Community and fierce competition define Eagle River’s wrestling teams.
While the schools in Eagle River boast programs with state champions and titles, the sense of family from participating in such a challenging sport provides the primary draw for athletes and coaches.
Austin Kraft, a senior at Eagle River High School (ERHS), says the thing he likes most about wrestling is that the wrestling community feels like a family. He explains, “I feel like it’s not just my school caring for me but the entire wrestling community caring for each other.”
The hardships endured by athletes go beyond the physical traumas of being thrown to the ground. Many wrestlers undergo strict diets to ensure they meet certain weights, in addition to workouts and sacrificing weekends to the sport. Some weeks during the season, wrestlers compete in three to four grueling matches.
But, the students and coaches of Eagle River love this sport exactly because of its physical, mental, and emotional demands.
Coach Chris Ruggles of ERHS says, “For some people, it seems crazy watching two people wrestling but it’s cool to see peoples’ hard work pay off. Once you understand a wrestling match and how challenging it is to succeed at it, I think it makes it a lot more exciting to watch.”
Grant Burmingham, a senior at ERHS, earned fourth at state last season and placed second at regionals after triple overtime. In order to be more competitive, he eliminated everyone in his social circle who would not push him to improve.
Despite the challenges and sacrifices, Burmingham remains passionate about wrestling because, “It’s all on you. If you win, it’s all on you. If you lose, it’s all on you. You don’t have anyone to blame.”
Wrestling serves as a vehicle that also forces athletes to develop personally by instilling sportsmanship and discipline. Kraft credits wrestling to bettering his time management skills. Not only that, but his studies improved because coaches inquired so frequently about grades.
Burmingham says the biggest challenge he overcame thus far was his own ego. After earning a varsity position as a freshman, and going undefeated for a long stretch, he felt no need to work his hardest until other athletes challenged him. This experience taught him the importance of always giving his best effort.
“It’s also really helped me become a leader,” Burmingham says. “I’m not even the loud leader, but it’s taught me to be a leader by example.”
Being a good leader means you do the right thing constantly and others follow that, creating a culture of hard work and dedication.
Coach Brian Cuddeback, head wrestling coach at Chugiak High School (CHS), contributed to the successes of several state champions. He explains that his biggest motivation for coaching is that he gets the opportunity to build students versus student-athletes. He continued by saying, “I help bring the kids up from just a normal kid to learning some life lessons through the sport of wrestling and becoming a better person overall as a result of the trials and tribulations of the season.”
Coach Ruggles says, “I love seeing the wrestlers’ hard work pay off whether it’s winning a match or doing well in a match, getting in shape, and seeing them reach personal goals is very satisfying for me.”
Ruggles remembers his parents signed him up for wrestling when he was younger.
At the time, he could not have imagined that he would coach a state champion in Marcus Amico and a team that orchestrated an upset last season by winning second at the regional match. Amico was ERHS’s first state champion and set the standard for the program.
The current season promises to be one of the best years yet with increases in the athletes’ quantity and quality. Some of the local matches that coaches believe people should anticipate are the Rumble Cup and the state championships.
The Rumble Cup epitomizes the fierce rivalry between Chugiak and Eagle River High School. The dual-match is a season highlight for both teams as they vie to win the traveling trophy. ERHS currently possesses it and they intend to keep it. The coaches of both teams delayed the match until December 1 to ensure wrestlers are in tiptop shape for this event.
Coach Cuddeback says CHS wants the trophy back but that the match between ERHS is always tough. “The last three years, it has come down to the last match,” he says. “It will probably do the last match again this year, and hopefully we come home with the cup.”
The state tournament also promises great matches for spectators because of the quality of the wrestling, and it is the season’s culmination.
The regional tournaments will be hosted by CHS this year and will take place December 8-9. The state tournament will be held at the Alaska Airlines Center, Anchorage, on December 15-16.
Local coaches shared their team expectations for this season.
- Eagle River High School – Coach Ruggles: “I feel like we’re right where we need to be,” pointing out their excellent conditioning. Additionally, ERHS’s numbers have remained consistent even with losing numerous seniors last year. This is a mostly young team, but it possesses young wrestlers who are, “going to make a lot of noise.”
- Chugiak High School – Coach Cuddeback: “We lost quite a few seniors last year. We only have two seniors this year, no juniors, and the rest are sophomores and freshman. It’s definitely going to be a building year, but we have some tough young kids.” Cuddeback says CHS benefits from good programs like at Mirror Lake Middle School that teaches good wrestling techniques prior to high school.
- Mirror Lake Middle School – Coach Harrington: “I think it’s extremely early to predict anything at this point, but I think we’re going to have a pretty strong season, especially with 90 participants and the [community] support that we have.” MLMS has the advantage of returning champions for JV and varsity who placed or won in the city leagues last season.
- Gruening Middle School – Coach Sticka: “We’re pretty stacked from the 85 to 115 [weight class] and I think we’ll have a few kids with experience at the 145 weight class.” Though Gruening competes with a smaller roster of 35, many of their wrestlers are concentrated around a weight range, giving those wrestlers numerous teammates to practice against.
With passionate coaches, inspired athletes and challenging competition across the state, the schools of Eagle River are prepared to represent their community and be a source of pride.
Attend a local wrestling tournament to show your support.
Jamin Goecker is a local writer who recently moved to Alaska. When he’s not writing about local events and personalities, he can be found hiking, running, skiing, or editing his manuscript for a novel. Email him at Jamin@echoak.com and follow him on Instagram at Jgoecker1 or Twitter at @jamin_goecker