In Alaska, Mother Nature can pretty much switch seasons at will.
Unfortunately for area track teams, the high school prep sports calender isn't nearly as flexible.
As the peninsula struggled to get snow for most of the winter, snow-sports enthusiasts like Skyview track coach Rob Sparks consoled themselves with one thing.
At least this lack of snow means we'll be able to get outside for the track season.
But during the middle of March, by the time most winter gear had been neatly packed away in the basement, winter suddenly woke up and once again banished track teams to the gyms and hallways.
As of Saturday, Thursday's season-opening Peninsula Relays were still up in the air. However, something else up in the air on Saturday -- snow -- certainly didn't portend well for the meet.
"This is the worst I can remember," said Soldotna track coach Mark Devenney, who is starting his 10th year at the helm of the Stars. "We've always been outside by the week after spring break."
Spring break, which this year was March 19 to 23 for borough schools, actually was a pretty big turning point for the hopes of area track athletes. "Spring" break actually turned out to be one of the coldest weeks of the winter.
"If spring break would have been warm like the rest of the year, we would have been fine," Sparks said. "The dog mushing side of me was smiling a little bit, but the track side didn't have much to smile about."
About the only peninsula team that has seen regular time on a track this season has been Homer. The snow in Homer has been very altitude dependent this winter, and the track is just low enough to be out of snow range.
"The track actually has been pretty clear," said first-year Homer coach Tari Hoeft. "This is a first. Usually our track is covered with snow.
"Things get long having to run inside all of the time."
Tell the rest of the peninsula schools about it.
Practice officially started on March 12 for the track teams. Ninilchik coach Bernie Clark, whose school doesn't have a real track, decided to take a road trip to Skyview to get in some track time.
"We just ended up running the parking lot," Clark said. "I think we'll go to Homer next time."
In Seward, coach Cliff Draper has been dealing with early season snow on the track for over 20 years. The perspective that years of experience has given him is helping him cope this year.
"What we have on the track this year is normal," Draper said. "I've had 6 feet of snow on the track at this time 12 or 14 years ago.
"There were 12-foot berms around the track after it was plowed."
The weather has caused track coaches to come up with creative solutions for workouts, such as an obstacle course Kenai coach Liz Burck set up around the high school.
So far, coaches said the athletes are coping fairly well.
"We've had our third week inside, and it still could be another week," said Sparks, who has been planning some late-season mushing runs. "This time of the year, you start to worry about attitude, but we're not having that problem.
"I think they understand all the work inside will pay off."
The light and the end of the tunnel the coaches are all looking at is Thursday's meet at Skyview.
"We're looking forward to next week," said Nikiski coach Jim Arness. "We've practiced so long we want to get out and actually do it.
"We'll be ready to go by Thursday."
The question is, will Mother Nature?
The following is an "inside" look at the peninsula's track teams:
Coach: Tari Hoeft. Staff: Jennifer Chapple, hurdles; Todd Phillips, sprinters; Harry Rasmussen, high jumpers; Alan Olson, long, triple jumpers; Kurt Racicot, long, triple jumpers.
Top returners: Erin Pate, sr., jumps; Tabitha Johnson, soph., throws; Nahanni Wills, jr., hurdles, sprints.
Key newcomers: none.
Top returners: Mike Abbott, sr., sprints, jumps; Sam Ingram, jr., sprints; Andrew Peters, jr., distance; Cody Smith, soph., sprints; Travis Kauffman, jr., distance; Cole Rehder, distance.
Key newcomers: none.
Hoeft will be in her first year as the Mariners track coach, but she said that should not be a problem because she has an experienced staff to help her.
"For this being my first year, having this many volunteers that have specialties, it's going to be very helpful and beneficial for the kids," Hoeft said.
"We really want to focus on individual goals. If we focus on individual goals, the team objectives will fall into place."
It's obvious the athletes believe in the program, too, because there are 45 in Homer out for the track program.
The girls team will get leadership from Wills and Pate. Both were region qualifiers last year.
"We've got some good hurdlers, but we're lacking distance runners right now," Hoeft said. "We're still trying to talk to some kids and get some more distance runners.
"We should hold our own in the sprints and relays."
The boys team should get its leadership from Rehder and Abbott. Both were injured in the spring but are rehabbing successfully.
"I think we want to have a goal of being one of the top two teams in the borough, both boys and girls," Hoeft said.
Coach: Liz Burck. Staff: Renee Henderson, sprinters; Clayton Holland, throwers; Sharon Thompson, jumps; Tim Sandahl, hurdlers, sprinters; Ken Felchle, sprinters.
Top returnees: Michelle Edwards, jr., mid distance; Lindsey Church, soph., mid distance; Krista Miller, jr., throws; Kylee Vienna, soph., throws; Shiloh Reilly, sr., mid, long distance; Erica Smith, soph., mid distance; Dallas Baldwin, soph., high jump.
Newcomers: Katherine Amen, jr., mid, long distance.
Top returnees: Justin Hogue, sr., throws; Sepa Nicholas-Silvira, throws; Dane Myers, jr., throws; Tim Kirby, sr., mid, long distance; Jacob La Shot, jr., mid, long distance; Morgan Saltenberger, jr., mid, long distance.
Newcomers: Sovala Sweariagen, fr., throws; Shaun Kiser, soph., sprints; Nathan Schmidt, fr., sprints; Jacob Rowland, fr., sprints; Nick Boyle, fr., mid, long distance.
In her first year as the head coach, Burck's first priority will be to rebuild the sprinting program.
The Kenai girls won the borough title last year, but lost Tamanika Haynes, who was sixth at state in the 200 last year, to graduation.
"We lost Tamanika Haynes, and with her some of the girls who had been sprinting chose not to run this year," Burck said.
However, the Kardinals girls still have plenty of talent elsewhere that will give them a shot at defending the borough crown. That talent is headed up by Edwards, who placed at state in the 400 her freshman and sophomore years.
Kenai also has Amen and Church, who both placed in the top 10 at the state cross country meet this fall.
"Four hundred and up, we're going to be really strong," Burck said.
On the boys side, Burck said she also is looking to rebuild the sprinting program.
She said the strength of the team should be in the throwing events with Hogue, Nicholas-Silvira and Myers.
"They could be a really great group of throwers," Burck said.
Coach: Jim Arness. Staff: Steve Gillaspie, distance; Lee Moore, sprinters; Bruce Jackman, jumpers.
Top returners: Inger Hulien, sr., discus; Sally Glaze, jr., long jump, sprints or hurdles; Katie Floyd, soph., hurdles, high jump; Misti Hemphill, sr., shot put, discus.
Key newcomers: Katrina Johns, fr., sprints, jumps; Johanna Johns, sprints, jumps; Liz Lehtington, fr., mid distance; Anjani Solonen, fr., jumps.
Top returners: Josh Reilly, jr., hurdles, jumps; Mikel Cox, throws; Ryan Wicker, jr., distance; Aaron Allen, jr., sprinter, jumper.
Key newcomers: Anthony Sykes, jr., distance; David Holloway, jr., high jump, sprints; Ryan Crumpacker, jr., sprints, jumps; Angelo Luna, soph., throws.
After six years working strictly with the throwers, Arness moves into the head coach's slot this year.
As usual, with 31 kids out, Nikiski won't have a lot of depth but will have some high-quality athletes.
On the girls side, Glaze should be one of the best long jumpers in the state if her back holds up. Last year, Glaze had put up a mark by midseason that would have placed her second in the state meet. However, because of a bad back she couldn't continue jumping.
Hulien was fourth at state in the discus, while Floyd made the finals in the 100 hurdles even though Arness said the 300 hurdles is her better event.
"We have some quality kids in there," Arness said. "It is going to be a problem filling in events. We'll finish as much as we can.
"One thing good about that is all the kids will have the opportunity to compete in as many events as they want."
Meanwhile, the boys team has been energized by the commitment of some of the players from Nikiski's state championship football team.
Reilly has been in the state finals in the hurdles despite spending some of his time playing soccer. Arness said Reilly will do track full time this year.
"They're excited about it," Arness said of the football players. "Now, we just have to fit them into events."
Coach: Bernie Clark.
Top returners: Molly Bosick, jr., sprints; Gretchen Garroutte, sr., mid distance; Melissa Deiman, jr., sprints; Kelsey Deiman, soph., throws; Victoria Florey, soph., discus.
Key newcomers: Katie Moerlein, fr., distance; Amanda Matson, fr., sprints.
Top returners: John Matson, jr., jumps; Josh Smith, sr., sprints.
Key newcomers: none.
Clark has 14 kids out for the team this year, which he said is higher than normal.
The girls team will be led by Bosick, who finished third in the state last year in the 200.
"About every event we put her in, she'll score," Clark said. "She's truly an outstanding athlete."
Because of Bosick, Clark believes his girls could make some noise at regions if they keep their numbers up.
On the boys side, Clark has a bunch of fast freshmen that have his hopes running high. Smith also returns after missing last year due to a knee injury.
"We got some depth with those freshmen," Clark said. "We got some good leadership from a couple of juniors and a senior, so we'll see what we can do here."
Coach: Cliff Draper. Staff: Gary Benson, Roger Steinbrecher.
Top returners: Erin Conant, sr., mid distance; Michelle Dieckgraeff, soph., throws.
Key newcomers: Sarah Herman, fr., mid, long distance; Krista Boulden, fr., sprinter, jumper; Kelly Houghton, jr., distance; Libby Plevka, fr., mid distance.
Top returners: Corbin Sterling, sr., throws; Ben Clock, jr., throws; Chad Sager, jr., throws; Darian Draper, jr., mid distance; Solomon Snyder, sr., distance.
Key newcomers: none.
The Seahawks have a total of 16 boys and girls out for their program, the lowest Draper can remember in his 20-plus seasons coaching the team.
"There's kids walking around the school that have tremendous potential in running, probably more so in running than in their major sport," Draper said. "They've failed to notice it. They didn't come out."
Draper said he didn't have the answer for what to do about the lack of numbers. He said the solution may be to give the kids a fresh coach to look at, but he said nobody else wants to coach the sport.
"Potentially, three or four years from now, we won't even have a track program," Draper said.
The Seahawks did not qualify any athletes for state last year. Draper is hoping to change that by having a couple of kids qualify this season.
Coach: Rob Sparks. Staff: Heidi Jacobsen, distance; Greg Zorbas, throwers; Carrie Robbins, sprints.
Top returnees: Erika Edwards, sr., distance; Kaleena Schouweiler, soph., distance; Megan Jameson, jr., hurdles, jumps; Sylvia McEwen, sr., throws.
Top newcomers: Shannon Powers, soph., throws.
Top returnees: Taylor Adams, jr., distance; Kevin McGrady, soph., jumps, hurdles; Trevor Tompkins, soph., hurdles, jumps; Jack Reed, soph., sprints; Chris Ferrel, jr., throws.
Key newcomers: Kaleb Shields, fr., jumps, hurdles; Adam Kosydar, soph., sprints
The girls team will be led by Edwards, who placed in three events at the state track meet last year.
"She doesn't take a leadership role," Sparks said of Edwards. "A couple of the new kids asked me who she was, and I had to point her out to them.
"At the same time, she's very supportive. I asked her to give a speech in front of the team, and she did a wonderful job with it. She pretty much told them you get out of it what you put into it."
Edwards no doubt was happy to have a large audience to speak to. The Panthers have about 50 athletes out for track this year, and the girls team has jumped from eight to 18.
"This year, we've got at least six to eight girls running sprints," Sparks said. "I'm just ecstatic to get more out."
On the boys side, Sparks is happy to have kept a promising group of underclassmen in the track program.
"We've definitely got a strong group of boys that did some good things as freshmen," Sparks said. "They're coming back confident and working real hard."
Sparks and Zorbas are involved with football, and they both used their powers of persuasion to get a lot of throwers out for the team. Sparks said the Panthers have about 15 boys throwers.
"They're pretty raw, but there's lots of 6-foot-3, 230-, 240-pound kids in there," Sparks said. "I couldn't tell you which one will shine."
Coach: Mark Devenney. Staff: Dan Gensel, Pam Burns, Tommy Window.
Top returners: Janna Schaafsma, jr, hurdles, sprints; Megan Newbould, sr., mid distance; Lissa Cristiano, sr., sprints; Sasha Cvetkovski, jr., throws; Rachel Goldstein, jr., distance; Hillary Zobeck, soph., jumps; Annette Rhoades, sr., sprints, distance.
Key newcomers: none.
Top returners: Andy Liebner, sr., distance; Brent Knight, jr., distance; Matt Medina, sr., mid distance; Blake Mann-Schweigert, sr., mid distance; Billy Moiles, sr., throws; Justin Payment, jr., hurdles; Kyle McBride, jr., distance; Bill Keller, jr., distance; Chris McLain, sr., sprints; Chris Bowers, jr., throws; Keith Herring, jr., throws; Daniel Harro, soph., distance; Joe Blanchard, soph., distance.
Key newcomers: none.
Devenney, who coached the Stars boys to a state title in 1994 and coached the Stars girls to titles in 1996 and 1997, starts out his 10th season in Soldotna extremely excited by the potential of both the boys and girls teams.
"We have the chance to have pretty good teams with both the boys and the girls," Devenney said. "The biggest plus, but also the biggest reason for concern, is that we're young.
"We've got a lot of youth and that enthusiasm is a plus, but sometimes inexperience can hurt you."
The girls team will be led by junior Janna Schaafsma, who won a state title in the 100 hurdles last season. In addition to experienced state qualifiers like Cvetkovski and Cristiano, Devenney also throws a promising crop of freshmen into the mix.
"This is the best group of freshmen I've had since (Mereidi) Liebner and the Eskelins six years ago," Devenney said of the group that won two state titles while at SoHi.
Meanwhile, the boys should gobble up points in the distance events thanks to the same components that have led Soldotna to the last two boys state cross country crowns.
Medina, Liebner and Knight all were on the 3,200-relay team that finished second at state last year. In addition, Moiles finished fifth in the state in the shot put last year and is one of the top returners this year.
For the boys team to come together, Devenney will need contributions from a group of basketball and football players that decided to come out for track this year. The group will see a lot of work in the jumps and sprints.
"They haven't done track before, but their athletic ability is going to help us in the jumps and relays," Devenney said.
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