The last drops of 2017 are circling the drain, but it isn’t too late to take one more look back at the sports year on the Kenai Peninsula.
A lot happened in 365 days. People reached new heights, new records, while others reached personal goals. Teams flourished, others survived for one more go-round. Old names returned to prominence while fresh faces announced their arrival. A football team continued to set the standard for the Last Frontier, while a popular household name checked off her first of likely many July 4 victories.
Through it all, the highs and lows crafted quite an intriguing 12 months. Here’s a look back at it all:
The story of 2017 for the Kenai River Brown Bears was one of survival. Pushed to the brink of inactivity due to financial issues stemming from a variety of reasons, the team nearly folded, announcing on Feb. 27 that the organization would become inactive for 2017-18.
However, in a remarkable display of fight and determination, the necessary $300,000 was raised largely by a grassroots effort spearheaded by Steve Stuber, and the announcement came in mid-April that the Bears would be back for at least one more season.
The Bears finished the 2016-17 campaign with a 12-46-2-0 mark, a marginal improvement over the previous four-win season, and have tallied 10 wins in their first 30 games — half of a season — in fall 2017.
On the prep scene, Soldotna, Kenai Central and Homer all failed to make the state tournament. SoHi came the closest with a North Star Conference tournament semifinal loss to Colony, a 4-1 contest that sent the Knights to state and the Stars packing. Both Kenai and Homer lost on the first day of the single-elimination tournament, ending their seasons on the spot.
After several winters of meager snowfall, the goods finally returned in 2016-17 to the delight of skiers across Southcentral Alaska. Ample snowfall allowed peninsula racers to make noise at the Region III and state championship meets in February.
The Soldotna boys program held up their end of an exceptional streak of Region III team titles that peninsula teams have won, an 18-year run dating back to 2000. Led by Koby Vinson, Jeremy Kupferschmid, Josh Shuler and Addison Downing, the Stars captured their second straight Region III crown.
Individually, Kenai’s Karl Danielson emerged as the boys region champion, the first of his prep career, while Kardinals teammate Riana Boonstra finished second among girls.
On the Besh Cup stage, former SoHi athlete Sadie Fox returned home for a victory ride at the Tsalteshi Trails in late January. Fox won the Under-16 girls 5K classic Besh Cup race on her home trails to add a highlight to her winter as a skier at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Soldotna rider Cory Davis captured his first Iron Dog victory Feb. 25 with teammate Ryan Simons of Alberta. Davis and Simons completed the 2,031-mile classic in 40 hours, 58 minutes, on a route that takes racers from Anchorage to Nome, then from Nome to Fairbanks.
Davis, a six-time X Games medalist, and Simons were awarded the victory when race front-runners Tyler Aklestad and Tyson Johnson were disqualified for “receiving assistance” from an outside source. A photo taken earlier in the week had surfaced showing the leading team getting a push from an enthusiastic supporter after the two stopped for gas.
Five-time Iron Dog champion Dusty VanMeter of Kasilof finished second with teammate Chad Gueco.
The biggest peninsula moments came from one of its smallest teams. The Ninilchik boys captured back-to-back state championships at the Class 1A level, dominating Gambell in a 79-39 contest to win the second state crown in boys program history.
Led by Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year, senior Austin White, the Wolverines won their second straight Peninsula Conference title with a 67-46 win over Nikolaevsk, but got their state run off to a rocky start with two close victories over Aniak and Shaktoolik.
However, Ninilchik closed their season with a pair of blowout wins over Buckland and Gambell to stake their claim as the kings of 1A.
Nikolaevsk was the Peninsula Conference champions on the girls side, besting old rival Ninilchik 33-30 to take the region crown. Nikolaevsk played at state for a sixth straight year, while Ninilchik was there for a second consecutive time and finished sixth in the 16-team field.
At the Class 3A level, the Nikiski girls proved to be one of the dominant teams of the state with a 23-3 regular season record, including a streak of 15 wins in a row. Led by sophomore Southcentral Conference MVP Bethany Carstens, the Bulldogs rolled into the region tournament as one of the favorites, but a knee injury to Carstens dealt a significant blow to the team in the tourney semis, and Nikiski finished third. Two weeks later, Nikiski went 1-2 at the 3A state tournament and finished fifth.
At the 4A level of hoops, no peninsula teams made it to the big dance. The Soldotna girls finished off a solid season with third place at the Northern Lights Conference tournament, beating Kenai Central 34-28 in the third-place game, while the Kenai boys took fifth with a 60-59 double overtime win over SoHi in the boys tournament.
Expectations ran high for the Kenai boys soccer program one year after finishing second at the state soccer tournament, a record high for all peninsula teams. The Kardinals ran off a 13-1 regular season record and clinched their return to state with a repeat title in the NLC.
However, Kenai failed to make a return to the state title game, losing a 2-0 semifinal to West Valley. Ultimately, the Kards finished in a tie for third.
While it was the third consecutive year the Kenai boys went to state, the Kenai girls capped a 12-6 season with a fourth straight state trip, but fizzled with an 0-2 showing at the big tournament. The Homer boys also made a state trip for the fourth time in six years, going 0-2.
A week earlier, Kenai took its second straight region crown with a 3-1 win over Colony. The Knights won the girls NLC title, while Kenai edged SoHi 3-2 in penalty kicks to win the third-place game, clinching a spot to state.
Kenai senior Josh Jackman grabbed his share of the headlines with a third straight state crown in the 4A boys long jump, equaling the mark of his father, Bruce, who three-peated in the state long jump from 1986 to 1988. Jackman paired that title with the 200-meter sprint crown, and was also joined by Kenai teammate, sophomore Jarett Wilson, who won the boys 300-meter hurdles title.
Another peninsula champion emerged in the boys 400, won by SoHi junior Brenner Furlong, his first individual state title. Stars teammate Wendell Tuisaula clinched his first track and field championship in the boys discus throw with a personal best toss of 156 feet.
Homer won the girls Class 1-2-3A state championship, ridding the monkey off their backs after two straight years of finishing second in the team race. The Mariners got six event wins, which included three relays, sophomore Anna Brock sweeping the girls throwing events and sophomore Kaylee Veldstra taking the 100-meter sprint. A week earlier at the Region III meet, Homer swept all four relays and finished with nine total event wins to cruise to the team title.
Homer junior Joel Carroll won the 1-2-3A boys high jump, and Jared Brant, Bill Rich, Jacob Davis and Luciano Fasulo teamed up to claim the win in the boys 3,200-meter relay.
The Nikiski boys shined in taking two relay victories in the 400 and 800 events. Patrick Perry, Matthew Minium and Jack Sullenger teamed up on both relay wins, while Aaron McCollum joined them in the 400 relay and Isaac Averill joined them in the 800 relay.
Seward got a state 1-2-3A championship in the boys 1,600 relay, with Beau Freiberg, Zen Petrosius, Nik Pahno and Connor Spanos teaming up for the victory.
Led by veteran coach Jim Dietz, the Peninsula Oilers finished the summer 20-26 and barely clinched the last spot in the Alaska Baseball League postseason as the playoff race came down to the final day.
Once in the playoffs, the Oilers were swept in two games of a best-of-three series against the 30-win Mat-Su Miners, who advanced to their fourth straight Top of the World Series.
As part of the Oilers playoff run, Soldotna product Joey Becher crafted a 2.25 ERA with 28 innings of work on a familiar mound. A SoHi graduate, Becher helped the 2016 Post 20 Legion Twins win the Alaska state baseball championship.
On the high school scene, Soldotna, Kenai Central and Homer all missed the state tournament. SoHi missed out on a return trip to state with a 6-5 loss in eight innings to Colony in the region tournament second-place game.
Led by South Division Player of the Year Paul Steffensen, the Kardinals took off on a 6-0 run to begin the season, but fizzled late and lost to Homer in the region tournament, ending their season.
For the first time, the Northern Lights Conference championship was settled with a tournament, instead of crowning a regular-season champ. With two state berths on the line, the tournament gave region teams a renewed sense of hope of making a playoff run in one weekend.
The inaugural NLC tournament was capped with a marathon classic, as tourney host Homer wrapped up the title with a pair of championship battles over Soldotna. As the top seed, Homer lost to SoHi 16-5 in the semifinals, then clawed back to force an “if-necessary” matchup with an epic 17-16 win over SoHi. In the final, the Mariners prevailed 12-4 to claim the region title.
The results also clinched state spots for both schools. It was the second consecutive trip to state for SoHi, and the 16th in 17 years for Homer.
The Stars avenged their region title loss with an 18-3 win over Homer in a state matchup, pushing SoHi to the quarterfinals, where it lost to eventual champs Thunder Mountain. The Stars finished 1-2 in the bracket, while Homer ended 0-2.
The golden girl of the peninsula, Allie Ostrander, returned from a 2016 injury to post a career year on the track and in the mountains. Ostrander, a 2015 Kenai Central graduate, captured the NCAA Division I women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase national title June 10 in Oregon in only her fourth try at the event. The Boise State redshirt freshman — a sophomore academically — decided to enter the event earlier in the season as a way to mix up her racing routine, and ultimately became a master in short order.
Less than a month later, the 20-year-old conquered the women’s Mt. Marathon race, a 3,022-foot climb up and down the famed peak in Seward. It was the first adult race win of her illustrious career on the mountain, one that includes a record six junior race wins, and Ostrander posted the second-fastest time in women’s race history at 49 minutes, 19 seconds.
Among other significant races, Seward’s Matt Adams defended his win in the Run for the River 10-mile in early June, and Florida’s Bethany Tietz won the women’s race. At the traditional end of summer Kenai River Marathon, Homer’s Pedro Ochoa claimed victory with a time of 2:56:06, while Anchorage’s Samantha Wilson won the women’s race in 3:29:51. Michigan’s Travis Mabe won the half-marathon in 1:13:32 and Homer’s Annie Ridgely won the women’s half in 1:39:56.
Soldotna’s Adam Reimer pulled off a stunning race Aug. 8 in the Soggy Bottom 100 mountain bike race, covering the 109-mile course from Hope to Cooper Landing and back in 8 hours, 33 minutes, 2 seconds, to demolish the previous course record.
Five track championships were handed out by the end of summer at the 1/3-mile dirt oval at Twin City Raceway near Kenai.
The Legends class championship went to David Kusmider, who took advantage of several poor weeks late in the season by defending class champ Bryan Barber to win the season title.
Jeremy Herr won the A-Class division of stock cars with a dominant 18 heat and feature wins, while Chuck Winters dominated the B-Class season with 10 wins.
Al Ulman claimed the Late Model division, while longtime racer Geoff Clark won the Sprint Car season championship.
The abundant snow from the previous winter left some eager golfers a bit impatient in the spring as the Birch Ridge, Funny River and Kenai golf courses dried out.
The 21st annual Pro-Am and All-Alaska Skins game in mid-July helped ratchet up the competition, which featured 52 golfers sorted into 13 teams. Rich Lundahl shot an even par-70 to win by a stroke in the Pro division, while Greg Sanders won the amateur contest at 72.
In the popular skins game, a $5,000 pot of cash was up for the taking, and Aaron Dexheimer and Zac Cowan teamed up to win $2,400 of the pot and the game.
The Birch Ridge Junior Masters a week later had a local flair to it, as four of the six age championships went to Birch Ridge duffers. Danica Schmidt won the girls 14 to 18 age class, Tait Cooper claimed the girls 10 and under division, Shane Sundberg won the boys 10 to 12 and Richie Lundahl III took the boys 7 to 9. One of the other two titles went to former Birch Ridge golfer Katelin Richards in the boys 13 to 15 class (stepping up to test herself from the men’s tees), while the boys 16 to 18 crown was taken by Max Escobedo.
Palmer Golf Course ace Rob Nelson won the Kenai Peninsula Open championship in late August at Birch Ridge, prevailing in a two-hole playoff over Birch Ridge assistant pro Beau Forrest. The win was Nelson’s second in the event.
For a sixth straight year, the Soldotna Stars reigned supreme as the Division II state football champions, extending their state record win streak to 59 games along the way. The Stars capped their 10-0 season with a 21-0 win over Palmer in the final.
The season also included an out-of-state win over the Crater (Oregon) Comets, a 20-7 victory. The game was originally scheduled to be played on Crater’s home field, but wildfire smoke forced a venue change to Crescent City, California.
SoHi senior running back Brenner Furlong was named NLC Offensive Player of the Year, and was a finalist for Gatorade Player of the Year, an award he earned in 2016.
At 3-5 overall for a second consecutive year, Kenai missed out on a state playoff spot.
At the Division III level, the Homer Mariners experience a rebirth after a 2-6 season the previous year. Homer emerged as one of the top teams in Division III football with a 7-1 regular-season record, helping the Mariners clinch the Peninsula Conference title, a first in school history.
Homer then toppled two-time defending state champions Eielson in the semis to set up a title clash with Barrow. In the final minutes of the championship game, Homer drove down to Barrow’s 1-yard line with seconds on the clock, but couldn’t punch it in, and with no timeouts left to use, the Whalers walked away with the title in a 20-14 barnburner.
At 4-4 overall, Nikiski also made the Division III playoffs but lost to Barrow in the semis. Seward finished fourth with a 2-6 overall record and Voznesenka went 1-5 to finish fifth, getting its sole win over Valdez.
A finishing line kick delivered Homer sophomore Autumn Daigle a surprising victory at the Division II state championships Sept. 30 in Anchorage. After biding her time along the five-kilometer course, Daigle was able to catch and pass Seward senior Ruby Lindquist in the final 100 meters on the Bartlett trails.
The win was not enough to give the Mariners a fourth straight girls team title, though, as Grace Christian prevailed by a single point. Seward tied with Homer for second.
Homer finished second in the Division II boys team race, led by senior Jacob Davis in fourth.
In the Division I race, the Kenai girls finished second behind the ultra deep West Valley girls. Junior Jaycie Calvert led the way in eighth.
The Soldotna boys finished seventh in the Division I team standings, highest among peninsula schools, while Kenai freshman Maison Dunham finished 11th in his state debut.
The Soldotna and Nikiski programs qualified for the season-ending state tournaments at the Class 4A and Class 3A divisions, respectively.
One year after making it to the Class 3A championship final, the Nikiski volleyball program was back to terrorizing conference foes. Led by Southcentral Conference MVP Melanie Sexton, a senior outside hitter, the Bulldogs went a perfect 12-0 against region teams to clinch the top tournament seed, but lost to Grace Christian in five sets in the tournament championship game.
One week later at the state tournament, Nikiski went 0-2 with losses to eventual state champion Valdez and Barrow, handing the Bulldogs an eighth-place finish.
At the 4A level, SoHi toppled Palmer 3-1 in the Northern Lights Conference tournament semis, securing their spot at state. The Stars lost to Colony in the NLC tournament championship to finish second.
SoHi went 1-2 and finished in a tie for fifth place at the 4A state tournament, the best finish for coach Sheila Kupferschmid in her four-year tenure with the Stars. The team beat Juneau 3-0, lost to Bartlett 3-0 and lost 3-1 to West Valley.
The Soldotna swim program saw its two-year run of Region III girls championships end after Kodiak regained the top status, and then saw its state individual title drought stretch to a 14th year, with the last coming in 2003. The Stars finished in a tie for second with Palmer.
SoHi junior Sydney Juliussen came the closest to winning a state title with her second-place finish in the girls 50-yard freestyle. Juliussen also was the lone peninsula swimmer to win a region crown a week earlier, in the girls 100-yard freestyle.
The Homer girls saw their region meet end with a fourth-place result, while Kenai took home seventh.
The Kenai Central boys escaped the region meet with third place in the team race, while SoHi was sixth, Homer was seventh and Seward was ninth. Kardinal juniors Hunter Reese and Savaii Heaven had the best finishes with second-place swims, Reese getting his in the boys 50 free and Heaven getting silver in the 100 backstroke.
SoHi diver Kylin Welch was second in the boys 1-meter dive event.
After tallying its third consecutive Kachemak Conference team title, Homer came up short of another Division II state team championship, finishing second to Bethel for a second straight year at the Alaska Airlines Center in December.
At the Division I state championships, held in conjunction with the Division II meet, Soldotna junior Gideon Hutchison got to stamp his name among four other siblings that have won state wrestling titles. Gideon joined brothers Zeb (two state titles), Eli (four) and Seth (four), as well as sister Michaela (one) as Hutchisons that have won state crowns, bringing the family total to 12 state titles.
The Kenai wrestling program picked up a region champion in 195-pounder Byron Dunham, a senior. Dunham went on to finish third at state in his weight class, as the Kardinals failed to advance a wrestler into the state finals.
In their pursuit of a Division II team title, the Mariners picked up four state champions; Junior Seth Inama at 120 pounds, junior Luciano Fasulo at 132 pounds, sophomore Mose Hayes at 138 and senior Levi King at 195. Homer also crowned two girls champions in Alex Moseley (120 pounds) and McKenzie Cook (145).
Fasulo kept up a fabulous streak of 97 wins, an undefeated run that dates back to 2015. Fasulo finished his 2017 campaign at 47-0.
At the region meet, Homer notched seven region boys champions and three girls champs.
The battle between Homer and Bethel received another healthy dose of intensity. The two programs have finished 1-2 in the state team standings for three straight years, with Bethel prevailing the last two. The two Division II juggernauts split this regular season, with Bethel beating Homer at the Lime Solar/ACS tournament in September and Homer toppling Bethel at the Lancer Smith Invitational in October.
Voznesenka junior Max Kusnetsov nearly repeated as state champion, but ended up with second at 113 pounds.