Soldotna coach Dan Harbison knew his girls team would be good, he just didn't know the young squad would get this good this fast.
The team, which has received a boost from a strong freshman class this year, is aiming for Soldotna's first Region III/4A girls title since 2003 on Saturday at the region cross country championships at Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School.
"It's been a great sort of surprise," Harbison said of his girls. "It's a great group of girls. They all like to work hard, and they all like one another. They really sort of hit it off right from the beginning."
Colony is the team that stands the best chance of getting between Soldotna and a region crown. The Knights finished fifth, and were the top Region III team, at the Palmer Invitational on Sept. 12. The Stars were sixth at Palmer.
"If Colony can stack their girls in there just right, they'll do very well," Harbison said. "That's what they did at Palmer."
SoHi's swift surge has been led by freshman Bree Mucha, who won last weekend's Kenai Peninsula Borough meet and will be one of the frontrunners on Saturday.
"We are a little bit surprised," Harbison said of Mucha's swift ascent. "She has pretty good foot speed, but in the end you've got to have the whole package. To be able to bring that as a freshman is really great."
Harbison said many of his runners are in various stages of recovering from illness. The team's overall health will play a big factor in their placement Saturday. Harbison said the squad should be able to finish in the top four and nab the girls first state appearance since 2004.
Other key runners will be juniors Kailey Mucha and Jenna Jensen and freshmen Melanie Smith and Maranda Merkes. Harbison also said the leadership of senior Sarah Walton is important.
All signs point to Kodiak taking its seventh straight 4A region boys title and senior Trevor Dunbar winning his third straight individual crown.
Colony has been a solid second for most of the year, while Skyview, Wasilla and Soldotna are poised to duke it out for the other two spots to state.
"It's a tossup between Wasilla, Skyview and then us," Harbison said.
He said freshman Travis Semmens, Alex Stone and junior Jeff Mullen will lead the team, and all have a chance of finishing in the top 15.
If SoHi doesn't qualify as a team, the top 15 individuals qualify for state.
Other key runners are juniors Ryan Sanders and Josiah Moldenhauer. The SoHi boys have not been to state since 2003.
Skyview coach Kent Peterson, whose boys team has been to state the past two years, said seniors Mike Moerlein and Johnny Cook will lead the team.
Peterson also said the two can finish in the top 15.
Beyond that, Peterson said Brayden Holt, Corey Gully, Hunter Jackinsky and Bud Sparks will all battle for placements that will most likely determine if Skyview can finish in the top four.
On the girls side, Peterson said Ivy O'Guinn, who won the region title in 2006, has a chance at another title this year and should definitely finish in the top 15.
Peterson also said Kelsea Fowler has a chance at finishing in the top 15.
Skyview will not field a full girls team and will have a string of two straight state appearances snapped.
There also will be a battle for the final state berths in the Class 4A girls race.
Kenai Central coach Joe Trujillo said Soldotna and Colony will get the top two slots, while Kenai, Kodiak and Wasilla will fight for the other two state berths.
The Kards are led by senior Molly Watkins, who qualified for state last year, and freshman Taylor Ostrander. Trujillo said both have a shot at winning region titles.
The coach said he will have the other five girls run in a pack to try and get Kenai's first state berth since 2004.
Trujillo said his boys will have a tough time making state as a team, but said Michael Morin, Kenley Scarlett and Alex Springer have a chance as individuals.
Homer coach Paul Gutzler also said his girls and boys teams will have a tough time making the top four.
"We're not so much aiming at state as we are aiming at having our best times," Gutzler said.
In the 1-2-3A races, the Grace Christian girls and boys are favored to take titles.
The Seward girls have won the last two region titles, but the Grizzlies have been ahead of the Seahawks all year.
The last time Grace or Seward didn't win the girls region title was in 1997.
Seward assistant Patti Foldager said the girls, led by Allison Barnwell, are still in great shape to make state. The boys, led by Travis Price, also are a good bet for their fifth straight trip to state.
Nikiski coach Mark Wackler said Sebastian Strickland has his squad's best chance of landing a state bid.
"He's kind of right on the borderline," Wackler said. "He'll have to run his best race to do that."
The CIA girls and boys will travel to Susitna Valley for the Region II meet on Saturday.
The CIA boys will be led by Josh Holly, who won the Palmer Invitational earlier this year.
The boys have qualified for every state meet since 2001.
The girls, led by Sadie Arneson, have qualified for the last four state meets and won the last three region titles.
Soldotna is hosting the Region III meet, but Harbison said Kenai and Skyview are helping out.
He also said volunteers, led by Erin Lockwood, Pat Johnson, Bill Holt and Renee Merkes, make the meet possible.
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