Before the spotlights shined down on the center mat inside Clarke Cochrane Gymnasium on Saturday, a pair of champions went head-to-head.
Kai Biagi and Brock Thomas — both Ketchikan High School seniors — were supposed to wrestle in the 135-pound weight class title bout of the Bill Weiss Wrestling Tournament.
But being their last year in a Kayhi uniform, the two didn’t want to close out their high school careers against each other under the lights on their home floor.
In that case, one’s final memory would be of a loss — and their friendship meant too much.
So instead, Biagi and Thomas opted to grapple against each other earlier in the day, on Saturday.
Sure, a tournament championship was on the line. But it was their final home wrestling meet, and the two wanted to finish it their own way.
“It was kind of sad, but Kai and Brock were supposed to be in the finals against each other,” Kayhi head wrestling coach Matt Hamilton said. “But they decided to wrestle it earlier in the night because they felt that being seniors — they just didn’t want to wrestle under the lights for their last time against each other. Because they’ve been so close over the years.
“And it was an amazing moment for me, to see two young men go, ‘I want to make this decision,’” Hamilton continued. “And they did it the way they wanted to do it.”
The two battled back and forth, and caught the eye of onlookers from several high schools who were in town for the tournament.
Wrestlers and coaches from Craig, Haines, Mt. Edgecumbe, Petersburg, Sitka, Thorne Bay and Thunder Mountain high schools stopped what they were doing to watch Biagi and Thomas duke it out.
“It was a high-level technical match,” Hamilton said. “It was one of the last matches of the day, and a lot of people just stopped and watched it because it was an absolute clinic.
“Kai ended up winning that match, but it could’ve gone either way,” he continued.
In fact, the two were so technically sound that no one from the other schools wanted to wrestle them.
There still was the possibility that Biagi and Thomas could wrestle against someone else from another school under the lights — not for a championship — but just to grapple under the lights one last time their senior year.
But nobody wanted that challenge.
Well, nobody except Petersburg.
“Everybody, except Petersburg — Petersburg was trying to make any match happen for us; they’re such a great group of people,” Hamilton said. “Everybody else was running for the hills. They were very taken aback by how great those kids are, and they didn’t want to put somebody in there that was going to get thumped. ...
“They performed too well because it kind of caused everybody to take a couple steps back, and go, ‘I don’t want anything to do with this,’” he continued. “And the only reason why Petersburg wasn’t able to do it (was) because they had maxed out on their matches. You’re only allowed so many matches a day. But they were throwing the kitchen sink at us, saying, ‘Hey, whatever you need. These kids are seniors. They need to be under the lights.’”
Indeed, there were a ton of wrestling matches during the two-day tournament.
“It’s been a whirwind; it’s been insane,” Hamilton said after the championship rounds wrapped up Saturday evening.
Three mats were scheduled with continuous matches, jumping from one bout to the next, throughout Friday and Saturday. There was a brief break before the championship rounds started, allowing the center mat to be set up.
“Not only did our kids perform,” Hamilton said, “but the families, the referees showing up, and making it happen. Some guys (came) out of retirement to come to this tournament and make it happen. A lot of the struggles because of COVID, but there’s been so much support and everybody was amazing when it came to the protocols — being able to make sure that we were happy, healthy and safe was a big thing.
“But tonight’s wrestling was really a moment for us,” he continued.
Up and down Kayhi’s roster of wrestlers, Hamilton rattled off one match after the other.
“I’m trying to think of all the matches,” he said. “There were so many matches that were so great.”
Kayhi’s Ben Tabb beat Sitka’s Jason Young in the 160-pound weight class championship match. Young had won the ACS Tournament in Anchorage earlier this month.
“Ben Tabb — that was a huge, huge upset,” Hamilton said. “There was a giant tournament that happened last week for small schools at ACS. Giant tournament. The kid that (Tabb) beat had won it. Won it — just went through it.”
But Young couldn’t get past the Kayhi senior on Saturday. Tabb won it by fall.
“Ben, over the years, has slowly but surely, created this tool box for himself that’s very confusing for any other wrestler,” Hamilton said. “And I have never looked at him, and said, ‘You need to wrestle this way.’
“I said, ‘Whatever feels good, you need to go for that,’” he continued. “Because it is so awkward, even to me, if I tried to change something with it, it would put a process that might not go with his computer — his computer of all these little things.”
Hamilton was thrilled with Tabb’s performance.
“It was so amazing to not only see him pull that win off — but completly perplex the other guy, the coaches, the referees,” he said. “And it’s nice for me to be the only one that knows what the outcome’s going to be. ... Ben really proved himself out there, and I’m really proud to have him — one of our seniors — represent this year and come back after taking a year off from COVID.”
Kayhi’s Seth Webb also took a year off during the wrestling season last spring, but didn’t miss a beat winning the 171-pound weight class on Saturday — a victory over Mt. Edgecumbe’s Richard Didrickson.
Kayhi’s Dyllin Kealiinohomoku-Salcedo won the 125-pound weight class, and Hunter Cowan won first place in the 130-pound weight class.
“Cowan’s just kind of had this chip on his shoulder the whole year, just going, ‘I’m waiting for somebody to bump me off,’” Hamilton said. “And it just hasn’t happened.
“I’m like, ‘You gotta be careful, bud,’ and he goes, ‘You better tell them to be careful.’
“It always makes me laugh,” Hamilton continued. “But there’s a part of me that totally thinks he believes it, and it makes me happy that he’s confident. He has a great way of making you think, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be an even match,’ and then he just blows them out of the water. It’s been really cool to see that.”
Kayhi senior Degan Linne won the 145-pound weight class — a victory via fall over Craig’s Dalton Wyzykowski.
Senior teammate Kolin Houthoofd won by fall over Craig’s Rogan Hanson in the 152-pound weight class.
After Saturday’s championship matches, Hamilton snapped a photo of Linne and Houthoofd standing together, while the two held a poster of themselves as little kids.
“This group of seniors — Degan Linne, Houthoofd, Brock Thomas, (Kai Biagi) — I’ve had those kids since they were old enough to put on wrestling shoes,” Hamilton said. “Just seeing them grow into — not just great wrestlers — but amazing human beings. I’ve always enjoyed that part of this job — catching up with them years later.
“It’s funny how this one worked out,” he continued. “I got to see them (wrestling) on their first day, and I get to see them on their last day. I’ve said that multiple times. But it truly is a blessing, and it makes me feel proud to be a part of this community that allows me to do that.”
Notes: Results from the Bill Weiss Wrestling Tournament will be in a forthcoming issue.