The Region III cross-country ski races being held today and Saturday are sure to display the growing depth of talent Kenai Peninsula teams have produced in recent years.
Today’s races consist of freestyle skiing of five kilometers each for both boys and girls races. They will be held as an interval start, with each skier going out separately, usually 15 seconds apart. The girls varsity is at 2 p.m., while the boys are at 3 p.m.
Saturday’s race will be a mass start employing the classic technique, with girls varsity racing 7.5 kilometers at 11 a.m. and boys racing 10 kilometers at noon. The Chevron start will have each row of skiers in pyramid fashion with the fastest skier in the middle.
Each peninsula team is bringing a group of varsity skiers, with the exception of Seward, which will bring a junior varsity team.
The Soldotna girls have won the last four region titles, led by senior Bree Mucha.
“Bree and Sadie (Fox) have been skiing really well this season, so they should have good races,” Soldotna head coach Dan Harbison said.
Along with Mucha and Fox, Soldotna’s varsity team will consist of Mary Valenzuela, Michela Gioachini, Xochi Harbison, Madison Nelson and Rachael Ross.
Harbison listed his boys varsity team to include defending region champion Luke Michael, plus Dillon Jensen, Swedish exchange student Jonas Wikstrom, Colton Diehl, Jang Kim, Tanner Best and Kyle North.
“Except for Colton, our guys team is healthy, and should be fast.” Harbison said. “The whole event should be extremely competitive.”
Harbison said his team’s training has been going well.
“We set out a plan, a really tight schedule this year, and we’ve been sticking to it pretty well, even though things have come up, like weather,” Harbison said. “We’ve been focusing on pacing over a distance, and our other focus has been working on classic technique. We have a lot of young, new skiers, so we’ve been putting a lot of time into that.”
The Homer boys will attempt to defend their team title from last year, which was the first in over 30 years for Homer, according to head coach Jan Spurkland.
“We’ve been fortunate to have stable weather this year to get some skiing in, as opposed to much of the peninsula,” Spurkland said.
Spurkland will be bringing a varsity team that includes Andre Lovett, Parker Sorenson, Bryan Rowe, Kyle Wentz, Dan Adickes, Vegard Unhjem and Ghen Sasakura.
The Homer girls, who are fresh off the Kenai Peninsula Borough championship last week, include Marie Schmidt, Mady Gerard, Kaya Morelli, Cassidy Soistman, Emily Schmidt, Alaine Miller and Katie Schmidt.
“These teams have put all their focus on the end of season races like regions and state, so there’s a lot of positive energy going into it,” Spurkland said.
Kenai Central is also expected to produce a strong performance, as both boys and girls teams finished second in team standings at last week’s borough championships.
Kenai head coach D’Anna Gibson listed Travis Cooper, Joe Bressler, Tyler Cooper, Fox Michaud, Jake Gilman, Olen Danielson and Jordan Theisen as the boys varsity team.
“There are stronger classic skiers, and stronger skate skiers on our team,” Gibson said. “Tyler and Olen are typically stronger classic skiers, and Joe and Fox are stronger skate skiers.”
The Kenai girls varsity team will feature Taylor Ostrander, Olivia Pfeifer, Olivia Fair, Kirsten Nyquist, Alex Bergholtz, Eve Ferguson and Makayla George.
Gibson mentioned that the lack of races this year make it more difficult to determine who will be fast.
“We’ve had only one race with all the schools, which was the Kenai Klassic, and even that was a one-day affair, so it’s hard to tell,” Gibson said. “Hopefully the boys can be in the top six.”
“For the girls, we’re hoping we can be ahead of Grace, there’s a good chance to be third, and maybe even beat Grace,” Gibson said.
Gibson also said if the temperature can decrease slightly, then conditions ought to be ideal, unlike previous races this season.
“With the earlier race time for Saturday, I think the temperatures should be good enough to have good conditions,” Gibson said.
Skyview head coach Kent Peterson said his team is building on its program.
“Homer is going to be tough, but I’m hoping we can be close to Homer and Kenai, it would be nice to close that gap,” Peterson said of the boys competition.
Skyview will hold a boys team that features Kade Cooper, Joey Bishop, Bud Sparks, Ben Sibley and Sky Schlung.
The Skyview girls team will include Chelsea Winter, Mika Morton, Brittney Hollers and Casey Neill.
Nikiski is expected to field a small team comprised of Lea Colton and Haley Conti for the girls team, and Ty Shoemaker, Josh Croze, Caleb Alkire and Ian Eide for the boys.
The Seward ski team, consisting of only 11 members, will field a junior varsity team, coach Mike Swanson said.
Miles Knotek, Nick Zweifel, Jerry Swanson, Dylan Gillespie, Nathan Cisar and Jacob Marshall will comprise the boys team, while the girls will feature Lindsey Kromrey, Maggie Herbert, Laura Dyer, Brooke Estes and Alice Pfeiffenderger.
“We have a few good skiers, but they’re mostly JV material,” Swanson said. “Miles and Lindsey certainly could be right up there.”
“I have a bar set to see who gets to state,” Swanson continued. “If they can finish in the top 90 percent of the varsity field, then I’ll bring them to state.”
“I’d say just about all of them can do it.”
Swanson commented on the attitude of the team in the form of an anecdote.
“During the Kenai Klassic, it was bitterly cold, and Jacob (Marshall) was supposed to have a good time, and when he came in rather late, I asked him what happened. He said while he was racing, he found a ski pole with a glove attached to it, and he stopped to pick it up and find the owner. That’s what this team is all about,” he said.
Team unity and positive attitudes seem to be the common theme for all the teams, as all the coaches have described their teams as tightknit groups that emphasize team.
With team unity comes team strength, as the collective athleticism for peninsula teams have grown into a small powerhouse.
Spurkland said the peninsula teams are slowly closing the competitive gap between the powerhouse schools in the state, such as Service and South Anchorage.
“The peninsula is in a fortunate position right now, because there’s some really tight competition that has raised the level all around for everybody, and it’s put the schools in a good spot, being driven by each other,” Spurkland said. “These kids are the first generation of skiers to have grown up racing in elementary and middle school programs, so we’re really reaping the benefits of these athletes who have that experience already.”