Heading into the 2005 cross country season, many peninsula programs saw coaching turnover at the top of their programs. Three years later, solid numbers at many programs show that new coaches are starting to establish programs.
Before the 2005 season, Soldotna assistant Dan Harbison took over for Mark Devenney, who had been at the school for 14 years. Kenai Central's Liz Burck, who had been the coach eight years, was replaced by Paul Gutzler and Sandra Lewis. Skyview's Kyle Gauthier and Homer's Daryl Farrens, who also had solid tenures, were replaced by Kent Peterson and Jennifer Chapple, respectively.
Many coaches around the peninsula say that numbers in cross country are once again solid now that new coaches have had time to build programs.
"I do see that," said Harbison, who has 21 athletes on his team. "Even for us, we're building back up. We were smaller last year. It's a slow climb, and some are making bigger strides than others, more by circumstance than anything."
Peterson said he has been involved with Skyview's team for 11 years. This is the third year of his current tenure as coach. He has 40 kids out for the team.
"I know our numbers were down three or four years ago," Peterson said. "We were in the teens, lucky to have 18. Now we have 40.
"The runners on our team seem like real top-notch kids. It's nice to have a big group to work with."
After helping Gutzler with coaching duties in 2005, Lewis has been the head coach the last two years. She said that unless coaches have been at a school a few years, it can be hard to draw athletes because practice starts more than two weeks before school.
"It's encouraging to see, in the three years I have been coaching, how much it has grown in all of the schools," Lewis said. "They've all had pretty small teams, and now they're starting to develop. That comes from having the same coach a couple years in a row."
After coaching with Lewis in 2005, Gutzler moved to Homer and became the head coach in 2006. Gutzler said his team right now has 20 athletes, but that he could end up with as many as 35.
"We've definitely seen a lot more interest from the kids, and a lot more support from the community in Homer," Gutzler said. "Parents have been showing up at practice, along with community members that like to run. It's been encouraging."
Not all programs are in the same boat. Both Nikiski coach Adam Anders and Ninilchik coaches Lisa Nissly and Krista Slemmons are in their first year and looking to build programs. Anders had four runners out until school started, while Nissly and Slemmons will have their first practice today.
Finally, veteran coaches Ted McKenney at Cook Inlet Academy and Dan Marshall at Seward are still at their posts. McKenney has been at CIA over 20 years, while Marshall has been at Seward since 1992.
The following is a closer look at the peninsula's cross country programs:
Running programs regain footingMcKenney's program has been on a roll, with the boys going to state for six straight years and the girls going for four straight years, including winning Region II titles the last two. The new challenge facing the program is the soccer program, which is in its first season at CIA.
"It took one girl, but that's OK," McKenney said. "Soccer's a good sport."
The girls return region champion Holly Kopp, a junior. Also returning are senior Brooke Forsi and sophomores Sadie Arneson, Hillary Domke and Dani Rehm. Freshman Kelsey Brush give the Eagles another strong runner. "We have a pretty strong team," McKenney said. "We lost one of the top five to soccer, but hopefully others will move up and take that spot."
The boys will be led by sophomore Josh Holly, who was second in the region last year, and junior Lars Arneson, who was sixth in the region. The other member of the team right now is senior Zac Cialak, although McKenney is expecting others to come on board soon.
Gutzler has a solid group of returners on his girls and boys teams. For the girls, seniors Claire Laukitis and Lindsay Henkleman, juniors Emma Laukitis and Britney Wyatt and sophomore Maggie McCarron are varsity returners. Gutzler also is pleased to welcome senior Anna Duz, who is battling to be the fastest runner on the team.
For the boys, Gutzler said varsity returners are senior Tyler Haas, junior Patrick Schneider and Will Jasper, and sophomores Cody Gaines and Garrett McCarthy.
"Our No. 1 goal is to have fun," Gutzler said. "I just like the kids to be healthy and happy and achieve whatever level of success they are ready for."
Lewis does not have any varsity returners on her girls team, but is excited by some of the new talent. Junior Molly Watkins, who switched to running from swimming, will be one of the region's top runners. Lewis also thinks senior Becca Ford could qualify for state as an individual.
"Our biggest goal is personal improvement," Lewis said. "We've got some girls that have never ran before or never played a sport. I talked them into running and I'd like to see them improve their personal times. I'd like to see them enjoy running."
On the boys side, seniors Kris Larson and Trent Semmens are back on the team. Lewis said the top runner right now is Dominic Eubank, a sophomore who did not run last year.
Anders said the lone returner that has been with the team since the beginning of the season is Christopher Richter, a sophomore. Others with the team since the beginning have been freshmen Ari Bennett, Madelyn Ralston and Sebastian Strickland.
"That group has been the heart of the team," Anders said. "We're getting bigger numbers now that school has started."
Anders said the return of school brought out returners Tom Wheeler, a senior, and Christopher Skura, a sophomore.
"I'd like to see us place in a varsity race as a team," Anders said. "We've got a long way to go before we can do that, so right now we are concentrating on individual goals."
The Seahawks will look to defend their Class 3A girls state title behind senior sisters Rubye Foldager, the state champ in 2004 and 2006, and Denali Foldager, the state champ in 2005. The Seahawks girls got off to a strong start by winning the Seward Invitational last Saturday. Denali won the race, Rubye was second and Allison Barnwell finished seventh.
For the boys, Seward's Travis Price was eighth and Matt Nyholm was ninth.
Peterson said the boys team benefited from making the state meet a year ago and finishing sixth.
"They got a taste of the success that working hard can achieve," Peterson said. "We have a real competitive region again, and we've had some good teams before that haven't made it to the state level. They started to see what they are capable of."
Peterson said returner Tommy Honer, a senior, wants to be in the top 10 at state this year. The coach said junior Mike Moerlein also is capable of such a placement. Other varsity returners are seniors Keith Clancy and Scott Begins. Peterson also said newcomers Alex Janorschke and Anthony Silva, both seniors, and sophomore Hunter Jackinsky also will contribute.
The girls will be led by sophomore Ivy O'Guinn, who finished sixth in the state last year. Other returners are seniors Michaela Hutchison, Amanda Millay and Mallory Millay and junior Marquee Lucas. Peterson said freshman Megan Janorschke also will add a lot to the team.
"Our region is really competitive, but Ivy and Michaela have been to state and Marquee is running really well," Peterson said. "We hope to improve on that and make it into the top three in the region."
On the girls side, Harbison has a solid group of varsity returners in sophomores Kailey Mucha and Emily Smola, junior Sarah Walton and senior Amanda Smith. That group will be bolstered by Jenna Johnson and Kiana Johnson, both sophomores, and freshman Megan Gordon.
"We're hoping to be competitive in the borough," Harbison said. "In the region, we've still got a ways to go."
Harbison said he has a similar goal for the boys, which feature varsity returners Jacob Ghormley and Aaron Julien, both juniors, and Stryker McLane and Zachary Truesdell, both sophomores. Adding depth and talent to the team are newcomers Benjamin Widman, a senior, Ryan Sanders and Josiah Moldenhaur, both sophomores, Intimayo Harbison, a freshman, and Aureliano D'Amici, a foreign exchange student from Italy.
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