With two runners gone off their state championship team, including the top runner, the Soldotna boys cross country team will have some big shoes to fill this year if it hopes to repeat.
But judging from the shoe size on the team, filling those big shoes shouldn't be a problem.
"We've got a lot of people on the team with very big feet, literally," said Soldotna interim coach Dan Harbison, who is filling in for Mark Devenney while he recovers from recent open heart surgery. "The average size is probably about 12 1/2."
Soldotna, which won the first Class 4A state cross country team title in the peninsula's history last year, is just one of 26 teams that will compete in the 11th annual Skyview Invitational Saturday at Tsalteshi Trails.
With nearly all of the big running schools in the state, except for those from Fairbanks, in attendance, the meet has always been a big one. But in recent years its importance has been magnified because the state cross country meet is now held at Skyview.
"It's always great because you see so many other teams and so many other runners," said Kenai coach Liz Burck, whose girls team had a breakthrough appearance at the state meet last season. "You remember where everybody was at last year, but after this meet you know where everybody's at this year."
Skyview coach Kent Peterson said the race is enjoyable not only for coaches and runners, but for spectators as well. The hilly, forested, five-kilometer loop at Tsalteshi provides a fitting background for the hundreds and hundreds of runners.
"I always like watching the start of the JV race," said Peterson, whose Panthers girls will be looking for a return trip to state this year. "There's over 100 people starting at the same time, funneling onto a trail and disappearing into the woods."
Skyview, Kenai and Soldotna are just three of the eight peninsula teams that will be competing at the Skyview Invitational. The following is a closer look at each of the peninsula cross country programs.
Daryl Farrens takes over the program from Harry Rasmussen after serving as an assistant last season.
The boys team will be keyed by senior Jacob Hawkins, juniors Travis Kaufman and Andrew Peters and sophomore Ban Hawkins.
Freshmen Monte Garroutte and Ivan Heimbech also are expected to give the team a big boost. Senior Cole Rehder, one of the Mariners top performers last season, will work his way back into the lineup after sustaining a foot injury late this summer in fish camp.
"Our boys are actually shooting for a top three in the region," said Farrens, who has 11 boys out for the team. "We really feel like we have a chance at that if we stay injury-free.
"We don't have much depth."
Homer's girls team, which has 12 runners, also could make some noise in Region III after losing just two seniors off varsity last year.
The team will be led by senior Ida Martin, juniors Syverine Abrahamson, Tawni High and Nahanni Wills, sophomore Cherry McGee and freshman Alefa Phelps.
"Our girls also are shooting for a top-three spot in the region," Farrens said. "They're working hard to make that happen."
Optimism and numbers abound in equal quantity as Liz Burck enters her fourth year at the helm of the program.
Burck has 42 kids to work with this season, up from 34 last year. Those two numbers are a far cry from the eight runners she had in her first season as coach.
Burck not only has quantity, she has quality, especially on the girls side. The Kardinals lost their top runner off a team that qualified for state last year, but the addition of junior Katherine Amen should make up for the loss of Kristi Knudsen.
Other returners for Kenai are juniors Karli Knudsen, Michelle Edwards and Mary Krusen and sophomores Roxanna Wilcox and Lindsey Church.
Burck is excited because not one person on varsity is a senior.
"We're doing some long-range planning with these girls," she said. "They don't just have this year, they also have next year."
The girls are setting some lofty goals for themselves as well.
"I think it would be great to be in the top five teams at state," Karli Knudsen said. "If we made it in the top three, we'd get a trophy."
Burck also expects strong leadership from seniors Nicole Spence, Shiloh Reilly and Kjersta Larson.
On the boys side, Burck said the runners are working just as hard as the girls, but they aren't seeing those results, yet. She said the big goal this year is to get a boys runner to state, something she hasn't done in her coaching tenure at Kenai.
"I like the way the guys on this team persevere," Burck said. "There's been a lot of attention given to the girls, but the guys keep working hard.
"They've also been really supportive of the girls team."
The Kenai boys lost two of their top runners from a year ago, so they have returners to build on. Some solid returners are seniors Tim Kirby, Micah Houtz, Greg Landua and Severin Hagen-Lillevik and sophomores Zack Hicks and Clifford Cochran.
The Kardinals also should get a big boost from newcomers Nick Boyle, a freshman, and Jacob La Shot, a junior who switched from football. Other seniors providing leadership for Kenai will be Brady Church, William Harper, Ryan Whitelay and Brett Morris.
Chris Huff takes over a program that has produced the top Class 1-2-3A boys runner in the state the past three years. The Bulldogs boys, led by state champ Mario Bird, also won their first 1-2-3A state boys team title last year.
However, Nikiski lost Bird and Felix Euler, the top two runners from last year's team, to graduation.
Huff comes to the peninsula from Nebraska. He ran in college for NCAA Division II Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.
Key runners on the boys team this year will be senior Quincy Bird, junior Ryan Wicker and sophomores John Rooper and Reuben Floyd. Huff is still waiting to see who's going to step up and fill the fifth spot.
"The talent is there," Huff said of his boys team. "They can achieve whatever they want to. It's just going to take a lot of work."
On the girls side, the Bulldogs lost the only runner that qualified for state last season. Strong runners this year will be seniors Ella Olsen and Jenny Miller, sophomore Katie Floyd and freshman Ramona Baker.
"The girls also have the potential for a good season," Huff said. "We have two types of runners. We have some really driven, passionate runners, but some of the younger runners aren't quite used to the distance yet."
Penny Vadla enters her 23rd year of coaching at Ninilchik still looking for a Region II crown.
It's not that Vadla's girls haven't been extremely competitive. They've been to state the last four years. It's just that they always seem to be one or two points away from a region victory.
"We're tired of that," Vadla said.
The Wolverines lost two of their top runners from last year, but Vadla doesn't see the program slipping.
"The kids have built a tradition, and they don't want to see that tradition go down," Vadla said. "They want to live up to the standards set by those before them."
Top runners on the girls team will be seniors Bridgette Cuffe and Gretchen Garroutte, juniors Melissa Deiman, Janelle Moerlein and Molly Bosick, sophomore Whitney Leman and freshman Katie Moerlein.
The Ninilchik boys have not been to state the past two years. Leading the team this year will be Josh Smith, who qualified for state as an individual his sophomore and junior years. Other key members of the team will be seniors David Boyle and Chris Kruzick and freshmen John Paul Russo and Vincent Kruzick.
In 1996, football arrived in Seward just in time to see the Seahawks boys cross country team win a Class 1-2-3A state title.
Seward coach Dan Marshall, now in his ninth year at the helm, remembers a reporter telling him that the state title showed football wouldn't have an effect on cross country.
"Wait four years," Marshall remembers telling the scribe.
About four years have passed and Marshall has just six runners out for the boys cross country team this year.
"Football, especially in the small schools, is a real attraction to boys," Marshall said. "It's definitely brought down the number of boys in the cross country program."
However, Marshall sees a lot of potential on the boys team, which is led by junior Trent Foldager and senior Lloyd Schaefermeyer.
"We have six kids, but five of those kids are going to be the most competitive group of kids I've had since 1996," Marshall said. "There's not a weak link in the bunch."
On the girls side, Marshall is hoping pack running, traditionally a Seward strength, will extend Seward's string of impressive performances at state. In the past 10 years, the Seahawks have finished first or second every year except for one.
Some key performers this year will be seniors Sam Rough, Shannon Holm and Erin Conant and juniors Kelly Houghton and Marion Glaser. The Seahawks lost two seniors last year, but Marshall sees definite replacements in freshmen Sarah Herman and Elsa Gaule.
Kent Peterson, who had been an assistant in the past, steps up into the head coaching role this season because former head coach Heidi Jacobsen will be busy with a child that was expected to arrive during the first few weeks of the season. Peterson has about 30 kids out for the team.
On the boys side, Peterson has a wealth of seniors. Those seniors are Jacob Fellman, Leon Galbraith, Micah Mohler, Adam Tressler, Storman Norman and Grant Gephardt.
"I think we'll be back with the rest of the pack chasing Soldotna this year," Peterson said. "Soldotna's going to be good, but we're waiting until this weekend to see where we are with the other teams."
On the girls side, Peterson welcomes Erika Edwards back to the program. After promising freshmen and sophomore seasons, Edwards missed her junior year of cross country with a knee injury.
However, she came back last spring to finish second at state in the 3,200-meter run. This summer, she continued to show the knee is fine by running a personal-best in a five-kilometer run in Kansas.
Last season, even without Edwards, the Skyview girls were able to make it to state for the second straight year. With a number of strong returners and some key additions, Peterson is hoping to run the string to three this year.
Other key varsity members will be seniors Amy Lambe, Melina Hutchison and Alicia Wood, junior Brita West and sophomore Kaleena Schouweiler.
Interim head coach Dan Harbison, who is being assisted by Jesse Murray, has been charged with keeping the Stars program running while head coach Mark Devenney recovers from open heart surgery.
"I feel not having him there every day is, of course, a detriment to the team," Harbison said. "We were able to figure out a system where we're able to include him in practices as much as possible."
Harbison said the hope is Devenney, who guided the Soldotna boys to their 4A state title last season, will be able to attend some races at the end of the season.
On the boys side, Harbison said senior Andy Liebner, juniors Kyle McBride, Bill Keller and Brent Knight and sophomore Daniel Harro will be on varsity for sure.
"We have three, possibly four, runners that could fill those final two spots," said Harbison, who has 15 boys out for the team. "We feel good about the runners we'll be able to put in those two spots."
The Soldotna girls were not able to field a varsity team last year, but that should change this year because the Stars have eight runners out for the squad.
"It's starting to come together," Harbison said of the girls program. "It's going to be a building year for us."
Harbison said key runners on the team will be seniors Annette Rhoades and Megan Newbould and sophomores Rachel Goldstein and Ella Aimes.
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