Last year, Kenai Central senior Kailey Mucha became the only skier in Kenai Peninsula history to win a race at the state cross-country skiing meet.
This year, Mucha has a chance to make more history. She could become the first from the peninsula to win the girls skimeister title, given to the skier with the best cumulative time from the freestyle and classic races.
The meet starts today at Birch Hill Recreation Area in Fairbanks with the girls five-kilometer freestyle at 1 p.m., followed by the boys 7.5-kilometer freestyle at 2:30 p.m. On Friday, the boys 10-kilometer classic mass start is at 1 p.m., while the girls 7.5-kilometer classic mass start is at 2:30 p.m.
The meet concludes on Saturday, with the girls relay at 11 a.m. and the boys relay at 12:30 p.m.
Mucha won the 7.5-kilometer freestyle mass start last year, but she only defeated Chugiak's Kinsey Loan by four seconds in the race. Since Loan had defeated Mucha by 21 seconds in the classic race, Loan won the skimeister, while Mucha finished second.
Loan is back to defend her skimeister crown from last year, along with several top contenders.
D'Anna Gibson, Kenai's coach and Mucha's mother, said she has not talked too much about the skimeister with her daughter in order to keep the pressure off. Gibson, then D'Anna Dorris, won the skimeister while competing for West in 1987 and 1988.
"I think it's anybody's race," Gibson said. "She's one of the skiers that has the potential to do it."
Today's freestyle race will be pivotal in the competition. Since the skiers will have interval starts, it will be harder to keep track of where the other top contenders are. Friday's race is a mass start, so the top performers in today's race will know exactly what they have to do in the mass start in order to win the skimeister.
"You'll definitely need a good day on the first day," Gibson said. "Whoever wins it is going to have to have two pretty good days to make it happen."
Birch Hill is known for two things -- tough hills and slow snow. In Fairbanks, the temperature is usually so cold that snow can feel like styrofoam to those accustomed to skiing in warmer temperatures. The temperatures in Fairbanks are forecast to be zero and above, though, so the snow should not be as much of a factor.
Skyview coach Kent Peterson said Wednesday night from Fairbanks the snow should be fine.
"The temperature tomorrow is a high of 10, but it's been warm here lately so it's melted some of the snow," he said. "It will not be squeaky slow like in the past."
Another factor in Mucha's favor is her improvements in technique.
"If you'd asked me before this year, I would have said her classic technique is the strongest," Gibson said. "Now, I'm not sure. I think her skate has actually been better this year."
Mucha is the lone peninsula athlete expected to contend for a title at state. Kenai Central sophomore Travis Semmens won the Region III meet last weekend, but Gibson said the goal for Semmens is to improve on his 14th-place finish at state last year, hopefully moving up into the top 10.
The Soldotna girls team nabbed its third-straight Region III team title last weekend. Soldotna coach Dan Harbison said he is aiming for a top-five finish for his squad after finishing fourth last year. The team is made up of Bree Mucha, Maranda Merkes, Jasmine Clock, D.Anne Martin, Melanie Smith and Rachel Wyatt. The coach also would like to see Mucha and Merkes in the top 20 at the meet.
Birch Hill shouldn't be a problem for the Stars.
"I think we've been there many times at this point," Harbison said. "This group has experience there."
Gibson said she is leaving it up to her girls team to decide on a goal for state. In addition to Mucha, the team is made up of Michelle Klaben, Olivia Pfeifer, Olivia Fair, Dani Rehm and Vanessa Anderson.
Peterson said the meet is a chance for his team to get valuable experience. He said the team will be led by juniors Carol Clonan and Tamlyn Silva, both making their third trip to state. Others on the team are sophomores Hanna Hutchison, Chelsea Winter and Katie Clonan and freshman Catherine Wolk.
The peninsula boys teams are interested in reprising the Region III meet held last week. Behind region champion Palmer came Kenai in second, Soldotna in third and Skyview in fourth. Gibson said she would like to see the Kards stay ahead of peninsula rivals, while Harbison would like to see the order change.
"We'll see if we can catch Kenai, and stay in front of Skyview," Harbison said.
After Semmens, Kenai's team is filled out by Anders Nyquist, James Watkins, Evan Atchley, Anton Krull and Tyler Cooper. Gibson wants to see Nyquist finish in the top 20 after taking 21st last year, and wants to see Watkins break into the top 30.
Skiing for the Soldotna boys will be Ryan Sanders, IntiMayo Harbison, Alex Kauffman, Luke Michael, Josiah Martin and Dillon Jensen.
Peterson would love to catch the Kards or Stars. He said the three days of racing, as opposed to the two days at regions, could change things up a little bit. The Panthers will be represented by Hunter Jackinsky, Leif Danielson, Brayden Holt, Justin Marsh, Bud Sparks and Kade Cooper.
Peterson said Jackinsky, Danielson, Holt and Marsh could all make their way into the top 20.
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