With the constant changing of weather conditions, wax selection and varying terrain, cross-country skiing places a premium on adaptation.
Each year, every high school ski team in the state is invited to send a varsity team of competitors to the state meet, which is a three-day event in late February. This year, it will be held from the Feb. 21 to 23 at Kincaid Park in Anchorage.
Not only is three days of racing a tasking endeavour on the body, but to cap off a 3.5-month season — high school’s longest — with such an event only adds to the strain.
As for the weather, the early season dearth of powder has left teams starved for some ski action, but since the lack of snow seems to be becoming a yearly trend, coaches and athletes know how to cope with it.
Kenai Central head coach Brad Nyquist said Kenai has been working with shovels on the soccer fields adjacent to the school to create the best ski tracks they can, while Skyview coach Kent Peterson said the Tsalteshi Trails received its first groom of the season after Thursday night’s snowfall.
Soldotna head coach Dan Harbison’s group has enjoyed a week on skis already, utilizing the few trails behind the school.
Homer coach Eric Groth has had his Mariners running and hill-bounding to prepare for the season, and mentioned that on Thursday evening, the team started a hill workout in a 15-degree blizzard, but ended it in rain.
The season tentatively starts for Kenai Peninsula schools with a three-team meet on Wednesday that will be hosted by Skyview. The venue is set for the Tsalteshi Trails, but that could change depending on snow conditions.
More likely, however, is Homer hosting an invitational on the first weekend in December, which precedes the Lynx Loppet in Anchorage a week after that.
The following is a closer look at local teams:
The Kards currently hold a roster of 31 skiers, according to Nyquist, and a lot of those are returning students that went to state last year.
“We lost a few boys to graduation, but the girls team didn’t lose anybody,” Nyquist said. “They just keep getting better.”
Alex Bergholtz, who suffered a broken thumb last year and missed a lot of time, returns as a junior to head the list of girls contenders.
Fellow juniors Kirsten Nyquist and Beverly Schindler join Bergholtz on the varsity team, and senior Kirsten Duran and sophomore Makaela Salzetti add some depth as well.
“I encourage the kids to do some cross-training in the summer, and they also get in a lot of mountain hikes,” coach Nyquist said.
After placing second at the Region III meet last season, Nyquist said his boys squad is rather hefty this year, especially concerning the seniors.
Seniors Olen Danielson and Fox Michaud both hold serious aspirations of being top contenders in the region, and junior Travis Cooper should stack up evenly with Danielson and Michaud. Cooper individually finished 14th overall at the state meet in February.
“Travis has trained hard this summer, as has all those guys,” Nyquist said.
Add in Kenai’s top distance runner Jordan Theisen, a junior, and senior Nate Mole, and the Kardinals stand a chance to improve upon their 11th-place team finish at state last year, which was capped with an eighth place in the team relay on the final day of competition.
The SoHi boys are the reigning Region III champions, but there were some losses to graduation that could affect how the Stars finish this year.
Both varsity squads at SoHi placed well in the state meet last year and the Stars return one of the strongest contingents on the Kenai Peninsula. The girls took ninth place as a team and the boys did even better with a seventh-place result.
Sadie Fox led the Stars with a ninth-place finish in the girls skimeister standings, which is totaled up after two days of individual races. Luke Michael topped all Peninsula boys with a 13th-place result in the individual rankings.
Fox returns as a junior this year, while Michael has since graduated, along with Dillon Jensen, who placed 18th among boys in the final order at state. But, coach Harbison is looking forward to another crop of young talent, which should add some depth with returning members.
“We’re really excited,” Harbison said. “In fact, we actually gained some good ones who are coming up.”
With 28 skiers on the current roster, Harbison is looking to experienced athletes to lead the team.
Along with Fox, the girls varsity team is also comprised of freshman Molly Erickson, junior Dani McCormick and sophomore Hannah Pothast.
Varsity starter Colton Diehl returns for his senior season, and will be joined by sophomores Levi Michael and Drew Kant, and freshman Addison Downing.
“What we’re hoping to do is do well in our region, and state’s kind of a broader picture at the moment,” Harbison said.
Kent Peterson will take the helm for one last time as the Skyview head coach, before the school closes its doors in the spring.
“We want to be realistic and do the best we can, and I think the boys have a good chance to be competitive,” Peterson said. “We have a better group, with more experience, and we only graduated one kid. So, we’re going to do our best and finish strong.”
Kyle Austin graduated after holding one of the top varsity spots last season, but with a roster of about 20 skiers, Peterson said there are others to step up.
Senior Sky Schlung leads a varsity lineup that consists mostly of juniors — notably Brenner Musgrave, Sterling Stasak, Logan Hemphill and Jeremiah Hudson.
“They’ll having to work pretty hard, but they’re a good, competitive group,” Peterson said.
On the girls side, senior Mika Morton returns as a four-year starter on varsity, and with her is sophomore Mieka Chythlook and senior Brittany Hollers.
After the school closes, Peterson said he is taking a serious look at competing next year in the American Birkebeiner — one of the largest and most prestigious Nordic ski races in the nation, held annually in Wisconsin.
“It was always a thought, but not practical to do with the high school ski season,” Peterson said. “You can’t really coach and train, and do both successfully, so I’d like to take a step away next year.”
Second-year head coach Eric Groth said his numbers are up to 31, and only lost one senior to graduation last year.
Lydia Arndt was the lone loss for the team, but a returning core of varsity starters should boost Homer’s chances in the region.
“I think it’s going to be a fun year,” Groth said. “We’re hoping we can ski as hard as we can, and in terms of state rankings I think we can do well. The Anchorage and Fairbanks schools are always competitive.”
Homer also suffered the loss of a few skiers moving up to Anchorage, but Groth said a group of freshman athletes should help fill that void.
The girls team returns Cassidy Soistman, Aspen Daigle, Tisha Lovett, Rachel Ellert and Morgan Kelly. Soistman and Daigle both nabbed top-36 finishing placements at last year’s state meet.
Senior Brian Rowe returns to lead the Homer boys after placing 27th at state back in February, and joining him is senior Jake Worsfold, Josh Vantrease and Ryan Navrot. The only varsity starter who is not returning is Ghen Sasakura, who is on foreign exchange this year in France.
The Kachemak Nordic Racing Development program has also helped the team grow, said Groth. The preceding Homer coach — Jan Spurkland — has helped to develop that program, and the athletes are continuing to see better results due to it.