Photo courtesy BRHS Wrestling
Lightweights lead the Bethel Warriors, but there is no denying they are a heavyweight when it comes to the ASAA/First National Bank Class 1-2-3A State Championships.
The Warriors will shoot for history this weekend when they attempt to win the program’s seventh state title – most among small schools.
Bethel is currently tied with Eielson with six.
Bethel qualified a tournament-high 21 wrestlers to the state tournament to give them strength in numbers. Twelve of them weigh between 98 and 132 pounds.
The Warriors have dominated the lightweight division over the years, helping them pile up a small-schools record 37 individual state champions.
“We haven’t had that many big kids,” Bethel coach Darren Lieb told me. “This year we have two heavyweights that qualified for state. That’s a first for us.”
Competition is fierce between wrestlers in those weight classes. A lot of good wrestlers will be left at home, Lieb said, a signature of a solid program.
“A lot of the wrestle-offs we have each week are better than some at live matches we have when we travel to tournaments,” he said.
You might assume the cutthroat circumstances of competition would lead to hostility among teammates, but Lieb said it’s not like that.
“They respect each other, but in the same sense they like to beat each other,” he said. “There isn’t much animosity towards a kid in the same weight class. They know what’s at stake.”
Lieb is a former Bethel wrestler who graduated in 1987. He started coaching the team in 1998 and led his alma mater to five state championships on his watch.
He preaches family first, team second.
“It’s a real family atmosphere we have,” Lieb said. “The camaraderie the kids have with each other is great.”
Take the 106-pound weight class, where Bethel qualified three wrestlers.
“They continue to get better every week,” he said. “They see that progress and then a kid sees that and they pick up the pace. There is no hate. They are just hard-working kids that want to keep the success keep going.”
Bethel finished second at state last year to Kotzebue.
“We’re actually younger this year,” Lieb said.
That’s a scary thought.
Lieb, who also coaches the Bethel club team in the spring, spends a ton of time with these kids and wants them to be just as successful away from the wrestling mat.
“I just want them to grow up and be respectful young men and young women,” he said. “I want them to become good wrestlers and have that success carry over to the next part of their life.”
Most State Qualifiers
12 Mt. Edgecumbe
Van Williams is a freelance writer in Anchorage and a correspondent with the Alaska School Activities Association.