Looking for reign, not rain : Prep cross country athletes look to bring titles back to peninsula

Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2010

There were no Kenai Peninsula runners claiming region or state cross country titles last season, so worrying about continuing reigns will not be a problem.

Continuing rain is another matter.

"We've had two straight months of rain and cloudy skies," said Seward coach Dan Marshall, entering his 19th year as the Seward coach. "We've been averaging 55 degrees all summer now and that's great for running.

"The weather is what it is, but it'd be nice to have a stretch of sunshine. It'd be so nice."

Over on the central Peninsula, the weather has been a little better, but not much. When told that as a cross-country ski coach, he should be hoping the precipitation continues right into winter, Soldotna coach Dan Harbison replied: "You know how that's going to work, don't you?"

In Region III/4A, a long reign has come from an island accustomed to rain. Last year, the Kodiak boys won their eighth straight title, with Kodiak graduate Dylan Anthony taking the individual title.

The Kodiak Daily Mirror reports the Bears will not have one dominant runner this year, but coach Marcus Dunbar said any of six runners could be the best on any given day. The coach said he hopes to have six runners timing under 17 minutes, 30 seconds, by the end of the year.

"The Kodiak boys will be good," Harbison said. "That's a given."

On the girls side of Region III/4A, Colony won the team title while Wasilla's Jenna Ford took the individual title as a freshman. Soldotna junior Bree Mucha was 11 seconds behind Ford. Harbison said Mucha could be in the mix for region and state titles this year.

"I hope so," he said. "She's been training hard and she's looking healthy right now. We'll see what she can do."

In Region III/3A, Grace Christian won both the girls and boys team titles. Marshall said the Grizzlies are the favorite to repeat.

"Grace will always be the toughest," Marshall said. "They have a really great program, a great coach and they have a big school.

"It's not just the school size. They have a real culture of running at Grace."

Both Cook Inlet Academy and Ninilchik will not have cross country teams this year. The following is a look at other peninsula schools:

Homer Mariners

Rachel Lord enters her second year as the varsity coach with 10 to 15 athletes on the team. She said she has a young team with a lot of freshmen and sophomores. Lord said she expects more runners once school is in session. Many kids in Homer are still fishing.

The boys varsity returners are junior Dan Adickes and sophomores Dylan Faulkner and Conner MacCarron.

"We're pretty excited about all three," Lord said.

Sophomore Kyle Austin joins the team after running track last spring. Lord also said senior Matt Jesper is a returning runner. Also, freshman Jake Warsfold and sophomore Connor Browne are showing dedication early in the season.

The girls will be led by returner and captain Kayla Williamson, a senior. Senior Alecia Stafford and sophomore Valerie Mastolier also return for the Mariners. Lord also said freshman Mattea Peters is working hard early in the season.

Lord said she will have a better idea of the team's goals after the first few weeks of the season.

Kenai Central Kardinals

D'Anna Gibson takes over as head coach after serving one year as an assistant at Kenai and three years as an assistant at SoHi. There are 24 runners out for the team. Gibson said she's also thankful for the help of assistant Phil Smith.

The girls varsity returners are senior Michelle Klaben, juniors Taylor Ostrander, Carolyn Kiefer and Noelle Schmitter-Schrier, and sophomores Chelsea Springer and Freya Chay.

Other returners to the program are seniors Annalise Theisen and Carolyn Knackstedt, junior Rylee DeVito, and sophomores Leah Sandahl and Sasha Thompson.

Gibson also is excited to see what junior Bailey Beeson and freshman Katy Knackstedt can do.

"Our girls have already decided they would really like to make state as a team," Gibson said. "They were really close to making state last year, so they're excited to try it again."

The returners for the boys are senior James Watkins and juniors Evan Atchley, Alex Springer, Andrew Mole and Travis Semmens. Gibson also said freshman Fox Michaud is showing a lot of promise.

The team is rounded out by senior Norrick McGee, sophomore Josh McKee and freshmen Nate Mole and Nathan Zorbas.

"We have a lot of potential, we're just trying to get them to understand what that potential is," Gibson said. "They have a shot of possibly making state as well."

Nikiski Bulldogs

Anna Widman will be in her second year as coach of the Bulldogs. She said her team this year is small but strong.

On the boys side, Widman's three returning runners are seniors Ari Bennett, Sawyer Skiba and Sebastian Strickland.

"These three have been the core of Nikiski cross country for the past three years," Widman wrote in an e-mail. "The outlook is good for their fourth and final year."

Strickland was the borough champion last year. He also finished 13th at the region meet to earn a trip to state.

Widman also said a welcome addition to the team is freshman Jared Wallis.

Two girls also have joined the team this year -- sophomores Rebecca Wheeler and Analeah Ernst. Both are running for the first time this year.

"I know we will see great improvements and victories in each of our runners this year," Widman wrote.

Seward Seahawks

Marshall's ever-popular program drew 44 runners this year. He said the program fluctuates between 30 and 50 runners.

"It's quite a few," he said. "I'll take them."

Returning varsity runners for the boys are seniors Brett Chase, Austin Gillespie and Andrew Buchanan, junior Jacob Marshall and sophomore Miles Knotek.

As for other varsity runners, coach Marshall said he couldn't even venture a guess because practices have been conservative thus far.

The returners for the girls are seniors MacKenzie Barnwell, Kristina Atherton and Kelly Sefton. Marshall said he couldn't guess the other girls varsity runners, either.

With the Grace girls loaded again, Marshall said second place at state can be a good goal.

"As the season shakes out, we're going to be realistic with our goals and give the girls something that they can really focus on that is attainable," he said. "We've got to be ready if the door opens, though. That sometimes happens."

Skyview Panthers

Ted McKenney moves over to coach Skyview after coaching for over 20 years at CIA. Kent Peterson, the cross-country ski coach and former cross country coach, will be the assistant. McKenney said there are 22 runners out now.

McKenney said Skyview graduate Ivy O'Guinn asked if McKenney would coach her in track last season. After that, the coaches asked if McKenney would remain as a coach.

The two main boys returners, according to McKenney, are seniors Brayden Holt and Leif Danielson.

McKenney is not sure which other boys will step up.

"We've got some really good-looking, promising underclassmen," McKenney said. "We'll know after the following week at Skyview."

McKenney said the girls team will be led by Hannah Hutchison, who qualified for state last season.

"We don't know how the rest will do," McKenney said. "The girls will be a building year, there's no doubt about that.

"The boys have a chance to do fairly well."

Soldotna Stars

Harbison has been the head coach of the Stars for about 10 years now and has about 20 runners out this year.

In addition to Mucha, the girls team will be led by juniors Melanie Smith, Shannon Wyatt and Maranda Merkes. Harbison also likes the potential of freshman Kara Kauffman.

He said the fifth runner will be important for his team.

"The fifth runner could be a real wild card," he said. "The other four are pretty solid. They've been running and they know what to do. They all worked out over the summer."

The varsity returners for the boys are seniors IntiMayo Harbison and Logan Patrick, junior Kevin Stone and sophomore Dillon Jensen.

Newcomers that could help the varsity are sophomore Luke Michael and junior Darion Green. Harbison also likes a couple solid freshmen.

"It's a new mix of guys and they're looking solid," Harbison said. "They all like hard work so that's a positive. We'll just have to wait and see how they do."

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