed up as, like, as much as he can. Even if that meant he has no money for food, he'd still show up,” Oscar said.

There were other obstacles too, Oscar said, from family issues, to getting sick, to his struggle to get passing grades to compete. And yet, the 145-pound Oscar still found a way to take first place and have his hand raised as regional champion.

After high school Oscar has goals of joining the Bethel Police Department. He said that he wants to prevent unnecessary deaths like his stepfather's. 

There would be more wins for the Bethel Warriors. 

At 160 pounds, Ellis Johnson rounded out the night with the final win for the Bethel boys.

Johnson won regions last year but did not place at state. He has a different approach this time.

“Work harder. My gas tank is way better. I outwork everybody at practice. Wake up in the morning and wrestle. I just outwork everybody. I put the time in. And it's showing,” Johnson said.

All in all, there were nine first place regional champs on the Bethel boys team. This led to an easy team victory, scoring more than 180 points above second-place Chevak. Thirteen boys teams competed at the regional tournament.

The Lady Warriors also came out on top of the 10 girls teams that attended.

Michelle Kilanak placed first in the 100-pound weight class. 

Seventeen-year-old senior Jordan Klejka pinned her Quinhagak opponent to get her first regional championship at 120 pounds.

“Well as for that match, I've wrestled her before so I knew what to do and what I needed to work on. Since last time I wrestled her, which was helpful, and the rest of the season has just been a lot of hard work. Improving on mistakes I've had since I was a sophomore and really perfecting them. And lots of practice at other tournaments, getting as many matches as I can,” Klejka said.

Klejka also said that she is focused on maintaining her diet and staying healthy going into the state tournament.

Undefeated senior Isabel Lieb kept her winning streak this season and pinned her Napaskiak opponent easily to punch her ticket to state at 132 pounds.

This is the last wrestling match for Lieb at home. She had mixed feelings about it.

“A lot of mixed emotions. I'm very sad. It's my last time ever wrestling in the Warrior Dome, but I'm happy because I'm going on to a new chapter in life,” Lieb said.

Lieb is not only confident in her second state championship run, but in the Lady Warrior team she represents.

“Watch out for the girls, Bethel girls. We're young and we're coming after a state title as a team,” Lieb said.

Out of the 10 Lady Warrior wrestlers, five of them took first, including freshman Riley Boney who placed first at 138 pounds, as well as Justine Erickson-Bradney in the 165-pound weight class.

Head wrestling coach Darren Lieb said that he’s very proud of his team’s performance throughout the season.

“Looking back, we had a really different season that we've never had our best lineup in every way classes, boys and girls, on any given weekend. And so it was kind of hard to gauge where we can be. But as you've seen today and tonight, our boys and girls, you look pretty good,” Darren said.

The state championships start Friday morning, Dec. 15, at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage and finish on Saturday night, Dec. 16.

Francisco Martínezcuello was the KYUK News Reporting Fellow from November 2022 through January 2024. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
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