A lot has changed since Region III cross-country ski teams began practice on Oct. 23.
At that time, the assumption was the Homer girls would win their third straight region crown, the Soldotna and Colony boys would battle for the boys title and the region meet would be hosted by Wasilla.
However, when the relocated region meet gets under way today at Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School, the Homer girls will no longer be a sure thing and the Colony and Soldotna boys will have to fend off a strong challenge from Skyview.
Region III Nordic Ski Tournament At Tsalteshi Trails
Boys 10-kilometer classical race 2 p.m.
Girls 7.5-kilometer classical race 3:30 p.m.
Girls 4X4 3-kilometer freestyle relay 11:30 a.m.
Boys 4X4 5-kilometer freestyle relay 1 p.m.
Today, the boys will do a 10-kilometer classical race at 2 p.m. while the girls will follow with a 7.5-kilometer classical race at 3:30 p.m.
Saturday, the girls will start out with a 4X4 3-kilometer freestyle relay at 11:30 a.m., while the boys will follow with a 4X4 5-kilometer freestyle relay at 1 p.m.
When the season started, the Lady Mariners had four skiers back from the team that represented them at state and rolled to Homer's second-straight region title.
Since then, coach Mickey Todd has lost two of those skiers -- one quit and the other will not be available for the state meet, so Todd said she can't ski the region meet.
"I think the region meet is now wide open," Todd said. "Colony is probably the No. 1 contender and Skyview is right there.
"We could end up in third place. When you lose two varsity racers that have finished in the top 15 in the state, that's a big hole to fill."
Skyview coach Kent Peterson is hoping the Panthers get a big boost from skiing the region meet on their home course. Tsalteshi Trails hosted region meets for three straight years between 1995 and 1997, but hasn't hosted one since.
That means none of the Panthers have skied a region meet at Tsalteshi Trails.
"It will help to have everybody else eating strange food and sleeping on a gym floor while we have home cooking and get to sleep in our own beds," Peterson said.
While the Skyview, Colony and Homer girls teams are expecting an extremely close team race, the pursuit of the region skimeister crown, given to the top individual skier, should be just as close.
The skimeister will be determined by adding up the times from Friday's classical race and the individual split times from the relay race Saturday.
Reigning skimeister Ida Martin of Homer is back to defend her crown. The senior is a powerful skier and should be well-suited to the constant uphills and downhills at Tsalteshi.
"I would like to see Ida win the whole thing," Todd said. "She's one of the best team players I've ever coached. She has great work ethic and a great attitude all the way around."
Martin has a number of strong challengers. She has been back and forth with Skyview senior Amy Lambe all year. Lambe has won region classical and skate races, but hasn't won a skimeister title.
Valdez junior Sarah Fischer won the skimeister title when she was a freshman, and Grace's Nicole Deyong is a transfer from East who is also capable of winning. Todd also said to watch out for Colony's Diana Heimerl.
On the boys side of things, Peterson is happy that Skyview is now being mentioned among the top teams in the region again. The last Skyview boys team to win a region crown was the 1995 squad led by Jay Hakkinen.
"At the beginning of the year, I don't think anybody thought our boys or girls were capable of winning regions except for us," Peterson said. "We have a chance to win regions, so it shows how hard everybody has worked this year."
The Soldotna boys won the first region ski title in the school's history last year, while Colony won four straight titles from 1996 to 1999.
The Stars still are the favorite because they edged Colony twice this year and only lost to Skyview once in numerous head-to-head matchups.
One concern Soldotna had was the recent health of team leader Andy Liebner, but he has started feeling better in recent days.
"Things are looking pretty good," Soldotna coach Sarah Tureson said. "I'm hoping that the guys will all be able to ski their best and that we'll be able to win it again."
As for the boys skimeister title, Colony's Eric Strabel, who had a lock on the hardware the past two years, is now graduated.
Liebner, winner of this year's Besh Cup, has to be mentioned among the favorites even though he is getting over an illness.
Nikiski's Zack Hall, Soldotna's Brent Knight and Skyview's Jacob Fellman and Adam Tressler also were in the top five of the rankings of the peninsula's skiers.
Palmer's Lee Bolling also is in the thick of the region's best skiers, finishing fourth in the final Besh Cup rankings.
At Kenai, coach Stephanie Kind said her teams, especially her girls team, will be battling illness at the race. Kind is hoping senior Greg Landua feels good enough to pick up a top-10 finish in the region.
Nikiski coach Dale Bakk said he is looking forward to having a full team at a race for the first time since the beginning of the year. He also said Hall is feeling better after battling sickness all season.
Finally, Seward coach Rich Houghton said he will be bringing mostly freshmen and sophomores to the race. Most of them will be racing junior varsity.
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