In the Lower 48, where most cross-country meets are conducted in parks and on golf courses, the challenge before Region III harriers Saturday in Seward might seem daunting.
High of 52. Low of 39. Chance of rain. A two-lap course that, according to Skyview coach Ted McKenney, has a total of four gradual climbs and four gradual descents over five kilometers.
“The Seward course is either up or down,” Soldotna coach Dan Harbison said. “It has long uphills and long downhills.
“It will actually take a toll rather quickly, if you haven’t been working that kind of terrain.”
What’s more, Kenai Central coach Teri Ostrander says the footing on the course, including wood chips, can grow softer with rain.
“It’s not muddy,” she said. “It just gets really soft. It absorbs all of the speed. You don’t get a lot of energy return.”
But will coaches voice any vociferous objections? Not in Alaska, where the cross-country season is a steady diet of hills and an increasing dose of cold.
“We don’t think it’s that hilly, actually,” Homer coach Bill Steyer said. “It’s not steep up and downs. It seems like it’s more gradual.
“You should see our Lookout course.”
But those needing the ultimate Alaska spine stiffener need only look at the mountain, assuming it’s not shrouded in clouds, that will be overlooking the region meet. That peak is Mount Marathon, where Alaska’s most popular “footrace” is conducted each July 4. A footrace where runners ascend and descend 3,022 feet in about three miles.
“It’s not Mount Marathon,” Ostrander said of the cross-country course. “There is that.”
Ostrander’s daughter, Kenai junior Allie, is a five-time girls junior champ and owner of all three Mount Marathon junior girls records, so a few ups and downs by the high school are not likely to keep her from a third-straight Class 4A region crown.
“Obviously winning at regions is nice, but the most important thing is to qualify for state and get another week of running,” Teri Ostrander said.
While Ostrander is the heavy favorite in the Class 4A girls race, the team title should be a tight race between Soldotna and Wasilla, winner of three straight region crowns.
“That’s gonna be a great competition right there,” Harbison said.
The coach said the Stars have topped the Warriors at all the meets this year, but Wasilla was not at full strength each time.
The Stars, seeking a return trip to state, will be led by sophomore Olivia Hutchings, who Harbison said has top-five potential. The coach also said junior Dani McCormick and sophomore Daisy Nelson could make the top 10.
Then come the crucial fourth and fifth runners, who often decide team titles. Stepping up for that role are freshman Molly Erickson, sophomore Emily Werner and junior Sadie Fox.
“We have several that are right there ready to drop below 20 minutes,” Harbison said. “If that happens, that will be a good thing for us.”
That leaves Kenai, Palmer, Kodiak and Colony to battle it out for the final 4A girls berth.
“The girls team would be delighted if they could qualify as a team for state,” Ostrander said. “Everything would have to fall in place for that to happen, but we have a super group. They are all working for each other.”
The coach said juniors Alex Bergholtz, Beverly Schindler and Andi Reilly, and freshmen Julie Wilson and Savannah Clark, have to have their best races in order to advance.
In the Class 4A boys race, Kodiak junior Levi Thomet is favored to repeat as the individual champ and give the Bears seven straight individual titles dating back to Trevor Dunbar in 2006.
The team race should come down to Kodiak, Colony and Kenai, according to Ostrander. Kodiak is looking for an unthinkable 12th straight boys crown, and the Kards may be just the team to knock the Bears from their perch.
“I do think they have a shot at winning the Region III title, but there’s a lot of competition,” Ostrander said. “Everybody needs to do their part to get the points we need.”
Juniors Jordan and Jonah Theisen are expected to finish near the top. After that come the all-important scorers in sophomore Quincy Fuller, junior Travis Cooper and seniors Nate Mole, Fox Michaud and Mac Lee.
Harbison said his boys team will be hard-pressed to qualify for state, but he thinks sophomore Aaron Swedberg and senior Colton Diehl could push into the top 15 to qualify individually.
In the Class 1-2-3A girls race, Homer will be looking to knock five-time defending state champion Grace Christian from the top of the pile.
“Grace is awesome and tough to beat this year,” said Steyer, whose girls team was runner-up to Grace last year at state. “They’ve beat us once and we’ve beat them twice. They are a powerhouse, and they will be there Saturday.”
Freshman Megan Pitzman and sophomores Molly Mitchell and Aurora Waclawski will be the first three for the Mariners. Then come crucial scorers like sophomore Zeza Shemet Pitcher, junior Pam Jantzi and freshmen Lauren Evarts and Audrey Rosencrans.
Steyer said Glennallen’s Briahna Gerlach is the runner to beat in the 1-2-3A girls race. McKenney said his girls will have a tough road to state, while Nikiski coach Anna Widman said the Bulldogs will not have runners in the varsity race.
In the boys 1-2-3A race, Peninsula squads Homer, Seward and Skyview will have to battle for one of the four state spots.
At the Frank Dieckgraeff Invitational in Seward in mid-September, Grace was third, Anchorage Christian Schools was sixth, Seward was seventh, Homer was eighth and Skyview was ninth.
The Grace boys, winners of the last seven state titles, figure to make state, and so does Anchorage Christian Schools. McKenney said Seward, Homer and Skyview are strong contenders after that, and Steyer also threw Valdez in the mix.
“Last year, the same five came really close,” McKenney said of his squad. “We’re fifth right now. We’ll see what happens Saturday.”
McKenney said Micah Hilbish must be up in the top five in what should be a tight race for the boys individual title.
After that Skyview, will look to match runners like juniors Brenner Musgrave, Daniel Shuler and Coltin Yancey, and sophomore Seth Hutchison, with the runners of competitors.
One of those competitors is Homer, which also has a front-of-the-pack runner in senior Pedro Ochoa.
After that, it will be up to senior Josh VanTrease, juniors Brandon Beachy and Jared Brandt, and sophomores Dakota Alward and August Kilcher to score crucial points.
Steyer said to watch out for Seward’s Matthew Moore in the individual race and the Seward boys in the race for a state berth, due to home-course advantage.
Senior Jared Wallis, in his third year of running, will represent Nikiski in the boys race.