Who to watch in 2018 track & field season

Track and field season happens in a flash. If you blink, you might miss it.

 

So does the speed in which cooped-up teams get outside. While they have spent weeks training inside, the moment local teams see that the track and turf are free of snow and ice, the place becomes a sea of color. Sprinters, distance runners, throwers and jumpers all mingling on a confined space that somehow will also be shared with the soccer teams.

But, it has become the routine in Alaska. Just ask local coaches.

“There was a window there when it opened up,” said head Kenai Central coach Chris Hanson. “But it quickly iced up again.”

The Kardinals finally flooded onto Ed Hollier field Thursday, where they were greeted by sunny skies and warm temperatures.

“We’ve been making the best of it,” Hanson said. “It’s about dealing with things, as they roll with it.”

Soldotna still had not been outside as of Wednesday, but Stars head coach Phil Leck said no matter what, he plans to get the SoHi team out on the track Monday.

“There’s still been a little ice on the front stretch where the shade hits,” Leck explained.

The Nikiski track and field program, which deals with the annual struggle of getting outside due to a natural grass field and a track located in a cold bowl, was welcoming of the city of Kenai taking time to remove snow and ice. Head coach Jake Doth praised the city’s efforts to send a team of workers to clear the track.

“We’re so thankful for the city of Kenai for removing snow and ice out there,” Doth said. “We must’ve had two and a half feet of snow last week.”

The Bulldogs were out for the first time Thursday after weeks of indoor weight and speed training.

On the other end of the scale, the Homer Mariners have been outside practically since day one, as low snow conditions in the town combined with an early spring feel to clear the track by early March.

First-year Homer head coach Bob Ostrom said that early outside time has given his program an extra spring in its step.

“There’s just teams from all over the state that (haven’t been outside),” Ostrom said. “And I think we may be one of the only teams with a track clear of snow.”

Instead of Class 4A and 1-2-3A, the two meets will be known as Division I and Division II, much the same way as most sports in the state are classified now.

By and large, the only big change is the renaming process. Most schools are still grouped in the same division and region they had been, with the same state qualification process. Each region champion — four total — in both divisions automatically goes to state, while the next 12 fastest runners, throwers and jumpers in the state qualify in each event for a total of 16 athletes.

The state championship meet will be held at Palmer for a second straight year May 25 and 26.

The following is a closer look at local teams:

HOMER MARINERS

Ostrom enters his first year manning the helm of the Mariners track program after helping out with the cross-country teams last fall under head coach Annie Ridgely.

Ostrom and his family made the move to Homer two years ago after living in Anchorage, and Ostrom said he was happy to take the track job after the departure of former head coach Bill Steyer.

“I coached middle school for a few years and I wanted to get back to it,” he said. “This was a great opportunity to take over.”

He will have big shoes to fill. Steyer’s record at Homer included five state titles, four in cross-country and one in track and field. In all, Steyer is credited with 11 top-two state finishes in track and cross-country at Homer.

But, Ostrom said he started a program “from zero” at Winterberry Charter School in Anchorage, so the pieces seem in place for more success in Homer. Ostrom is joined this year by assistants Nikki Fazzenbakker and Heather Reichenberg. Fazzenbakker is the throwing coach while Reichenberg works with the jumpers. Both were assistants under Steyer last year.

Once again, the Mariners will play host to one of the bigger meets of the season April 21 for the Homer Invitational. Ostrom said there are 22 schools scheduled to show up.

As for the team’s state hopes?

“That’s pretty far away,” Ostrom said. “We’re still trying to get through these next few weeks and see where we’re at.”

The Homer girls are the defending Division II state champions, breaking a two-year string of second-place finishes in the team standings.

Last weekend in Anchorage, the Mariners finished fifth overall among girls teams at the Pro/Whit Championships at The Dome, and first among Division II squads. Homer scored 65 points, while its closest division opponent Grace Christian scored 54.

Among the early surprises, Ostrom said, was the girls 400-meter sprint relay, which lapped the track 1.3 seconds faster than last year’s state championship team.

Returning on that quartet is junior Kailee Veldstra, who also won a state title in the girls 100 last spring. Veldstra will be joined by sophomore Marina Carroll and freshmen Laura Inama and Anna Godfrey.

“Veldstra has wheels, but these new girls are pushing her,” Ostrom said.

Last year at state, the Homer girls won titles in the 400-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter relays, a showcase of team depth. Ostrom said the other relay matchups are still being decided this year, as he figures out which teams will produce the most points when the region and state meets come around.

Also returning this year for Homer after winning at state is junior Anna Brock, who doubled up last spring in the girls shot puts and discus events, winning gold in both at the state meet.

“She could do really well this year,” Ostrom said. “She’s strong and setting a lot of PRs.”

Another runner to keep track of is sophomore Autumn Daigle in the girls 400 and 800 runs. Daigle is the reigning state cross-country champion at Division II, so speed over longer distances is her specialty.

On the boys side, Ostrom said senior Joel Carroll is looking strong in the jumping events. Carroll is the reigning state champion in the high jump, and already has a win under his belt in 2018 with a victory in last week’s Pro/Whit Championships at The Dome in Anchorage.

“I think he’s jumping well and staying healthy,” Ostrom said. “He’s just a really active strong kid.”

In the distance events, the Mariners have three strong horses in juniors Luciano Fasulo and Bill Rich, and senior Jacob Davis.

The Homer sprinting team will likely be headlined by senior Teddy Croft, who Ostrom said is back and running strong. Last year at state, Croft made the finals in three races, finishing with a silver in the boys 400, fourth in the 200 and sixth in the 100.

NIKISKI BULLDOGS

Doth said he has 26 total out for the team, a stout number for a school that splits athletes between the track and soccer programs.

Doth was named Region III 3A Boys Coach of the Year in 2017, thanks to a boys team that finished fifth at the region meet and grabbed two relay wins at state, including a 400-meter relay squad that broke the Nikiski school record.

In his third year at Nikiski, Doth’s program has a mix of returning veterans and fresh-faced rookies.

“We have a young team, we picked up a lot of kids,” he said. “There’s a lot of raw athleticism and speed, and we hope to take advantage of it.”

Last year, the boys squad relied on a fierce core of sprinters, including the two sprint relays, to score many of the team’s points throughout the season.

Unfortunately, three key sprinters that teamed up for either one or both relays are gone to graduation or other reasons. Matthew Minium and Patrick Perry graduated and senior home-schooler Isaac Averill is not returning. Averill was the Region III champ in the boys 100 and finished second at state in the event.

However, Doth has recruited two new athletes in juniors Brock Sarks and Justin Harris that could help regain some of the lost speed. Sarks and Harris both played football last fall and Doth said both possess a lot of strength, and will be joined by returning members Jack Sullenger and Aaron McCollum.

“I’m thinking that team is going to be fun to watch,” he said. “Sarks is probably the fastest kid on my team in a straight 100, and Jack is a close second.”

Doth said his hope in the two sprint relays is that Sarks and Harris can flash some of the speed they showed on the football field.

“Track is a weird equalizer for speed,” Doth explained. “You get on the track and the lasers don’t lie.”

Sullenger also is a potent jumper, and finished third in the boys long jump at state, but the two front-runners that day are now graduated, paving the way for a potential state champion in Sullenger, now a senior.

Like Sullenger, McCollum is a stout triple jumper that finished third at state last year, with both jumpers that beat him graduating. Doth likes his chances for a state crown this year.

“We’re going to have to see where he can score points,” he said.

Nikiski’s throwing core didn’t lose much strength either, as senior Ian Johnson returns to sling the shot put and discus. Johnson took bronze last year at state in the disc, and Doth said he is a contender once again.

“He’s just a phenomenal athlete and a physical specimen,” Doth said.

Doth added that Garrett Ellis and Jace Kornstad are both back to run the 400 and 800, and both could join Sullenger and McCollum in the boys 1,600-meter relay.

The Nikiski girls will see a lot of new faces, namely freshmen sisters Bailey and Sydney Epperheimer in the jumping events and relays, sophomore sprinter Angela Nunley, freshman sprinter Lillian Carstens and newcomer Destiny Martin in the sprints and relays.

Doth said the Epperheimers take after their older sister Crystal, now graduated. Both will likely try out for the long jump, and could make a potent team in the 400 relay with Martin and Carstens.

“We haven’t solidified that yet, but Bailey has showed some speed and a kind of natural high jump,” Doth said.

Among the returning stars are junior Bethany Carstens, who returns after missing last season to injury, and sophomore Kaitlyn Johnson. Carstens will contest the high jump and discus throw, while Johnson is a natural thrower.

“(Johnson is) developing her technique,” Doth said. “Strengthwise, pound for pound, I don’t think there’s a stronger girl in Region III.”

KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS

The Kenai girls finished second in the team race at the Region III meet in 2017, but Hanson bluntly noted that the 2018 Kardinals don’t run as deep.

They do, however, retain some individual star power.

“We’re not deep, and that’s our problem,” Hanson said. “We have a tough time competing with the bigger teams, but individually, we’ll be good.”

Kenai will be relying on a chunk of its points from the sprinting core, led by senior Tekaiya Rich, junior Hayley Maw and sophomore Alyssa Bucho. Hanson said sophomores Chelsea Plagge and Savannah Wilson could also slide in there as sprint contenders.

In 2017, the trio of Bucho, Maw and Rich made the finals of both the girls 100 and 200 races at the Region III meet, then combined to win the 400- and 800-meter relay races.

“We’re sitting pretty decent,” Hanson said.

This year, the three are back, and could be joined in the relays by senior Addison Gibson.

Hanson said Gibson will be a force in the 400, and will likely join juniors Brooke Satathite and Jaycie Calvert in the 3,200-meter relay, but the team is looking for a fourth member.

In the jumping pit, Hanson said Plagge appears to be the only serious contender for region points or a state spot, but it remains to be seen who might show up later in the season.

The throwing field is also missing a lot of depth for Kenai this year, as former Region III champion Abby Beck is graduated.

On the boys side, Kenai will be missing Josh Jackman, a senior last year who won state titles in the long jump and 200 dash. Jackman’s long jump crown was his third straight at state.

However, the Kards do return junior Jarett Wilson, the reigning boys 300-meter hurdles champion. Hanson said Wilson is looking at contesting both hurdle events this year.

“I think he’ll have a good season,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll be easy, but if he puts in the work, it’s his to lose.”

Juniors Elias Machen-Gray and Dominik Efta take over the sprinting operations, and Efta will also run the 400. Senior Karl Danielson will join Efta in the 400, while also taking on the triple jump.

An exciting newcomer to the mix is freshman Maison Dunham, who last year as an eighth-grader broke the Kenai Peninsula Borough middle school record in the boys mile with a 4:49.9, and last fall took down the KCHS freshman boys record in the 5K during the cross-country season.

“He has the potential to surprise some upperclassmen,” Hanson said. “He could open some eyes.”

Senior John Grossl returns to take a crack at the Region III title in the boys discus and shot put, but Hanson noted that Grossl has missed time early with a broken collarbone, so it remains to be seen how competitive he will be once he returns. Grossl finished eighth at state last year in the discus.

COOK INLET ACADEMY

Steve Milliron takes on head coaching duties at CIA this season, and the Eagles appear to have the right man for the job. Milliron helped coach track in the late 1980s and 1990s at Soldotna, relying on experience as a runner himself.

As an all-around athlete who enjoys running and Nordic skiing in Alaska, Milliron said he is ready for the first meet to get under way. CIA will be competing at the Homer Invite next weekend.

“It’s nice for me,” Milliron said. “We’ve got a small group and it’s been good getting to know them and work with them well.”

Currently, the school has five athletes out for the track team, a small group that Milliron said has made it easier to focus one-on-one with each runner. So far this spring, the team has been outside on the bike paths and Skyline hill near the school, along with the indoor routine that consists of a lot of circuit training.

The CIA boys team took second last year in the Region II meet, but the Eagles graduated Brady Hammond, the Region II champion in the boys 200, and lost two other athletes that did not turn out for the team. Milliron said with just two male athletes competing this year, the team’s goals are to hit new personal highs each week.

“As a young group, we’re just trying to figure out what their events are going to be,” he said. “We’re working really hard and willing to try different things to figure out what fits them best.

“That’s the beauty of track and field, there’s always something for you.”

The CIA boys see two new faces in freshman Isaac Johnson, a sprinter, and sophomore Scott Loehr, who is taking on sprinting and hurdling.

The girls team is led by junior Sarah Hollers, an adept hurdler. Hollers returns for her junior season after finishing third last year in the 100 hurdles at the Region II meet, and will be joined by junior Brianna Hammond and freshman Jamie Hyatt, who will be competing mostly in the sprint races.

SOLDOTNA STARS

Leck returns as head coach and will again have assistants Galen Brantley Jr. working with the throwers, Ted McKenney with the distance crew and Eric Pomerleau with the relays and strength coach.

In 2017, the SoHi boys took third place at the region meet, while the girls were fifth.

With 115 athletes out for the team this year, Leck said the Stars are in good shape to contend again.

“It’s been chaotic,” Leck said about the swollen numbers. “It’s been a cluster.”

Leck said the Stars lost a couple seniors, namely state silver medalist Abe Van Hout in hurdles and current senior distance runner Koby Vinson, who was a big part of the boys relays but had to miss the season due to foot surgery.

However, he added that the team is deep and can pull its weight with sheer numbers.

Among the star returners are senior sprinter Brenner Furlong, the defending boys 400-meter state champ, who Leck said is in prime position to repeat.

“It all depends on what kids are going to push him,” Leck said. “Brenner will have to be at his best to repeat.”

The Stars return another state champion in senior Wendell Tuisaula, who claimed gold in the boys discus throw last May. Leck said Tuisaula is overcoming some bumps and bruises from basketball season, but his two closest pursuers in the final state results graduated, and Leck said Tuisaula could win another state crown simply on his natural talent.

“There’s a couple Colony kids that could be tough, but if Wendell is right and is slinging the discus, he’ll be OK,” he said. “He has a natural talent that is hard to coach, and he spins the disc better than anyone.”

Senior Logan Schrader also returns as a region contender in the triple and long jumps, and last year played a big role in the three sprint relays. Leck said Schrader could add the 400 meters and 300 hurdles to his resume. Joining him is Bechler Metcalf, who has already signed to wrestle in college, back in the triple jump.

In the girls division, SoHi will get its biggest challengers in the sprints and throwing events. Junior Brittany Taylor returns one year after finishing third in both the girls 200 and 400 sprints at the region meet and placing in the finals at state. Leck said he thinks Taylor could contend for region titles and maybe a state crown following a down year in 2017.

“I expect a bounce-back year for her.” Leck said. “She knows this is a really important year for her, knowing she could get a college scholarship. She is our most talented runner.”

Taylor will be joined by senior Tovia Bremond-Hilton, a sprinter that has state experience.

In the throwing events, SoHi’s top gun is senior Emily Pieh, who excels in the discus. Pieh finished second at state last year, only behind Alaska’s dominant thrower, Alissa Pili of Dimond.

Leck added that sophomore Bailey Leach and senior Savannah McDonald could factor into the shot put, while sophomore Ituau Tuisaula could return, depending on how she has recovered from two knee surgeries last year.

In the distance races, senior Kellie Arthur leads the Stars a year after top-seven results in the girls 800, 1,600 and 3,200 races at regions.

The girls hurdling crew is led by junior Sophie Thomas, sophomore Holleigh Jaime and sophomore Kylie Ness. Leck said Thomas is strong in the 100 hurdles and Jaime in the 300, a year after placing in the state finals. Ness finished third at the Region III meet in the 100 hurdles.

SoHi’s jumping hopes lie with the junior sister duo of Danica and Aliann Schmidt, both of whom placed in the Region III top five in the high jump in 2017.

SEWARD SEAHAWKS

Dan Marshall is back in charge of the Seward track and field program after several years working behind the scenes on an assistant level.

The Seward boys and girls were both fourth in the team race at regions last year, but it remains to be seen how competitive the Seahawks could be with returners back on the team.

As a freshman last year, Connor Spanos took fourth in the boys 400 at state, and could be a big points scorer in the absence of graduated distance star Hunter Kratz, a Region III champ in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 and a state champ in the 800.

On the girls side, senior Ruby Lindquist pulled in a huge chunk of points for Seward in 2017 with her distance speed. Lindquist took silver in both the 800 and 1,600 at state last year, adding to a fourth-place run in the 3,200. In all three events, the runners that beat Lindquist graduated, leaving the Seward senior as the heir apparent to a state crown or two, or three.

Seward also could rely on points from junior Coral Petrosius, the reigning state champion in the girls high jump.

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