Amidst the hubbub of the fall high school sports season, the prep cross-country season kicks into full gear Saturday with the Skyview Invitational at Tsalteshi Trails.
The meet, which is the second-biggest of the year, includes hundreds of runners from around the state. The girls varsity race is at 1:30 p.m., while the boys varsity is at 2:15 p.m.
From there, teams will build up to the state meet, to be held on the Bartlett Trails on September 29.
With that event looming, Peninsula teams are gearing up for the fast-paced five weeks that remain.
Kenai Central Kardinals
Kenai will once again be led by the fastest girls runner in the state this year, sophomore Allie Ostrander.
Ostrander already has a win under her belt this season, at the Bartlett Relays last Saturday, running a five-kilometer time of 17 minutes, 58 seconds.
“I’d like to see her have a complete season this year, that’s the goal,” Kenai head coach Teri Ostrander said.
Ostrander has been an assistant coach for Kenai the last few years, and now takes over for D’Anna Gibson this season in the top coaching position. The Kardinals currently have 25 runners on the team.
Allie Ostrander was undefeated last year as a freshman, setting course records along the way, but collapsed halfway through the season-ending state race on the Bartlett Trails. She eventually crossed the finish line, helped by teammates, but well behind every other racer.
This year, Ostrander has already exacted some revenge, sporting the fastest time at the aforementioned Bartlett Relays.
Of course, Ostrander is not the only runner that needs to be mentioned. Senior Hope Steffensen has impressed early this season with a fifth-place finish at Bartlett, running a time of 19:08.
“She is tough, and hopefully she’ll go far this year,” coach Ostrander said. “I think she was in seventh place coming into the finishing chute at Bartlett, and she outsprinted two other runners to finish fifth.”
Kenai lost three runners to graduation from the team that went to state last year, but Ostrander is confident that this year’s squad will make expectations, and although Allie and Hope are the team’s only varsity runners right now, Ostrander said they will have a full fleet in due time.
“We have a group of developing runners in JV races, and we’re selecting runners for varsity after they get races under their belts,” Ostrander said. “I’m expecting good things, there’s a couple of exchange students, a couple of first-time runners, and I hope they will surprise some people.”
Junior Fox Michaud is the lone boys runner returning from state last year, but he is joined by a dangerous core of talented runners.
Jordan and Jonah Theisen, both sophomores, along with junior Nate Mole, freshman Quincy Fuller, sophomore Ellery Steffensen, junior Dustin Eberitt and sophomore Travis Cooper comprise a varsity field that could easily make the trip to Bartlett at the end of September.
“Varsity will change, those bottom two spots will always see runners vying for those spots,” Ostrander said. “Our boys team is competitive, they offer each other a lot of competition. I think that both sides have the potential to reach state, the boys side might be a little deeper, but we’ll have individuals from each team trying to qualify for state.”
The Kenai boys finished fifth in the team standings at the Bartlett Relays last weekend.
Two different stories fit the profile of the Stars this year, as the girls team will be loaded with young talent, while the boys return some familiar faces.
Upperclassmen include Dillon Jensen, Luke Michael and Shayne Miller. All three return from last year, and have finished well in early season races.
At the Homer Invitational on Saturday, Jensen finished sixth, Michael 11th, and Miller 13th.
Soldotna head coach Dan Harbison also mentioned freshman Aaron Swedberg (12th place last Saturday), along with Colton Diehl and Daniel Lewis, as dark horse contenders.
On the girls side, the sole returner from the state meet last year is sophomore Dani McCormick. Bree Mucha was Soldotna’s other state runner, but has since graduated.
Barring injury or illness, Harbison said McCormick should go far this season, along with fellow sophomore Sadie Fox and freshman Olivia Hutchings.
“Some people would call it a building year, a learning experience, because we have quite a few freshmen out,” Harbison said. “But we’d really like to try getting to state, that’s one of our goals, is to take a team to state.”
With 21 athletes on the team, Harbison this weekend’s Skyview Invite will give Soldotna its first taste of a big meet, and will show them what competition they are up against.
With the Tsalteshi trail system in its backyard, Skyview is set to host the Skyview Invitational on Saturday.
“We have a pretty good team, but it’s like old-school practices, it’s about getting out there and having everyone running,” Skyview head coach Ted McKenney said. “We enjoy bringing top competition to this area, and Skyview is one of three schools to host three of the major races in the state, with the help of Skinny Raven and NuSports.”
McKenney returns to coach Skyview for the fourth year, but he brings almost 30 years of experience at other schools with him.
Junior Micah Hilbish finished second at the Homer Invite last weekend, running a fast time of 16:41, and figures to be the top runner for the Panthers. Joining Hilbish as the headlining runners will be Sam Janorschke, Cade Cooper and Brenner Musgrave.
The top finishing girl for Skyview last weekend was Brittany Hollers, running on the Panthers’ JV team.
“At this point, we’re still trying to figure out who will be rounding out the varsity teams, but we’ll have a much better idea after this weekend,” McKenney said.
Skyview was recently moved down a notch in the category of school size, going from Class 4A to Class 3A, due to the decline in school population.
However, it means Skyview will be facing different competition, schools such as Seward, Grace Christian and Nikiski.
“It will be an interesting challenge for us,” McKenney said. “The teams in this region are strong, but typically not as deep.”
According to head coach Bill Steyer, the Mariners will still be in rebuilding mode, but are looking better than in recent years.
“We have a younger team, especially on the girls side, we have a lot of freshmen,” Steyer said. “But I’m pleasantly surprised on the team’s work ethic, and how they’ve been performing so far.”
Homer currently fields a team of seven boys and 13 girls, but it will be the boys to watch out for.
Junior Pedro Ochoa will likely be leading the boys side this year, and he has already won a race, at last Saturday’s Homer Invite. Ochoa ran a time of 16:38, which is competitive with many of the top runners in the state.
“Pedro had an injury last year, but he did excellent last week,” Steyer said.
Connor McCarron, Brandon Beachy and Jake Worsfold are all runners who showed promise at the Homer Invite, and Steyer mentioned another athlete that has not raced yet.
“Josh Vantrease didn’t race because of an asthma problem,” Steyer said. “He could be running up there with Connor and doing well.
“The rest of the group are all pretty good runners, and they’re only going to get better.”
The top two incoming runners on the girls side are Aurora Waclawski and Barae Hirsch, both freshmen. Add to that sophomore Pam Jantzi and the Homer girls are looking pretty stout.
Steyer said Waclawski has the capability to be quite competitive, and after a third-place finish last Saturday, there’s no reason to think otherwise.
Homer will also now be considered a 3A school, fighting for a spot at state against schools like Houston, Anchorage Christian Schools, Grace Christian and Seward.
“My greatest goal would be to take both boys and girls varsity teams to state,” Steyer said. “There’s a lot of competition, but I’m liking what I see now, but so many things can happen.
“When you don’t have a huge team, injuries and sicknesses can take their toll. I always have my guard up, but I feel better about this season than other seasons.”
The small town on Resurrection Bay boasts another talented team this season, returning almost every member of the two teams that went to state last year. Both the boys and girls squads finished third a year ago in the 3A category.
A school of about 170 students, Seward routinely produces a large running team, and this year is no exception, as longtime Seward head coach Dan Marshall said there is about 38 athletes on the team this year.
The lone state runner not returning is Jacob Marshall, who has since graduated, but Seward will otherwise feature a deep boys team.
Senior Miles Knotek, the defending 3A boys champion, leads the boys, and the two-time junior Mount Marathon champion has been consistently running 5K times in the low to mid-16 minute range, according to Marshall.
“I want to make sure our expectations for Miles is that he stays healthy and happy,” Marshall said. “We’re in the process of developing four to five to six runners that will be competitive, and they’re coming along fine.”
Accompanying Knotek will be Matthew Moore and Michael Marshall, both adept runners who could easily score low points for Seward.
Senior Laura Dyer leads the Seward girls squad, along with senior Lindsey Kromrey and sophomores Josephine Braun and Alice Pfeiffenberger, although there temporarily won’t be a girls varsity team, like Kenai.
Marshall said the decision for Seward to withhold a girls varsity team early in the season is to develop and grow a stronger group, then unleash them later in the season.
“I think we can get our girls to state, along with our boys,” Marshall said. “Individual results are secondary to team results. If we focus on team, individual results will come. That’s very doable for us.”
Marshall acknowledged that there will be tight competition this year among the 3A schools, and said the Homer boys are fast, along with usually fast Grace Christian and Anchorage Christian schools.
“For us, it’s not how to run fast, but teaching kids how to run, and be healthy, and have a healthy lifestyle,” Marshall said. “So we’re not overly concerned about how we do in these early races. The two races that matter are regions and state. Everything builds up to that.
“If we can have that steady upward progress, then we’ll be satisfied.”
With only eight runners total signed up on the team, Nikiski will be hard-pressed to field a full varsity squad, so the Bulldogs will be looking for individual accomplishments.
Fourth-year head coach Anna Widman said the runners are looking promising thus far, and Jared Wallis, who ran 19:01 at the Homer Invite, looks like the top dog on the boys side.
“Mike Olson and Michael Hollinger also ran good times,” Widman said. “A couple of our runners are still not eligible, but a few more practices will fix that.”
Of the few girl runners, Rucsia Colton headlines the lineup.
Widman said she would love to see some of the boys make it to the state meet.
“Their times have been going down a lot, and they push themselves hard enough, so it’s in the realm of possibility,” she said. “We do sprint intervals, and with the great trails in Nikiski to run on, we’ve been building up our speed.”
Every year, the Nikiski running team celebrates the end of the season with a 15-mile run from Nikiski to Kenai, and Widman said it’s a tradition that she has established at the end of the season when the pressure is finally off.
“It’s a fundraiser, where the kids have sponsors that pledge a certain amount per mile, and it’s a good way to end the year,” Widman said. “We used to do it during the season, but it would burn the kids out and so this way they can just have fun with it.”
Perhaps when the team completes the run this year, the runners will have a lot to be excited about.
Like the Nikiski, Nikolaevsk will be sporting a small team, with three girls and six boys on the roster.
“The team’s looking good, times are going to keep coming down, and we’re off to a great start so far,” Nikolaevsk coach Steve Klaich said.
The team won the Region II championship two years ago, but failed to furnish enough runners last year to qualify for the title, so Klaich is hoping this year will be different.
Freshman Megan Hickman led the girls team at the Homer Invite last weekend, finishing 10th among the bigger school athletes, with a time of 23:03.
“She’s an outstanding runner, she’s just hitting her stride and her times will be dropping dramatically,” Klaich said. “She’s done some running this summer, and she’s at the point where she’s enjoying running. She can be a top-10 runner in our region, and quite possibly even a top-two runner.”
Sophomore Kilina Klaich and junior Nianiella Dorvall round out the girls side for Nikolaevsk.
Seniors Blake Klaich and Eric Mametieff look like the early favorites to lead the boys team. Klaich finished ninth with a time of 18:55 at the Homer Invite, and is the defending Boys Region II champion.
Coach Klaich said both athletes are running very well, and should only get faster as the season comes along.
“Eric is built more like a football player than a runner,” Klaich said. “He’s been working hard all summer long, along with Blake.”
Klaich said senior Frank Holub did not race last weekend, but should be mentioned. Klaich also mentioned freshman Nicetas Lasiter, whose race in Homer was not indicative of what he normally runs.
“He’s capable of running faster, I think last weekend was a case of freshman jitters,” Klaich said.
Klaich said the boys squad can make it to state easily, and even though three girls will not be enough to qualify, all three are capable of making the cut on their own merits.