Interesting and different were two words commonly used to describe today's and Saturday's Region III track and field meet.
That's because for the first time, Class 1-2-3A schools will be separated from Class 4A schools at the region and state levels, meaning Seward and Nikiski will be competing at Goldenview Middle School in Anchorage, while Kenai, Soldotna, Skyview and Homer battle it out for state meet berths at Palmer High School.
Local coaches had mixed reactions.
"Both will be watered down," Kenai coach Tim Sandahl said of the competition. "You're going to see kids get into state that never would have gotten in last year's or years' previous. The peak performers, you're still going to see great times and possibly state records broken, but the competition is not going to be there.
"I'm not saying that's good, not saying that's bad. It's definitely going to reduce the competition level," he added. "I'm old school, I like the 'Hoosiers' thing. I like to see small towns and small schools have the opportunity to run against the big schools."
On the other side of the fence is Skyview coach Rob Sparks, who's always been a proponent of different classifications competing at their respective levels.
"I'm usually in favor of having two different track meets so the smaller schools can keep their programs alive and they'll be able to start generating more interest as these kids realize they have a chance at these region and state meets," he explained. "Unless you were a superstar from those small schools, you didn't have any chance of making it to state or regions."
Mix in the poor weather, causing the cancelation of meets such as the Skyview Invite, and Anchorage schools starting the season running in the 60-degree temperatures of The Dome, and this year's Region III meet could be as unique as ever.
"I look at the names that are on athletic.net and know a few of them because of basketball, not because of track and field," Sandahl joked. "It will be fun in a way for our kids -- they're going to run against totally new people this weekend. ... Running against the Valley will be the first time since those Big C Relays, and even then, that was so big, you didn't get to see everybody."
There are, however, a few local names and faces Anchorage and Valley athletes will surely recognize.
Two of them being Kenai senior Bill Chimphalee and sophomore Lierin Flanagan.
Chimphalee is looking to return to state in the 110 hurdles and the long jump, in which he finished fourth last year, as well as the 100 and 400 relay, which also includes Nikita Naumoff, Brett Meyer and Billy Kiefer.
Flanagan, who currently boasts the fastest 100 time in Alaska at 12.87, closed out her freshman campaign at state last season by taking fifth in both the 100 and 400, finishing fourth as part of the 1,600 relay and competing in the 200.
Now, as a member of the 800 team, along with Shaynee DeVito, Kalee Alsworth and Kristi Louthan, Flanagan is seeking a spot atop the state podium in perhaps all four events.
"She has potential to have four gold medals at the end of this weekend," Sandahl said. "I would probably be a little disappointed if she didn't. Because she's that good.
"She really wants a gold medal in something. She wants to be state champion," he added. "I think she has potential in three individual events to do that. She's a rare one."
Sandahl also said Naumoff has the ability to place well in the high and long jumps as well as the 110 hurdles, and that Nate Byrd, who qualified for state last season in the discus, could return in that as well as the long jump. Jamie Duke (shot put), DeVito (100 hurdles) and Molly Watkins (800, 1,600, 3,200) also have solid chances of advancing to state.
Kiefer, only a sophomore, will be running the 800 and 1,600, the latter against what Sandahl deemed to be two of the fastest guys to ever run in Alaska in Kodiak's Trevor Dunbar and Palmer's Jake Parisien. Sandahl still believes Kiefer will make it to state as he owns the fifth fastest time in the 800 and seventh in the 1,600.
"We're not focused on the winning part," Sandahl said. "He has a good shot at trying to get third and that will easily take him to state."
The Kenai boys, who finished second in the state last season and second to Kodiak at the region meet, will once again be fighting the Bears for position, but could own a slight boost in confidence after claiming the borough meet title last weekend at Skyview High School.
"I noticed the kids being a little perkier about track and field this weekend and talking about it. Even with the poor weather, kids have been showing up and coming to practice and having pretty good attitudes," Sandahl said. "I suppose any outdoor season can get long and old if it continues like this. There's been about a half dozen days where it's been beautiful outside out of a 10-week season, that starts to wear on you."
Skyview has its share of contenders, too, but none more highly touted than sophomore distance runner Ivy O'Guinn, who took third in the 3,200 last year and also competed in the 1,600 and 3,200 relay at state. She will also be vying for a spot in the 800.
"With the track meet being split this year, some of better 3,200 and 1,600 and 800 runners are from the small schools," Sparks said. "Ivy's going to be up there competing. I think she's got a shot at top three (at state) in all those events."
Sparks also said Paris Cooper has an opportunity of advancing in the 400, Kenny Mahan in the shot put and discus, Michael Thornton -- who qualified as a freshman two years ago -- in the 110 and 300 hurdles, and the 800 relay squad, comprised of Cooper, Megan Janorschke, Shay Kurz and Casee Penrod.
"It's just going to be interesting, too, just with nine teams. Usually this meet has 18 or 20 teams," he said. "It just gives us a chance to have more kids score at regions and be competitive that way. The top athletes, they're going to be there anyway."
Like Soldotna's Paige Blackburn, who is looking to close the books on her high school career by defending her state titles in both the shot put and discus before departing for the Air Force Academy.
"I'm really excited about going back up to Fairbanks just because it's so warm up there," Blackburn said of the state meet after she won both throwing events at last weekend's borough competition. "First thing when you get there, it's like, 'Oh, tanning,' because it's so warm. I think warmth really has something to do with it, around here at least."
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Blackburn should easily make do on her title defenses as she now owns the state best in the shot put by seven feet and in the discus by more than 13 feet. Her throwing counterpart also looking to return to state is senior Ryan Shelton, who finished fourth in both state events last season.
Also returning from state appearances last season are Chelsea Wilbanks, who finished third in the high jump and also competed in the 400 relay, Kailey Mucha (800), April Heffner (200, 400 relay), Nathan Strieby (shot put) and Chase Jenson (300 hurdles).
Seward's Denali and Rubye Foldager, both headed to Division II California State University Stanislaus next year, are two small-schools runners that could compete with the best.
Denali, a past state champion in the 300 hurdles, along with Rubye, were both members of last season's fourth-place 3,200 relay squad, along with Allison Barnwell. This year, they've picked up Allison's younger sister, MacKenzie, and claimed the borough meet title last weekend.
Rubye, who qualified last season for the 3,200, is fresh off a borough title in the 800 while Denali took second at boroughs in the 1,600 and third in the 3,200.
Nikiski is led by hurdler Eliza Chadwick, who competed at state last season in both races and is coming off a first-place finish in the 100 hurdles at boroughs.
The Seward boys aren't too shabby, either, led by Travis Price, who finished second at state in the 800 last season with a blistering time of 1:57.77. Price currently owns the fastest 400 time in the state at 51.39 and the fourth fastest in the 800.
Price, along with Mark Chase, Nick Spurr and Matt Nyholm, all return to defend their state title in the 3,200 relay.
Cook Inlet Academy athletes, used to competing with the larger schools at state despite participating in the Region II meet, being held at Skyview today and Saturday, should benefit from the classification breakdown as a team. However, it could be different for individuals.
"For your team to have it separated where you're 1-2-3A and not going up against 4A is good for the team. But when you have an athlete who can compete up against 4A and do well, right now we have a number of athletes who could compete well against 4A," said Eagles assistant coach Trish Kopp. "It's kind of nice for them to compete against 4A. But the team on a whole benefits more when you end up with a championship title. When you go to state and your kids are able to place, it's encouraging to them, versus, like, 'Why are we going to state?'"
Some of those individuals Kopp was referring to are senior Brooke Forsi, junior Holly Kopp and sophomore Amie Smithwick.
Forsi, who placed fourth last year in the 400 and competed in the 200, is looking to return in both events -- maybe even winning the 400 -- as well as the 400 relay (Sadie Arneson, Lauren Bauder, Smithwick, Forsi) and the 1,600 relay (Arneson, Forsi, Kopp, Smithwick).
"She's been training hard this year," Trish Kopp said of Forsi. "It's just hard to run the fast times if you don't have somebody you're running after. This weekend I don't know that we'll have really anybody pushing Holly or pushing Brooke."
Bauder will also be taking part in the 200 and Arneson the 100 and long jump, while Kopp will be looking to return to state in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 and Smithwick in the 100 and 300 hurdles.
"Amie should take the 100 and the 300 hurdles pretty easy," Trish Kopp said.
Josh Holly, a sophomore, is hoping to top his sixth-place finish in the 3,200 last year and is vying for a spot atop the podium in the 800 and 1,600, which he also ran at state last season.
"We're taking out all the 4A and he really had a great state meet last year. He just really did an awesome job," Kopp explained. "It's always exciting to see those people, who when competition comes, they really fire up, and Josh is one of those."
Kopp also said Scott Litchfield is the top-ranked shot put and discus thrower in Region II, and will also run the 100, Michael Horton will be throwing both events and competing in the sprints and freshman Robbie Smithwick should place well in the 100 and long jump, but will also toss the discus.
It will be hard for the CIA boys to defend their region crown with just five members, but the eight girls should successfully defend theirs.
"I have a very talented group of girls this year," Kopp said. "Just a rare combination of each event."
Also competing in the Region II meet is Ninilchik, which has Ashley Bartolowits (long jump, high jump), Brianna Goins (high jump) and Dillon Covey (110 hurdles) all seeking return trips to state.
But as athletes from the city and Valley have been practicing in warmer temperatures and possibly even The Dome, some local competitors have once again been relegated to the hallways this past week.
"We're definitely not in the kind of shape we were in last year or the year before at this time. It might be the way it is with everybody. I hope it is," Sandahl said. "The kids on the peninsula have had a tough go of it. Kids that have been able to get into The Dome will probably have an advantage. It's really been hard.
"Our distance guys are still going on runs. You can run a 1,600 or a 3,200, a little wind doesn't bother you," he added. "I'm sick. I'm trying to prevent the rest of the kids from becoming sick by keeping them indoors and out of the nasty weather."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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