In becoming one of the top volleyball, basketball and track and field athletes in the state while maintaining a 4.08 grade-point average, Soldotna senior Paige Blackburn has proven she can rise to challenges.
Blackburn's affinity for challenges will manifest itself again sometime in the next two weeks, when she signs to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado and compete in indoor and outdoor track and field in the throws.
"The biggest reason why I finally made the decision is the challenge of being successful somewhere as prestigious as there," Blackburn said. "I thought about it, and I didn't want to end up at a normal college as a normal college kid not sure of what I was going to do.
"The challenge was really attractive."
All students accepted to the Air Force Academy attend the academy for free. According to the Web site of the academy, the average cost to put one cadet through the four-year program is $282,562, with the education portion being valued at about $123,000.
As the Web site also points out, though, the cadets pay a hefty price tag of sweat, hard work, early mornings and late nights. Blackburn realizes how hard getting a top-notch education and playing top-notch athletics, all while preparing to be in the Air Force, will be.
Those graduating from the Air Force Academy have a commitment to be in the Air Force for at least five years.
"I'm really excited, but I'm kind of nervous," Blackburn said. "Basically, I'm going to have an Ivy League-type education, I'm going to have a Division I sport, plus there's going to be the military aspect.
"I'm kind of worried and stressed out, but I guess they help you cope with that there."
The Air Force Academy is not in the Ivy League, but it does have one of the top engineering programs in the country. Blackburn said she plans to pursue some type of engineering, but she will wait to decide on the specific field.
"My interest was drawn there through track, and I'm really looking forward to their engineering classes," Blackburn said.
The 2007 state champion in shot put and discus said she decided to pursue track in college because that's a sport in which she can compete on a Division I level.
"I'd have a harder time in basketball and volleyball with my height," Blackburn said. "I'm almost 6-foot, but the positions I play up here are different than they'd be at Division I. It'd be hard to be a 6-foot post going against 6-4 posts."
Blackburn researched current Division I throwers and what they accomplished in high school. She found her distances were very comparable. The throws coach at the Air Force Academy, Scott Irving, told Blackburn he thinks she can compete.
Irving proved as much in January, when the Air Force Academy paid for Blackburn to take a recruiting trip to Colorado. Blackburn said there were 16 recruits on that trip, and the Air Force Academy paid for only eight to make the trip.
"One thing (Irving) said is that our season is barely two months, and half the time we're throwing in 50-degree weather," Blackburn said. "He thought I had more potential. I've never been in a long track season with good weather, compared to the Lower 48."
In addition to throwing the shot put and discus at the Air Force Academy, Blackburn plans on taking up the javelin. She said the impending challenge, which will start June 19 when she reports for six weeks of basic training before school starts, has made motivation in the current track season easy to come by.
Blackburn said throwing coach Galen Brantley Jr. often mentions the Air Force Academy and the competition waiting for Blackburn.
"It gets me really excited," she said. "I know it's going to be a lot more competition so I push myself more. That's what I'm trying to do now get a head start."
Blackburn said Brantley is just one of the many who deserves credit for her acceptance at the Air Force Academy.
"I've got to thank all the coaches and people in the school system that helped me get to this point," she said. "There's been a lot of people who helped me get here in the community, too.
"I'm not one of those kids who's excited to get out of Soldotna because it's driving me nuts. I like it here. I hope someday to come back."
SoHi graduate Kiffmeyer finishes strong again
At the 2003 Alaska state swimming and diving championships, then Soldotna senior Abby Kiffmeyer won the 100-yard butterfly and the 100 backstroke en route to being named the female swimmer of the year.
Kiffmeyer never was able to equal that feeling in the pool until Feb. 22 at the 2008 Big Ten Conference Women's Swimming and Diving Championships at The Ohio State University.
Kiffmeyer, a 2004 graduate of Soldotna, started the day by helping Purdue to a seventh-place finish in the 200 medley relay. She then finished 13th in the 100 butterfly with a time of 55.56 seconds. Even more impressively, she had a time of 55.07 in the preliminaries the second-fastest 100 butterfly in Purdue history.
"My last Big Ten's reminded me of my senior year it was a big way to go out," Kiffmeyer said Friday via cell phone. "I hadn't had that feeling since my senior year of high school."
After that performance in high school, Kiffmeyer faced some tough times in college. The summer before her sophomore year, she had shoulder surgery due to wear and tear on the joint. The injury did not heal as Kiffmeyer hoped, and she missed her sophomore season.
Her junior year also was tough.
"It was just kind of hard because I didn't compete at all my sophomore year," she said. "I kind of went in on a low, and I wasn't as excited or passionate for a while.
"I found it before my senior year."
Kiffmeyer said she and her coaches changed her training program for her senior year, basing her workouts more on sprints. The training program was similar to high school and worked well, as the Big Ten meet showed.
Kiffmeyer said she is now done with competitive swimming, at least for a long time.
"It was really nice to go out still loving the sport," she said. "I was really scared to go out hating swimming and not wanting my kids to be a part of it. That good last swim meant everything to me."
Kiffmeyer was on a 50 percent athletic scholarship. She plans to graduate with a degree in health and fitness in May 2009.
Kiffmeyer said being a Division I athlete meant making sacrifices in her social life, but she said the sacrifices were worthwhile.
"It was a huge growing experience," she said. "It was the hard road and I'm glad I took it. It's hard in college with all the distractions. There's people who don't have to worry about getting up early for practice. All they have to worry about is getting to class."
Kiffmeyer said Soldotna swimming coach Sohail Marey remains a huge influence on her to this day.
"He's the best coach I ever had by far," she said. "He's an amazing coach. Even in college, when I was behind the blocks ready to race, I'd think about things he would tell me."
SoHi's Tikka wins national title
Soldotna graduate Sam Tikka helped St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., to the NCAA Division III hockey title on March 23. St. Norbert defeated Plattsburgh State University 2-0 in the championship game at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y., for the first title in school history.
As a defenseman, Tikka helped St. Norbert turn in one of the best defensive performances in Division III history. They were the first Division III team to post a shutout in both games of the Frozen Four.
For the season, St. Norbert allowed just 43 goals in 32 games, with the average of 1.34 goals allowed per game setting a Division III record. The previous best was 1.47.
The Green Knights finished the season with a 27-1-4 record, becoming the third team in Division III history to finish the season with a single loss. St. Norbert is the only one-loss team to win the national championship. The Green Knights will carry a 29-game unbeaten streak into the 2008-09 season.
Tikka, a 6-0, 185-pound sophomore, played in 31 games for the Green Knights. He scored six goals and also had four assists. Tikka is part of a youth movement that served St. Norbert well. St. Norbert had two seniors, three juniors and 20 freshmen and sophomores on the team this season, making them the least experienced team at the Frozen Four.
Kenai's Kiel to play in BCHL
Kegan Kiel, a senior at Kenai Central High School who played for the Kardinals as a freshman and sophomore, has committed to join the Trail Smoke Eaters of the British Columbia Hockey League, considered the top junior amateur league in Canada.
This season, the 6-0, 190-pound defenseman played for Compuware Midget Major AAA in Detroit and had four goals, 11 assists and 72 penalty minutes in 56 games.
Kiel will join former South High all-state defenseman Braden Kinnebrew, who played for the Smoke Eaters this season. Over 200 BCHL alumni have gone on to play in the NHL and many others have had professional hockey careers.
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