Julia Biagi takes down Chiara Chase

In this April 23 file photo, then-Ketchikan High School freshman Julia Biagi takes down then-Mt. Edgecumbe High School senior Chiara Chase during the Division II wrestling tournament finals at Clarke Cochrane Gymnasium. Biagi won the match with a pin. Now in her sophomore season, Biagi is one of 11 girls on roster for the Kayhi Lady Kings wrestling squad this year. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Matt Hamilton couldn’t turn this group of Ketchikan High School seniors down.

For him, they’re like family.

“For a long time, they were looking for somebody to take over the (Kayhi wrestling coach) position,” he said after Wednesday’s practice. “I was planning on going back to Mat Rats for my kids. They’re getting to that age, now. I wasn’t going to come back to any junior high or high school positions until my team built up for the Mat Rats again.”

Mat Rats — the First City’s youth wrestling program — was where this group of seniors learned to wrestle.

Hamilton was their coach then — and he’s their coach, now.

“(They’re) great,” Hamilton said of this year’s senior group of wrestlers. “They truly are, you know — my kids all know them by name; my own kids. Because they traveled with me in Mat Rats and junior high.”

As the new season approached, Kayhi was in need of someone to take charge of its wrestling program. Otherwise, those seniors — and their teammates — would have lost their wrestling season.

“I knew we were going to need somebody,” Hamilton said. “I was calling around, trying to get somebody to help out, and it wasn’t matching up. People weren’t able to put it together.

“I think it was maybe four days before the season started,” he continued. “They kind of called me, and were like, ‘You’re the only one. Can you help us out?’

“And I was like, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” Hamilton recalled. “Because I was worried a lot of these kids weren’t going to get their senior year, if that wasn’t going to happen.”

That was late-September, when those phone calls and text messages rolled in from Kayhi seniors, persuading Hamilton to coach high school.

Now a month into Kayhi’s season, Hamilton and his Kings — and Lady Kings — are grappling with each other, just like they were a few years ago.

“Matt’s basically been my coach from Mat Rats, all the way up to eighth grade,” Kayhi senior Kolin Houthoofd said. “So it’s not a drastic change.

“(Matt and Rick are similar) in some ways, but in other ways, they’re different, too,” he continued. “Rick was Matt’s coach, so they definitely play off of each other. But Matt’s definitely got his own kind of style.”

The rise of the Lady Kings

Hamilton’s wrestling resume speaks for itself.

An Alaska high school state champion, who grew up alongside brothers — who also are Alaska high school state champions — became a coach in the sport that he loves.

He’s won region championships at three different levels — with Mat Rats, junior high and high school, as an assistant coach with Kayhi.

“I had done a lot with my wrestling career,” he said. “... I kind of ran my course, it felt like.”

But girls’ wrestling is whole ‘nother sport.

“I’m trying to solidify that as another sport,” Hamilton said. “I wouldn’t put it on anybody to coach two teams at once, but right now, they trust me enough to be able to do that — the ladies are.

“So I’m willing to keep going with it,” he continued. “And I’ve been bringing other people in to hopefully get them acclimated to do this.”

Kayhi girls’ wrestling has grown in the past few seasons.

In the 2017-18 school year, Kayhi had one girls’ wrestler on roster — Louise Bueno. The following season, in 2018-19, there were four.

Along with Bueno, there was a trio of freshmen — Hayley Gilson, Ruby McCue and Ada Odden.

“That group of girls at that time — Ruby, and Hayley and Ada — I don’t have any female role model wrestlers,” Hamilton said of that group while coaching them at Schoenbar Middle School. “So I have to build them scratch. (I said), ‘just to let you know, I’m not playing with you guys.’

“And they took on that challenge, and it’s made me proud to see them do things in their life — and be great, responsible, young adults,” he continued. “So that’s been one of my pride and joys — being able to see them do that.”

That freshmen class is now in their senior season.

And this year, there are 11 Lady Kings.

“I think it’s really nice to see all the girls coming out, and getting new faces in the gym,” said Gilson, now a senior at Kayhi. “Getting new faces in the gym is really important. It’s more exciting for the girls when you have more of you, and more people who can relate to you, around you.”

Gilson was a state champion her sophomore season — Ketchikan’s first girls’ state wrestling champion.

“She’s great,” Hamilton said. “She’s amazing.”

But Hamilton knew early on, Gilson had a knack for wrestling.

“I was telling the ladies, a lot girls have this — they’re almost stuck in that junior high phase, of still kind of flopping,” he continued. “And she was one of the first ones to start correcting her body posture, back in junior high. She was tightening the screws down on some of those boys — because she wasn’t wrestling girls in junior high. She was wrestling the boys. And she got a whole bunch of fans from throwing those boys around.”

This year’s 11 Lady Kings are led by Gilson, as well as McCue. And they’re joined by Julia Biagi, Gabbie Bueno, Abby Duckworth, Ruby Swenson, Chayslyn Spencer, Kaitlyn Mayberry, Alyssa Phillips, Brooklin Dillard and Trisha Capps.

The Lady Kings’ wrestling squad has come a long way.

“It’s kind of sad because we’re missing a couple returners that I’ve been wrestling with since the eighth grade, and then sophomore year,” Gilson said. “So it’s sad to see them go. But it’s also super exciting because I get to help coach the new girls.

“There are so many new opportunities for all of them that are here, even compared to my freshman year,” she continued. “We still had women’s wrestling at state, but it’s just grown so much — just in the past three years.”

And the Lady Kings are now their own team.

“I’m really proud of this team, and people don’t realize it but this is two teams,” Hamilton said. “This is Kayhi Kings wrestling — and it’s Kayhi Lady Kings wrestling. And right now, we’re only a couple away from having a full girls team.”

Getting back into gear

Indeed, Hamilton has his hands full with this group of grapplers.

Kayhi opened this fall’s schedule with a trip to Petersburg on Saturday, Oct. 23.

Inclement weather forced Kayhi to postpone its outgoing flight on Oct. 22. But Kayhi was able to grapple alongside high school squads from Petersburg, Juneau and Haines that Saturday, Oct. 23 — and the First City team was able to have some matches.

Although technical difficulties at Petersburg High School have delayed official results — there were more than 100 matches between the schools — the wrestlers were able to get some hits in.

Kayhi junior Seth Webb, who has wrestled since the first grade — and every year since, minus this past spring because of COVID-19 — is back on the team.

The 2020-21 wrestling season was moved to this past spring because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever done,”Webb said. “I think it’s fun. A lot of people don’t. We had a lot more people on the team the first day than we did the second day.”

Webb returned to the mat for this season, and went 2-2 in his four matches on Oct. 23.

“It was just beautiful,” he said of the wrestling trip. “It’s not even just the sport. But the trips and the team atmosphere. It’s fun to go on trips and be somewhere with people, and be social in a team atmosphere. It’s just nice to have. And it was something that I was missing.”

It was a quick there-and-back trip to Petersburg last weekend.

“We literally got off the plane, jumped on the scale, and we were wrestling a half hour later,” Hamilton said of the travel on Oct. 23. “As soon as we got to the school, some of (them) were running to make sure they were under weight. It was interesting.

“I feel like we did really well,” he continued, “and we were able to see some of the positions that we’re not really great in. So the past couple days (of practice) have been great for adjustments. I’ve been really happy with them.”

Kayhi is scheduled to host the Bill Weiss Wrestling Tournament on Nov. 12-13.

It will be the final home meet for this group of seniors — one that Hamilton has seen grown up.

“I got to see them walk up on their first day, and I’ll be able to see them on their last day,” he said. “It’s something I take a lot of pride in. And I really hope that they know that they’re very special, and they’re a part of my family.”