After the Soldotna High School boys cross country running team hoisted its third straight state championship trophy last fall, coach Mark Devenney commented that maybe other teams around the state would look to the Stars as a team to emulate.
Devenney is hoping that this year's team will be among those emulating the Stars teams of the past several seasons.
"Our guys don't know how good they can be," Devenney said. "They're used to having real studs in front of them, and they're just starting to wake up to the fact that they can be pretty good."
With five of the top seven runners from last year's team lost to graduation, Soldotna will have to reload for this season, but the Stars have the advantage of using young runners that have had a chance to develop in a winning program.
The Soldotna girls, meanwhile, are looking to dethrone defending Region III champion Kenai Central. The Kardinals also lost several runners to graduation, and Devenney has a feeling that his Stars, who have been an up and coming team, may have just arrived.
"If you beat us, you're going to be pretty good," Devenney said.
The rest of the peninsula's high school teams -- Nikiski, Skyview, Kenai, Seward, Homer, Cook Inlet Academy and Ninilchik -- also look to improve as more an more athletes follow Soldotna's lead and put some serious workouts in during the summer.
Devenney expects Palmer and Kodiak to be the boys teams to beat in Region III/4A, and said to watch for an up and coming Colony team.
Kenai coach Liz Burck said she wasn't sure how the girls region competition would shake out.
"At this point, I wouldn't make any predictions, it changes so much," Burck said. "One kid can stir everything up.
"We're anxious to see how it will all turn out."
Peninsula teams began competition Friday with the Nikiski Class Races and Saturday at the Bartlett Relays in Anchorage. The following is a closer look at the Peninsula's high school cross country squads.
COOK INLET ACADEMY EAGLES
Coach Ted McKenney has 10 athletes out for the squad, with eight boys and two girls set to lace 'em up.
Sophomore Brian Beeson, who finished 16th at the 1-2-3A state championships a season ago and was the Region II champion is back to lead the team. McKenney said Thomas Minelga has shown a big improvement since last season.
"Those two guys put in their miles over the summer," McKenney said.
McKenney said last season, his top five runners were freshman and one sophomore, so all are back this season. The CIA girls team also is a young squad, but McKenney said they're excited to get the season under way.
Coach Daryl Farrens has 22 runners out for the team, and expects a few more to surface as the fishing season winds down.
"It's a real young team, mostly sophomores and freshman with two seniors and three juniors," Farrens said.
Farrens said a trio of sophomore boys, Travis Hines, Dylan Anderson and Mike Farrens, hit the road this summer and made significant progress. Farrens is counting on junior Monte Garroutte, who finished sixth at state last year, to lead the pack.
The strength of the girls team lies in junior Aleta Phelps and sophomore Melanie Mach, who finished sixth and seventh, respectively, at the Region III/4A meet last year.
"We've got some strong freshman female runners, so we should have a good season," Farrens said.
The Kardinals lost several members of their Region III championship team to graduation, but Roxanna Wilcox and Elena Bird, both key contributors a season ago, are back on the roster.
Coach Liz Burck said she's eager to see who will step up to fill out the rest of the varsity lineup.
"We have picked up some potential contributors, both from ninth grade and others that have moved up this year," Burck said.
The Kenai boys team has been building for a couple of seasons, and Burck sees the potential for a breakout season this year.
"They have the potential to do better than they've done in the past," Burck said.
Nick Boyle and Trevor Baldwin, state qualifiers from the 2001 team are back to lead this year's edition.
Burck said that rounding out the team will be several runners with two or three years of experience who have dedicated themselves to improving.
First-year coach Reid Kornstad has about 20 athletes out for the team, led by senior Katie Floyd on the girls side and seniors John Rooper and Reuben Floyd on the boys side.
"They're a good bunch of kids. They've got a lot of energy," Kornstad said.
Kornstad said several athletes ran faithfully over the summer, but there's still a lot of work to do before they can challenge for a state title, as the boys did last year with a runner-up performance.
"We've got some mileage to put in as a team before we're going to do anything," Kornstad said. "The first meet is going to bring us some good focus and help us define what our individual and team goals are."
The Wolverines are in a rebuilding mode after losing a good part of the team to graduation, but coach Penny Vadla is thrilled with what she's seen from the 11 runners out for the team this season.
"It's a good group. The boys look strong, and the girls I have look great," Vadla said.
For the boys, senior Levi Russell returns for his second year. Vincent Kruzick is another returning runner, as is John Paul Russo.
Adding some depth to the team will be Jason Schollenberg, Brendan Cuffe and Tony Nakjua.
Senior Whitney Leman leads the girls team, which is still looking for a couple more runners in order to compete as a team. Vadla said Leman and junior Katie Moerlein will set the pace for teammates Kendra Moerlein and Jennifer Bartolowits.
For training, Vadla has been dropping the squad off a few miles down Oil Well Road to run the hills.
"It's just beautiful out there," Vadla said. "The kids are coming together and encouraging each other. It's bee a nice 2 1/2 weeks.
"I have high hopes -- I always do. If they have their heart in it, and set a goal, they can attain that goal."
Seward coach Dan Marshall has 40 athletes out for the team as the program has rebounded from a few lean years.
"We'll do fine," Marshall said. "We're always competitive. I think the boys team is going to be stronger than we've been and the girls team is going to be right in there. We have a lot of new kids, and it's going to be competitive (for the top seven spots) this year. It's a good thing -- competition moves everybody up."
Sarah Herman, Anna Clock and Katie Sella are the top female returners, while Seth Price, Tom Blair and Josh Coots lead the boys team.
"They've all come into the season in really good shape. They're going to run some fast times," Marshall said.
"We've got a lot of kids that work hard, and I've been impressed with the attitudes of most of them," said Skyview coach Heidi Jacobsen.
The Panthers will have a small girls team this year -- just two runners -- but a big freshman class bodes well for the boys team.
"They look like they have some talent, so I'm looking forward to watching them run," Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen said the Panthers won't have any stars this season, but instead will have a team of boys that all are capable of turning in solid performances.
Jacobsen said Marci Mohler, runner-up at last year's girls state championships, is feeling healthy and looking forward to a good season.
"We graduated five out of seven from our state championship team, but we've got some kids back that have some experience, so I think we're going to be OK," coach Mark Devenney said of the Stars boys team.
Devenney said his two most experienced runners are Daniel Harro and Joe Blanchard, both seniors.
Devenney said the most improved runner might be junior Ryan Walton, and added that Spencer Litzenberger has made great strides. Senior David Hernandez also returns to the team.
"Those guys all have a lot of experience. They've all run in big meets," Devenney said.
Devenney said the girls team is the best he's had.
Ari Goldstein and Jessica Weimer have been the team's top two performers, and senior Rachel Goldstein has been a steadying influence on the team.
Rachel McCarten, Sierra Williams, Sara Jensen and Katy Pankowski will push the pace. Brandi Denna, Soldotna's No. 4 runner last season, is back but will have plenty of competition to stay in the teams top seven.
"Both (assistant coach Dan Harbison) and I are pleased with the work put in over the summer," Devenney said. "Hopefully, it will pay off for them."
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