For many runners around the state, the cross country season started July 28, or several days after, as runners trickled in from summer jobs or vacations.
But for the Soldotna boys varsity team, the season in many ways started Sept. 30, 2000, at Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School.
That's the day Soldotna, with juniors as four of its top five runners, won its second straight Class 4A state championship.
"I definitely think we can take this again next year," said Bill Keller, Soldotna's captain this year, after last year's state meet. "Kyle (McBride) and Brent (Knight) will be at the front of the pack, and Ben (Histand) will make a big improvement when he runs with us this summer."
The Stars followed through with their commitment to gunning for another state title this year and put in their work during the off-season, with the varsity team doing full training weeks throughout the summer.
"In all the time I've been coaching here, our eighth guy is probably better than any fifth guy we've ever had," said Soldotna coach Mark Devenney, who is starting his ninth year with the Stars. "They've prepared well for the season."
Kenai's Katherine Amen runs to a first-place finish in last year's borough championships at Nikiski High School. She will be one of five varsity runners returning this year.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
If Soldotna wants to repeat again as state champs, it will once again have to hold off what promises to be a strong challenge from Palmer.
The Moose defeated Soldotna at the Region III meet last year, and coach Norm Rousey returns five of his seven varsity runners. Included in that bunch are juniors Drew and Aaron Dickson, who both finished in the top 10 at state last year.
Palmer gets another advantage this year in that the state meet will be held at Palmer High School on its home course, and not on Soldotna's home course at Tsalteshi Trails.
"The ultimate goal would be to win state, but we're trying to train ourselves the best we can and not focus on other teams," Rousey said. "We have no control over what anybody else does.
"We just have to bring everything we have to the line."
Some other teams coaches mentioned as threats to Soldotna's three-peat are Dimond, Chugiak and Kodiak.
On the girls side of things, Kenai Central will look to repeat as Region III champions. Last year, the Kardinals snapped Colony's eight-year region winning streak.
"We would love to repeat that," said Kenai Central coach Liz Burck, who begins her fifth year at Kenai.
The Kardinals return five varsity runners from last year's team. The group is headed up by senior Katherine Amen, who finished fifth at state last year. Everyone that finished ahead of Amen at state graduated, except for West High junior Kris Smith.
Finishing just three seconds behind Amen was Dominique Colberg, who will be a senior at Colony this year.
Colberg, who won the girls junior division at Mt. Marathon and numerous other races this summer, will lead the Knights' charge to regain the region title. However, Colony returns just one other runner, junior Sianna Garrod, from last year's varsity.
"Kenai will be very tough to beat," Colony coach Mark Doner said. "I'm not sure we have the horsepower to stay with them. We'll see what we can do by the end of the season."
The following is a closer look at the Kenai Peninsula's cross country programs:
Second-year coach Daryl Farrens had 20 runners out for the team as of early this week, but he said the number could swell to 30 once school starts.
On the boys side, Farrens will look to add some depth to a core group of three runners.
Sophomore Monte Garroutte was the only Homer runner to compete at state last year. He returns to the varsity along with seniors Andrew Peters and Travis Kaufman.
Filling out the varsity will be junior Cam Poindexter and sophomore Derek Ball. Farrens also has a bunch of freshmen that show promise.
"I'd like to see at least three of the guys going to state, if not the whole team," Farrens said. "I was hoping they'd be a little more active over the summer, but they weren't so we'll see how it plays out."
On the girls side, Homer lost two varsity runners to graduation, one to a move and one to another sport.
The team this year will be led by returners Syverine Abrahamson, a senior, and Aleta Phelps, a sophomore. Farrens said other strong runners will be Melanie Mach, a freshman, and Lily Sloth, a junior who took a year off from running last year.
Burck continues to draw good numbers to a program that was nearly nonexistent when she took over five years ago. This year, the coach has 31 people on the team.
While the girls team has made heralded strides during Burck's tenure, the boys team also has quietly become stronger and stronger.
This year's returners -- senior Eric Nyce, juniors Clifford Cochran and Morgan Saltenberger, and sophomore Mick Boyle -- hope to continue the trend.
"I think they'll do fine," Burck said. "They'll do better this year than they have in the past, and that's what we're looking for."
Burck also has a ton of young talent to add to those returners in juniors Shawn Kiser and Andy Banas, and freshmen Trevor Baldwin, John McGlasson and Christopher Amen.
The Kenai girls team lost two from last year's region-winning outfit. However, the team returns plenty of experience in seniors Amen, Mary Krusen, Michelle Edwards and Karli Knudsen, and junior Roxanna Wilcox.
Burck will add a touch of youth to that experience with freshmen Karlyn Remsen and Elena Bird.
"We have a lot of girls out," Burck said. "We have a few varsity positions open. We'll see who grabs those."
Rejuvenation is a common theme for the Nikiski program this season. Steve Gillaspie takes over the Bulldogs cross country team after taking last year off from coaching. He had formerly been a football and wrestling coach.
"It's a chance for me to get rejuvenated," Gillaspie said of his new coaching position.
Gillaspie's presence also seems to have given the Nikiski program a shot in the arm. Numbers are up over 30 after dipping to 12 last year.
Gillaspie said his goal is to bring the program back to where it was under Lori Manion. Manion coached at Nikiski for eight years before leaving after the 1999 season.
"When Lori was here, she had a pretty strong program," Gillaspie said. "When she left, things got fractured.
"My whole purpose is to come back and re-establish what she left."
Senior Ryan Wicker, the only returner to run at state last year, will lead the boys team, followed by returners John Rooper, a junior, and Reuben Floyd, a junior.
Gillaspie also is looking for big things from Anthony Sykes, a senior who moved to Nikiski from Texas and ran strong for the Nikiski track team last year. Other key newcomers will be senior Chris McCaughey, juniors Joey Wicker, Flyte Jorgensen and Rustin Hitchcock, sophomore Anthony Lorenzo and freshmen Ben Kellie, Robert Doty and Paul Morin.
The returners on the girls team are seniors Emilee Gillaspie and Jessica Ralston and junior Katie Floyd. Top newcomers are senior Zara Lounsbury, junior Katherine Mooter, sophomore Anjani Salonen and freshman Sharon Miller.
Penny Vadla, who enters her 25th year coaching the Class 2A Wolverines, has had to alter her coaching style a little this season due to the numbers of people on the team.
As of early this week, Vadla had 10 runners on the team, the smallest number she's seen in some time.
"I normally do lots of team stuff, but it's been hard having to make up new teams with so few runners," Vadla said. "It's a whole new ballgame. I've been racking my brain trying to come up with new things."
On the girls side, the Wolverines will look to keep a four-year string of state appearances intact. Last year, Ninilchik was the top Class 2A squad in the state.
Ninilchik returns five from last year's state team, but since five runners score at a meet, that makes the Wolverines vulnerable to injury and sickness.
The five returning runners are seniors Melissa Deiman, Janelle Moerlein and Molly Bosick, junior Whitney Leman and sophomore Katie Moerlein.
Meanwhile, the boys team returns junior Levi Russell, and sophomores Vincent Kruzick and John Paul Russo. Vadla also sees promise in freshman Zack Schlinder.
Dan Marshall, who has been the head coach at Seward since 1992, expects to have 35 runners after the first couple of school days.
"I had snow in my yard in the beginning of June, and cross country season starts July 30, so it's hard to get kids excited about coming back that quick," Marshall said. "That, and they get great summer jobs here in Seward."
On the boys side, Marshall has three runners he is excited to build the team around. Junior Seth Price finished in the top 20 at state as a sophomore, and senior Trent Foldager and junior Josh Coots also are solid runners.
The Seward boys will need contributions from others if they are to make their first state appearance as a team since 1996. Marshall said two younger runners with a lot of potential are sophomores Tommy Blair and Walter Moore.
The Seward girls will be looking to rebound after having a string of 10 first- or second-place finishes at state broken last season.
Returning for the Seahawks will be seniors Kelly Houghton and Marion Glaser and sophomore Sarah Herman.
"After those three, I have a really talented pool of girls," Marshall said. "We'll just see what happens. I couldn't tell you who will fill those other spots.
"I do know those three (Houghton, Glaser and Herman) will be running really well for us this year."
Kent Peterson, in his second year as the head coach at Skyview, finds his numbers down a little bit after losing a lot of seniors from last year. Peterson has 21 runners out for the team.
The girls team lost three key seniors from its state-qualifying group last year, but some key returners and newcomers should keep the Panthers afloat.
Returning for Skyview are junior Alecia Wood and sophomores Michelle Trumpler and Brittany Sebastain.
"There's a lot of good core kids there, but they've got a lot of work to do to qualify for state," Peterson said.
The coach was happy to welcome back junior Kaleena Schouweiler and senior Brita West into the program. Both were on the Skyview team that qualified for state two years ago, but did not run cross country last year.
Peterson said freshman Marci Mohler has a lot of potential, and he's also hoping for good things from Summer Engler, a senior on the team for the first time.
Peterson's boys team also was hit hard by graduation, losing six seniors. The team this year will be paced by captains Nate Hibberd, a senior, and David Leach, a junior.
"We have five freshmen boys that show a lot of promise," Peterson said. "I'd like to keep that group together."
Devenney had 16 boys and 11 girls out for his team. While the strength of the boys team will not be a surprise, Soldotna's resurgent girls team may catch a few off guard.
"I think we've got a much better team," Devenney said of his girls. "We're still pretty thin, but we're all underclassmen and we could grow into a pretty good team."
The Stars girls break down into three freshman, one junior and seven sophomores.
Junior Rachel Goldstein, the only returning state qualifier on the team, will be joined by sophomore Jessica Weimer and freshman Ari Goldstein.
"All the rest are grouped so closely, if I mentioned one I'd have to mention them all," Devenney said. "We've got a couple of kids who are really starting to improve."
The boys varsity will be paced by seniors McBride, Histand, Knight and Keller.
"Of our top eight, five are seniors," Devenney said. "The seniors have been state champions, so they understand what they have to do.
"I hope it remains this way the rest of the year, but in my 35th year of coaching I'm having more fun with this team than with any I've coached."
In addition to the top four, Soldotna has juniors Daniel Harro, Joe Blanchard and David Hernandez for depth. Added to the mix will be senior Evan Haupt, a transfer from Iowa.
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