Last week, Paul Tandy's goal was simply to earn a spot in the Class 4A state wrestling championships. On Saturday, his goal will be more ambitious -- to place in the state tournament, something the blind West High senior has thought about since he was in middle school.
After winning a match in the consolation bracket of the 113-pound division Friday, Tandy has the opportunity to place in the top 6 if he can win the remainder of his matches.
"It feels pretty good," Tandy said. "My goal was to get here. I got here, I won, I lost and now, I can place. That's the goal now."
Tandy was born prematurely in Southeast Asia, where doctors used excess oxygen to save his life. While the procedure worked, it also left Tandy completely blind in both eyes. He lived in an orphanage in China before being adopted by his parents in Anchorage, and being a wrestler is something he's dreamed of since the seventh grade.
His parents thought the sport was too dangerous, and it wasn't until his sophomore year of high school that he was able to convince them to let him join the team.
"He's a fantastic kid," Eagles wrestling coach Shawn Silverthorn said. "He's brought our team closer. He proves that there's no place for excuses. He has a ton of reasons he shouldn't be successful, and he is anyway. He's an inspiration."
Tandy had aimed for the state tournament last season too but came up short, losing by one point in the Cook Inlet Conference match that would have advanced him. That's helping make this year's appearance at the state tournament even more sweet.
"I worked hard to get here, and now I'm here," Tandy said. "The top wrestlers in the state are here, and no one just gave this to me.
"I just can't be nervous. That won't help anything. I just need to relax and do all I can do. I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror when I get home and think I did the best I could."
Unseeded but dangerous
Service junior Josh Fetko is a baseball player. Sure, he wrestles too, but the sport is sort of secondary. And because Fetko's attentions are funneled toward baseball first, he's found himself unseeded this weekend.
Being unseeded, though, isn't stopping Fetko, who knocked off two conference champions in Friday's opening day action.
"I just went out there and was really aggressive," Fetko said after his second match. "I pushed the pace. That's my plan, to drive them into tiredness. I'm a multisport athlete, and I'm really well conditioned. I can win overtime matches. I don't get tired. That's how I win."
Fetko's confidence, tempo control and underdog status helped him earn wins over top-seeded Joshua Malnoske of East and the Mid Alaska Conference champion Dew Rogers from North Pole.
"They wrestled how they have all season," Fetko said. "I have to hold myself to a higher standard since I started late."
The unseeded scenario is something Fetko is familiar with. He was unseeded last season as well, starting practices two days before regionals, but managed to finish second at the state tournament.
"I get better and better each time I wrestle," he said. "I never underestimate anyone, but sometimes it's good to be the underestimated one."
Making dad proud
Tom Huffer Jr. isn't used to being away from the gym during the Chugiak wrestling season. But after missing a lot of the season after back surgery, Huffer is being welcomed back to the mat in a special way: a state tournament finals appearance by his son.
Robert Huffer is a senior at Chugiak and has never made the finals before. But he set his mind to it this season, and after beating Colony's Kamber Lucas in the semifinals, Huffer reached his goal.
"Last year and all those other times, I was being strategic, you know?" Robert Huffer said after his match Friday. "This time, I just went all out. I wanted to win so bad."
And he wanted to make his dad proud.
"I like having him around," he said. "I like his coaching style, and of course, he's my dad, so that helps too.
"... He won state once as a junior, and I think it would be pretty cool to have both our names on that plaque."
For the elder Huffer, seeing his son make the finals was indescribable, especially since he missed the majority of Robert's last season as a Mustang.
"He was more focused than I've seen him," he said. "He decided he was going to win, and he turned it on. It's special."
Close team race
Less than 20 points separate the top three teams going into Saturday’s competition.
Defending state champion South, which advanced four wrestling to the finals, leads the way with 137.5 points.
Wasilla is less than 10 points behind in second place (128 points) and Kodiak is a close third (121).
Last year, the Wolverines held off Wasilla by 3.5 points to take the title.
1) South 137.5, 2) Wasilla 128, 3) Kodiak 121, 4) Colony 104, 5) East 97, 6) Palmer 87, 7) North Pole 86.5, 8) Lathrop 74, 9) Kenai 69.5, 10) Service 68, 11) West 61, 12) Eagle River 59, 13) Chugiak 42, 14) Dimond 35, 15) Ketchikan 21.5, 16) West Valley 17, 17) tie, Juneau and Thunder Mountain 8, 19) Bartlett 6, 20) Soldotna 4.
By RENEE ESPARZA
Daily News correspondent