If the high school track season in Alaska were a sprinter, it would be known for incredibly slow starts out of the blocks followed by a furious attempt the make up time before the finish line.
Once again, the high school track teams on the Kenai Peninsula have gotten off to a slow start. The teams started practice on March 14, but it was not until this week -- a full month later -- that they were able to get outside on a regular basis.
Due to the long reach of winter's grip, the first meet of the season, the Peninsula Relays, was canceled.
However, the recent spate of long, sunny, warm days finally has teams ready to jump into competition. Nikiski and Soldotna will visit Skyview today for a tri-meet, while Seward, Homer and Cook Inlet Academy will travel to Kenai for a Saturday competition.
Most peninsula coaches are veterans of the Alaska track scene, so they are taking the late start in stride.
"I actually don't mind being inside for the first part of the season," said Rob Sparks, who has been a coach with the Skyview program for 13 years and the head coach since 1997. "We do a lot with form and technique, and I like it when they're inside doing it right in front of me.
"It's kind of hard to yell corrections if they're outside and 300 yards away."
Just as the coaches are used to the slow start to the season, the athletes have grown accustomed to spending the first part of the season indoors.
"We've run outdoors several times, but I'm really pleased with the effort and enthusiasm the team has been showing," said Mark Devenney last week, echoing the comments of several other coaches in the area.
The following is a closer look at the track and field programs on the Kenai Peninsula:
COOK INLET ACADEMY EAGLES
Coach Noah Shields had about 17 athletes out for his team this year, which is a slight increase over last year. He also is excited about adding Clint Hall to the coaching fold. Hall ran practices in the early part of the season while Shields was away and his sprinting knowledge will help the Eagles.
The boys team does not have any returning state qualifiers, but Shields is looking for big things from junior Brian Beeson. Beeson finished fourth in the small-schools state cross country meet this season.
"We have a lot of new guys, but it's too soon to say exactly what we have because we haven't been on the track much," Shields said. "A lot of them just wanted to do shot put and discus and we're trying to coax them into the running events."
Junior Alyse Bell, who qualified for state last season in the 100 and 200, will lead the girls team.
Shields has a feeling he's got some other good sprinters to fill in around Bell, but won't be sure until the runners get more track time.
After coaching the throwers for three years, Kelly Blake moves into the head coaching position at Homer. He is welcomed by about 40 athletes, which he said is an increase from recent years.
There are 30 boys on the team, including many recruits from Blake's football team.
Blake said senior Devion Hagen, junior Brandon Moffett and sophomores Justin Smith and Canyon McKinstry should make up a good sprint relay team. Josh Hemstreet and sophomore Alex Inglima will add depth to the sprint team.
Senior Jared Weaver and junior Josh Blanchard should get Homer some points in the throwing events, while senior Monte Garroutte will give Homer a big boost in the distance events. Garroutte finished eighth in the state cross country meet this year, but this will be his first year of track.
On the girls side, Blake said it will be a building year.
"We'll be stronger than we have been," Blake said. "Hopefully we'll keep growing, have a little success and get some more folks involved."
Sophomore distance runner Paulina Ledger should be one of the top athletes for the girls team.
With about 30 boys out for the team, the Kenai boys have the talent and depth to make some noise in the borough, region and beyond.
Senior Mick Boyle, who finished third in the state in the 800 last season, leads a solid group of returning state qualifiers for the Kardinals. Junior John McGlasson also placed in the top six for Kenai at state last year, taking fourth in the 200.
Other returning state qualifiers for the Kardinals are senior Danny Autrey, junior Trevor Baldwin and sophomore Papapa Nicholas, who swept a thrower's meet at Soldotna Saturday.
"We do have some talent in each of the areas," said Liz Burck, in her fourth year as the head track coach. "With the depth of the boys team, we have a number of athletes to back them up."
Burck said that depth comes from a number of promising freshmen and some good athletes who are trying track for the first time.
With 15 girls out for the team, the Kardinals are in more of a building mode there. Amber McGlasson, who qualified for state last year in the 300 hurdles and high jump, leads the Kenai girls.
Burck said she has talent to fill out other areas in the team, including some promising freshmen, but McGlasson is the one to prove herself so far.
"I'm excited by the season," Burck said. "Hopefully, we'll keep building the girls program."
In his second year at the helm, Ned Clooten has increased his numbers to 32 athletes.
Clooten has three returning state qualifiers from last year. Senior Billy Anderson went in the 300 hurdles, junior Debbie Duggin went in the discus and sophomore Angie Doty went in the 100 and 200.
"We have a lot of youth, so I don't really know what to expect," Clooten said. "There's a lot of talent there, so I'm definitely excited about where we are headed."
On the boys side, Clooten expects good things from senior Skyler Gallien in the throws, sophomore Justin Tumbaga in the sprints and sophomore Zach Hemphill in the middle distances.
On the girls side, Clooten likes what he's seen from senior Liz Lettington in the middle distances, sophomore Georgie Heaverley in the sprints and freshman Hannah Thompson in nearly every event.
In his first year of coaching high school track at Ninilchik, Chris Hanson has some talent to work with.
Senior Amanda Matson, recently named the Class 1A-2A girls player of the year in basketball, is a returning state qualifier in the long jump.
Matson also went to state last year on a 400 relay, as did junior Emily Wood and senior Amanda Peterson.
On the boys side, seniors Vincent Kruzick and Jason Schollenberg and junior Tony Nakjua were all listed as qualifying for state in the 400 and 800 relays last year.
"It's a great group of kids to work with," Hanson said. "They work hard, and hopefully things will go well for them."
Cliff Draper begins his 26th and final season as the Seward track coach with just 17 kids out for the team.
Draper said it's tough to get a lot of athletes in a school of about 250 when they also have soccer, baseball and softball to play.
Plus, Draper has been hit this year by transfer, students away on foreign exchange and students choosing not to go out for the team.
The girls will be led by junior Monica Banic, who went to state in the long jump and triple jump last year, and senior Lisa Steinbrecher, who competed at state in the shot put and discus.
Junior Lara Loomis, who went to state in the 3,200 relay last year, returns, but none of her teammates do. Whitney Anderson, who qualified for state in four events last year and won the small-schools state cross country title this fall, will be in Colorado for the track season.
On the boys side, middle distance runners Matt Adams, a junior, and David Apperson, a sophomore, will be the heart of the team.
The Skyview boys program, which has about 20 athletes this year, finished first in the borough and third in the state last year with since-departed Levi McKay and Trevor Tompkins claiming state championships.
The Panthers lost a ton of firepower off that team, but should have enough talent to remain a factor this year.
Senior Kaleb Shields returns focused on getting a state title in the hurdles. Shields was regularly beating state champion hurdler Tompkins last season before getting injured.
Junior Tyler Wehrli and senior Nathan Schmidt, who both transferred to Skyview this year, should give the Panthers more depth in the sprints. Foreign exchange student Masa Keneko should add to that depth.
Senior Antonio Silva will help Skyview in the throws, while junior Kenny Dean and sophomore Josh Carlon will head up the distance crew.
Sparks also is excited by the pure athleticism of freshman Greg Bosick.
"We've got quite a few seniors that have come out for the first time this year that are good athletes, but we'll see how much they can pick up in a short season," Sparks said.
The girls team, which also has about 20 members, will be led by returning state qualifiers Marci Mohler, a junior, in the sprints and jumps, junior Ella Fehrer in the hurdles and junior Christina Shadura in the throws.
Other returners who should be a factor for the Panthers are sophomore sprinters Cheryl Ramey, Ami Himmel and Jackie Bates, senior thrower Gabbie Merry and junior thrower Stevie Pyfer.
Sparks also likes the potential of freshman Johnnie Dexheimer in the distance events and freshman Jennifer Holland in the jumps and hurdles.
With 40 athletes, Sparks is grateful for the help he's getting from assistant coaches Kevin McGrady, Troy Minogue, Betty Miller, Alec McIntyre and Renee Merkes.
SOLDOTNA STAR S
Soldotna track coach Mark Devenney starts his 13th season at Soldotna with swelling numbers in his program. He has 35 boys and 32 girls out, adding up to the most he's ever had out at the beginning of a season.
With pretty much every other girls team in the borough in a rebuilding mode, the SoHi girls are the heavy favorite to defend their borough crown. Devenney also has eyes on a region and, possibly, state title.
Soldotna's strength starts in the distance events, where junior Ari Goldstein is the reigning state cross country champion, while junior Katie Franzmann was third at state cross country this fall.
Senior Brandi Denna, juniors Katy Pankoski and Rachel McCartan and sophomore Brittany Osland all are returning state qualifiers and give the Stars a ton of depth in distance and middle distance. Denna was fifth in the state in the 400 last season.
In the hurdles, the Stars will turn to senior Tracy Pitts, who finished fourth in the state in the 100 hurdles last season.
Soldotna's jumping points will come from senior Brittney Gardner, who finished second in the state in the triple jump last year.
Sophomore Liz Denna, who qualified for state in the shot put and discus last year, leads a solid group of throwers for the Stars.
Freshmen throwers Alyssa Emery and Kaylee Wilbanks lead a group of talented freshmen Devenney is excited about.
"This is the best women's team I've had since the last time we won a state title," Devenney said.
The coach also likes the talented group of freshmen he has on the boys side.
The two returning state qualifiers for the Stars are junior Matt Hicks in the shot put and junior Brian Chase in the 300 hurdles.
Senior Jon VerHelst will help the Stars in the throws, while senior Ryan Walton, sophomore Caleb Chase and freshmen Rob Navarro and Levi Sutton make up a solid distance crew.
Sophomores Patrick Lybrand and Jeremy Goracke will do jumps for Soldotna, while junior Tim Lybrand will do sprints and sophomore Alex Pfaffe will give the Stars a threat in the hurdles.
"We're going to be as competitive as anybody in the borough," Devenney said of his boys squad.
The coach also is excited about his coaching staff of Galen Brantley and Joe Trujillo.
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