It seems that every winter, no matter the amount of snowfall there is, prep cross-country ski teams around the state are never satisfied with the level of white stuff on the ground.
While they may have reason to complain this winter thus far, coaches on the central Kenai Peninsula are urging everyone to do the “snow dance.”
“I tell the skiers to ‘Think snow,’” Soldotna coach Dan Harbison said. “Because we could sure use it.”
Skiers from Soldotna, Kenai, Skyview and Homer have been resorting to other methods of training, such as improving core strength and conditioning inside the weight room, and even with the situation as it is, they have been able to make the most of the limited snowpack by utilizing places like Headquarters Lake in Soldotna, or the Bridge Creek reservoir on Diamond Ridge in Homer.
“I heard that Kincaid might be making snow for next week’s races,” Homer coach Eric Groth said. “The snow has kind of been bad for everybody.”
“We’ve been skiing just circles on flat ground, so mostly technique work,” Harbison said. “Almost no uphill work.”
Peninsula teams got a taste of competition for the first time on Saturday at Headquarters Lake, in a race that was more or less billed as a preseason “time trial.” Soldotna skiers were the fastest on the day, with sophomore Sadie Fox winning the girls race with a time of 20 minutes, 32 seconds, and SoHi senior teammates Dillon Jensen and Luke Michael finishing in a dead heat at 18:35. Next week, many statewide teams will converge on Kincaid Park in Anchorage for the annual Lynx Loppet pursuit races, a two-day event. That is, if there is enough snow to hold a competition.
Skiers are dancing.
As for the local teams, not much is changing with regards to Region III, but there will be a few coaching changes.
D’Anna Gibson is stepping down as head coach of the Kenai Central this season, replaced by former assistant coach Brad Nyquist, and longtime Homer coach Jan Spurkland is relinquishing the reigns to Groth to pursue a bigger role in a developing racing program.
The following is a closer look at the Kenai Peninsula’s ski teams.
Dan Harbison returns to coach the Stars this season, and said the team has not lost much in the way of competitive athletes. However, the one gap on the roster that will be hard to fill is that of Bree Mucha.
Mucha dominated the season in Region III last year and capped it off with a girls individual title, her second consecutive. It was also the sixth-consecutive region title for a Mucha, as her older sister, Kailey, won four times before that.
Harbison said while Mucha’s absence will be felt, the current girls squad can more than hold its own, with talent coming from returning sophomore Sadie Fox and freshmen Hannah Pothast and Olivia Hutchings, as well as junior Xochi Harbison and rookies Madison Nelson and Dani McCormick.
“Dani has a great engine, being a runner, and in the end that’ll be good,” Harbison said. “It will be interesting to see whether the new skiers will be fast too.”
The Soldotna boys team is returning its full varsity roster from last year — a squad that captured the Region III team championship.
Seniors Luke Michael, Dillon Jensen, junior Colton Diehl, Jong Kim and Cole Covey return along with Joe Rife and freshmen Levi Michael and Skylar Diehl, both younger siblings to Luke and Colton, respectively.
“For our guys team, we’d like to defend our region title, and the girls we’re hoping to be competitive with the other peninsula teams,” Harbison said. “Of course the Valley schools will be competitive too, so it will be almost the same as last year.”
Nyquist has supported the Kards in an assistant role for the last six years, and steps up the head coaching role this year in place of Gibson.
“I love Nordic skiing, and it seems like a natural fit,” Nyquist said. “We had good leadership with D’Anna and her experience helped along with her knowledge base.
“And why not?”
Nyquist said the Kards currently have around 30 skiers on the team, including six exchange students from ski-friendly countries like Norway and Russia, as well as a few students from Egypt, Chile and Jordan.
“We have a wide range of abilities in that group,” Nyquist said.
Nyquist said the girls team is young, due to graduating a few seniors last year, but the varsity lineup could include sophomores Alex Bergholtz, Beverly Schindler and Kirsten Nyquist, and a few former middle school standouts, such as Mikaela Salzetti and Lindsay Floyd.
The boys side will be represented by returning senior members Travis Cooper and Joe Bressler, junior Fox Michaud and sophomore Jordan Theissen. Freshman Jake Butler could also join the varsity list, and senior Jake Gilman will make the transition from the swim team to the ski team.
“He’s going from warm water to frozen water,” Nyquist said.
According to the coach, the team has been skiing on groomed trails on the soccer field and old football field at the high school, about 2.5 kilometers worth.
There are 22 skiers on the team, according the head coach Kent Peterson, who also noted the diversity of the athletes from the wrestling, swimming and running teams.
“That’s good, but we could obviously use more kids,” Peterson said. “We got some good upperclassmen coming out for the first time as well.”
Peterson said there are two of the boys varsity squad coming back from last year, as Kade Cooper, Bud Sparks and Joey Bishop all graduated, so this seems to be a rebuilding year for them. Senior Kyle Austin and junior Sky Schlung return and should be contenders on the boys side.
A “good group of juniors,” according to Peterson, make up a portion of the girls side, with Mika Morton, Casey Neill and Brittany Hollers returning. Catherine Wolk also comes in as a new skier who could be good.
“We’ll focus on their strengths or weaknesses right now, and figure out long-term goals later,” Peterson said. “We’ve been talking about our short-term goals, and see what we’re doing before Christmas.
“We’ve spent the first two weeks running, but we also got some time skiing on the Tsalteshi Trails for a while before it got messy. We’ve been fortunate to be able to ski at all.”
Groth replaces Spurkland as coach of the Mariners, and he holds the pedigree necessary to teach ski racing, having been a collegiate-level racer himself. Groth raced for the University of Minnesota Duluth, and grew up a skier in the Twin Cities. This is his second winter residing in Homer, but he spent 10 previous years in the Seward area.
“It’s definitely a learning experience,” Groth said. “It’s rewarding, being on the receiving end of things as a coach now.
“It’s different because there’s a lot of organization and thinking about things you don’t really think about when you’re a racer.”
Spurkland has recently decided to move on and work more with Homer’s racing developmental program, Kachemak Nordic Racing, which essentially picks up where the high school team’s training ends.
“It’s a really good program, like a booster club, and we had a training group working out over the Thanksgiving holiday,” Spurkland said.
The Homer girls squad is shaping up to be led by freshman Barae Hirsch, who finished second at Saturday’s race, and junior Cassidy Soistman. Joining her is sophomore Aspen Daigle and senior Lydia Arndt.
The leader on the Homer boys team is looking like junior Brian Rowe, who finished third on Saturday.
“He was one of our top boys from last year, and he’s fun to watch,” Groth said. “He’s going to be pretty good this year, and he’s super strong.”
Groth also mentioned sophomore Ghen Sasakura and junior Jake Worsfold as varsity level athletes on the team.
Groth said he expects the number of skiers on Homer’s team to pick up after this week due to the annual Nutcracker ballet production taking place, which involves many of Homer’s skiers.