The forecast for this Saturday at the Tsalteshi Trails at Skyview High School calls for sunny skies and the thunder of hundreds of feet of prep runners pounding the dirt over five kilometers.
Many high school runners already have a race under the belts this season, but Saturday will be the first real test of where each athlete stacks up in the state.
The Skyview Invitational on the Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview will mark the 24th consecutive year the school has hosted the event, with the girls varsity race starting at 1:30 p.m. and the boys at 2:15 p.m.
The course itself can give even seasoned runners chills before they begin, as a 5K around rolling, hilly loops such as the Wolf, Beaver and Moose are more comparable to a grind up Mt. Marathon in Seward, at least relative to most “golf course” cross-country courses in the Lower 48.
The Nikiski Community Trails pose a similar challenge, and local teams got a chance to prepare for Saturday’s big race with the Nikisi class races on Monday.
“It’s a steeplechase more than a cross-country race,” as Skyview coach Ted McKenney described it.
Soldotna coach Dan Harbison pointed out that to compare the two trail systems to courses in the lower 48 is tough to do because of the natural terrain.
“Tsalteshi is much more rolling, you can maintain a cadence so to speak,” Harbison said. “It’s just a lot more runnable. The Nikiski hills are so steep both up and down it’s difficult to maintain some sort of consistency. You can’t really take times at Nikiski and compare them to Tsalteshi even.”
At the class races, the Homer girls took the team title in the freshmen-sophomore division, and the Soldotna girls took the junior-senior category. In the boys races, the Soldotna boys triumphed in the freshmen-sophomore race, while the Kenai boys won the junior-senior race.
October 4 is the date set for the state meet at Bartlett, so runners don’t exactly have a lot of time to work themselves into shape, if they haven’t already. Fortunately for a couple speedsters around town, that won’t be a problem.
If the 4-minute, 53-second mile that junior Allie Ostrander blazed around the new Kenai Central track last Saturday is any indication of her speed this year, then opposing runners from around the state had better be content with second place this year.
The summer of 2013 has been a big one for Ostrander. The 16-year-old conquered the junior girls Mt. Marathon race in Seward on July 4 for a record fifth straight year, her Wednesday night Salmon Run Series that she formed in 2012 averaged over 100 runners per race, and of course she ran the aforementioned 4:53 mile, an unofficial state record for high school girls (unofficial because it was not run at the state meet).
“To wind up faster at the beginning of the cross-country season than track season is good,” Kenai coach Teri Ostrander said. “It’s always nice when she runs with the boys, she has someone pulling her along and she can gauge whether or not the pace drops.”
Ostrander is the defending state 4A champion, running to a six-second margin of victory over Audrey Michaelson of Colony last September on the Bartlett trails in Anchorage. Michaelson had been Ostrander’s closest competitor in cross-country and track races over the past year, but her graduation in May has opened the door for others, including a strong Wasilla girls squad.
Since there seems to be no female runner on the prep scene this fall that can seriously challenge Ostrander, course times will be the object of attention for spectators, seeing as she has dipped below the 18-minute mark in 5K’s, getting as low as a 17:37 at the Skyview Invite in 2012.
“It’s hard to say, early in the year, as far as times ... they’ll start dropping, based on Allie’s best time,” Teri said. “That can close down, I think she is always looking to improve her time.”
Ostrander’s closest teammate from last year, Hope Steffensen, has graduated, but a number of runners are moving up to varsity this year. Courtney Stroh, Alex Bergholtz, Beverly Schindler and Makayla Salzetti all hope to provide a boost to the Kenai girls. Coach Ostrander mentioned that the SoHi and Homer girls squads will provide some fierce competition.
The Kenai boys are looking to be very strong this year, according to Ostrander. The squad took home fourth-place honors at last year’s state meet.
“We didn’t lose anybody, so they’re looking to continue the momentum from last year,” Ostrander said.
Jordan Theisen has dominated the local community races this summer, and is a constant 16-minute 5K runner, and his brother Jonah isn’t far behind.
“It’s a pretty exciting year for our boys squad, they have a lot of potential,” Ostrander said. “I think they’re going to be chasing the title.
“Maybe it’s not obvious to everybody else, but I think the potential is there. We’ll see where this talent can take us.”
Along with the Theisen brothers, the varsity lineup will include Quincy Fuller, Nate Mole, Fox Michaud, Travis Cooper and Mac Lee.
The Soldotna girls team has only gotten faster from a year ago, and a few of them have used the track season to increase their speed. The girls 3,200 relay captured the state crown back in May in a quick 9:52.47, and won the team title in the girls junior-senior division in Monday’s class races at Nikiski.
Once promising freshman have now blossomed into experienced upperclassmen, a group that includes juniors Dani McCormick, Sadie Fox and Rachel Thomas and sophomores Olivia Hutchings, Hannah Pothast and Daisy Nelson. Emily Werner and Molly Erickson both add youth to the experience of the team.
SoHi coach Harbison believes his girls team can make it back to state and then some.
“I think they’ll be pretty good, we got everyone back from last year and then added to that,” Harbison said. “They’re shooting for a state berth, that’s the main goal right now, then we’ll take the next step.”
The SoHi boys present an unknown element this year, Harbison said. Sixteen have joined the roster, with senior Colton Diehl leading the way.
“We have a big boys team this year,” Harbison said. “It’s kind of an unknown, we’re seeing where they’re falling out.”
Sophomores Aaron Swedberg and Levi Michael return to add some depth to the team behind Diehl. Swedberg finished second in the freshman-sophomore division at the Nikiski class race on Monday.
A talented cast of freshmen will fill out the remaining spots, including Addison Downing, Brian Dusek, Shane Larrow and Terrence Flats.
“We’re very young, but that’s always a good thing,” Harbison said.
The Skyview Panthers will be celebrating their final year with a larger team than 2012, according to coach McKenney.
“We have a pretty strong group of returning runners,” McKenney said. “They are a very nice group, very dedicated.”
Skyview will be closing down after the 2013-14 season, but the Skyview Invite will stick around for many years, McKenney said. The only difference is that starting next year, it will be named the Tsalteshi Invite, with the Skyview name being dropped.
“These kids want to have a good year, and participation is really high, it’s as high as ever,” he said.
Senior Micah Hilbish leads the boys team this year, coming off a strong summer campaign that saw him win at least two races — the final Salmon Run Series race on Aug. 7 and the invitational mile run on the new Kenai Central track last Saturday, both times nipping Kenai’s Jordan Theisen.
“He’s good enough to be in contention with the big boys at state,” McKenney said. “The only problem is he’s battling an Achilles injury, so we’ll see.”
Behind Hilbish, McKenney expects a cast of juniors to be close, including Brenner Musgrave, Daniel Shuler, Logan Hemphill and Colton Yamzey.
Brittany Hollers and Abby Cook both are taking up the role of senior captains on the girls side.
McKenney said it is more difficult to pinpoint who will win the region and state titles at the 1-2-3A level, with the potential of little-known schools surprising the competition with a fast runner. Kailey Wilson from tiny Kenny Lake won three state titles at that level, and Taylee Nyquest from Thorne Bay took the win last year.
“Who knew that was going to happen?” McKenney said. “You just don’t know what’s coming, it’s difficult to say.”
McKenney did note that the SoHi and Homer girls squads are looking tough early in the year. Homer placed six girls in the top eight in the freshmen-sophomore division at the class races at Nikiski, giving the Mariners hope of a strong squad for the next few years.
“We’re really excited about the team, we have a nice young girls team which is pretty competitive this season,” said Homer coach Bill Steyer.
Sophomore Molly Mitchell topped the younger division with a win in Nikiski, and Megan Pitzman, Aurora Waclawski, Ziza Shemet-Pitcher and Shenandoah Lush all make up an underclassmen group that certainly are turning heads. Steyer said sophomore Barae Hirsch moved to Anchorage, but is replaced by junior Pam Jantzi.
Pedro Ochoa, last year’s top Mariners runner, returns as a senior this season, and proved he still has it with a runner-up finish on Monday. Senior Josh Vantrease and junior Brandon Beachy have been strong in early season runs as well.
Both Homer teams qualified for state last year, and Steyer said he believes the feat can be repeated.
“The girls would like to try to win it, we’ll work at it and see how things shake out at Skyview, but Skyview isn’t the definitive deal,” Steyer said. “The first goal for the boys is get them to qualify for state like last year.”
For the Nikiski Bulldogs, coach Anna Widman reported that eight runners form the makeup of the team.
“We’re a small team, and the main goal is to build a team,” Widman said. “A lot of them are seniors, and I’d like to promote the program.”
Jared Wallace and Kyle Cooper were the lone Nikiksi athletes to compete in the class races on Monday, but Widman said the girls team will be competing in the varsity race at Skyview.
Evie and Margy Cox are the top girls for the Bulldogs.
Widman said the team has been working through sprint intervals, hill intervals and one long run a week, and even took advantage of the school football field for barefoot sprints.
“I thought I’d shake it up a bit, get them used to using different parts of the foot when they step down,” Widman said.
Further down the Kenai Peninsula, on Resurrection Bay, the Seward Seahawks lost both their star runners to graduation — Miles Knotek on the boys side and Laura Dyer on the girls.
However, a strong core returns, including Matthew Moore, Michael Marshall and Tannen Berry for the boys, and Alice Pfeiffenberger, Josephine Braun and Brooke Estes for the girls.