Coming off a dominating win at the Region III track and field championships, the Soldotna girls will set their sights on their first state crown since 1997 today and Saturday at Bartlett High School.
It won't be easy. There are a number of formidable teams in Soldotna's path. First and foremost is defending state champion East. The Thunderbirds topped Dimond, another team loaded with top-drawer athletes, for the Region IV championship last weekend.
For Soldotna, the effort at the state title begins with a compelling quest by junior Ari Goldstein. Goldstein won the 3,200-, 1,600- and 800-meter runs to lead Soldotna to a region title. She will try and pull off the tough triple again at state.
Heading into the meet, Goldstein has the state's top time in just one of the events, the 1,600. However, her top times this year are just seconds off the top times in the 800 and 3,200. Soldotna coach Mark Devenney has confidence in Goldstein.
"I think she's gonna be a hero," Devenney said.
Goldstein also will run in either the 1,600 relay or 3,200 relay. However, Soldotna will need far more than Goldstein to compete with East, which has runners that are a threat to win every running race that does not involve a hurdle.
"Most of the time, the stars are going to come through and get their points," Devenney said. "Where you win is when kids come in with the eighth-best time or jump and end up fourth."
A third or fourth place finish can help cut down East's advantage in events the Thunderbirds dominate.
For example, East's 3,200-relay team has already run a time faster than the state meet record. Soldotna is seeded third in the event, though, and could also score decent points in the event.
That means the Soldotna distance crew of Katy Pankoski, Brittany Osland, Katie Franzmann and Rachel McCartan will play a big role at the event.
Other Stars will battle for points in other areas. Dimond's Zee Zee Young has posted the dominant times in the hurdles, but Tracy Pitts is in the thick of a group of athletes behind Young.
The Stars could also get a big boost from Brittany Gardner, who finished second in the state in the triple jump last year. Gardner has struggled with injury this year, but Devenney said she is rounding into form.
Brandi Denna has a chance to pick up points in the 400, while throwers Kaylee Wilbanks and Liz Denna also could pick up crucial points.
In addition to Goldstein, the peninsula athletes with the best chance of winning state titles are Skyview's Kaleb Shields and Kenai's Mick Boyle.
Shields has put up the fastest times in the state in both the 110 and 300 hurdles.
Shields ran a hand-timed 15.0 seconds in the 110 hurdles, but Lathrop's Mike Titus has run a 15.01 with electronic timing. The correction for hand-timing actually means Titus has run a little faster.
Shields is just happy to be at state in the event after stumbling several times and running a 16.59 at regions.
In the 300 hurdles, Shields is solidly ahead of the field. Last week, he ran 40.85 while nobody else in the state ran in the 40s.
After missing state with injuries his sophomore and junior years, Shields gets his chance this year.
"I can't lie," Skyview coach Rob Sparks said. "He's excited and we're excited. He hasn't had a chance at state since his freshman year."
Boyle is the only runner in the state to go under 2 minutes in the 800 this year. He should get stiff competition from West's George Brell and Homer's Monte Garroutte, who both have run at 2 minutes this season.
"He knows he can go under two and he's got big goals for this weekend," Kenai Central coach Liz Burck. "He should be able to get another sub-two 800."
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