Soldotna's Max Milliron tucks through a curve during the Soldotna Invitational last winter.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
It’s like MacGyver trying to weasel his way out of one of many precarious situations: he manipulates what he has around him and always comes out on top.
That’s the mentality of Kenai Peninsula ski coaches through the month of November.
With a landscape barren of snow and what little there was having been scattered by the recent barrage of strong winds, coaches are improvising in preparing their teams for the upcoming season.
Some are ice skating. Others are swimming. Most are running and a few are skiing on frozen lakes.
What they all have in common, though, is their desire for snow.
“Practices are interesting challenges, trying to get ski-specific things to do,” said Nikiski coach Dale Bakk, who had his team skiing on a scantily snow-covered soccer field until it was mostly blown away. “We’re patiently waiting for the white stuff to fall.”
Skyview coach Kent Peterson also tried practicing on the soccer field, until their’s, too, was decimated by wind.
“We’ve been doing a lot of running and ski simulation stuff running with poles,” he explained. “We’re mixing it up, doing some pool workouts, which is pretty good for swimmers. We’ve been running, and the swimmers have a hard time with that.
“When we go into the pool, it evens things out because the runners are dying,” Peterson added.
But all the coaches agree the snow must come soon.
The Homer Invite was already canceled and a decision is set to come Tuesday on whether or not to call off the Skyview Invitational on Friday and Saturday.
And with some squads as large as ever, it’s becoming more challenging by the day to decipher one’s talent.
“We’re hoping to get some snow to see how good we are,” said Seward coach Dennis Perry. “It’s pretty hard to tell at this point.”
The following is a more in-depth look at the Kenai Peninsula’s ski programs:
First-year coach Ida Martin, a former student at Homer, has her hands full in her rookie season with 43 skiers out for the team.
“We have a huge team this year,” she said. “I skied for Homer and it’s as big as when I was in high school. It’s the biggest in about six years.
“We have a junior high and middle school program going on so it gets the kids interested sooner than just in high school,” Martin added.
The girls team is returning five skiers from last year’s team that finished third at regions and 10th at state.
Returning senior Erika Klaar was the highest female placer from the Kenai Peninsula at state last season, finishing in 21st place.
Also returning are seniors Alina Rykaczewski and Kristin Vantrease, junior Claire Laukitis and sophomore Teal Laukitis. Martin said she expects freshman Frances Bursch to ski on varsity, too.
“They’re a very solid varsity team,” Martin said. “The girls have a good shot at winning regions this year.”
The rest of the team will be determined by early season time trials, she added.
Junior Gus Beck leads a boys team that finished seventh in the region last year.
“We’re kind of building off Gus for the rest of the boys varsity team,” Martin explained. “We’ve got some good athletes on the boys team and once they figure out the technique for skiing, they’ll be really good.”
Also returning is sophomore Patrick Schneider. Freshman Dylan Critchett looks really strong thus far, Martin said.
“They’re all working really hard,” she said.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Kenai Central coach Dave Feeken has nearly 25 skiers out for this year’s squad, a few more than last year.
But even more promising is the fact that five boys and four girls are returning to teams that finished third and fifth, respectively, at last season’s region meet.
Feeken expects the boys to compete for a region title this year and possibly outdo what he said was their school-record sixth place finish at state.
“It’s the same boys team, pretty much, as last year,” said Feeken, who has his team skiing on the edge of Headquarters Lake. “We have a real strong returning boys team.
“It’s potentially a region-champion team.”
Anchoring the senior-laden team is senior Christopher Hall, who competed on the Junior National Team and placed 10th at regions and 21st at state last year.
Junior Trent Semmens, a two-time gold medalist at last year’s Arctic Winter Games, will be looking to improve on his regional fifth-place finish and 20th-place standing at state.
“He’s a pretty big gun,” Feeken said of Semmens. “Either one of those two guys should go top 10 at state.”
Seniors Kirk Louthan (captain), DC Reid, Brad Denesen, Ronny Miller, Ben Phillips and Levi Sutton and junior Quinn Stoops round out the experienced group.
Freshman Andres Nyquist is the lone newcomer, who, Feeken said with near certainty, will probably attain a varsity spot. But it’s tough to tell so far with no snowfall.
Others vying for position are sophomores Alex Sonnichsen and Dylan Wannamaker.
“We need to get on some snow to find out,” he said. “They’re all working real hard right now and I’m impressed with their attitude with a lack of snow.”
Senior Mercedes Hughes, junior captain Becca Ford and sophomores Molly Watkins and Kristi Louthan comprise the returning girls team, who won Kenai Peninsula Boroughs last season.
Feeken said freshmen Maya Johnson and Diedra Latz could also be key contributors and senior Kierstin Carlsen and sophomores Maya Chay and Tana Armstrong also will be competing for positions.
“Maya (Johnson), we’re expecting to be a varsity skier,” he said. “She was pretty good in middle school.”
He also mentioned Jo Jo, an exchange student from China, as a newcomer to skiing and even to snow.
Following the failed soccer field attempt, Bakk had his five boys running on trails despite a plethora of obstacles.
“We’re trying to run amidst all the debris,” he said. “We get more exercise cleaning the trails of logs, sticks, trees and branches than anything else.”
But it’s worked somewhat.
They’ve been running with poles in hand, successfully replicating pole maneuvers they’d display on snow.
Despite having no girls out for this year’s squad, four of Bakk’s five boys are returning from last year’s team that placed second in the state meet’s small-schools division.
Senior Aaron Bakk and juniors Bryan Bakk, Thomas Wheeler and Ansel Ware are looking to capture the title this season.
“That’s the goal we have set for the guys and they want to rise to the challenge,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to them seeing their times improve a lot more this year,” Bakk added. “Just because of the experience factor they’ve got, they’re all itching to go this year.”
Freshman Keith Lohry is the lone newcomer to the team and Bakk said the future looks bright with a great number of middle schoolers getting involved in the program.
As a junior last season, Seward’s Sara Glaser was expected to place high at regions.
“We think she could have won regions,” Perry said.
It’s all speculation, however, as the team was unable to commute to the regional meet due to avalanches that closed all the roads out of town.
“We couldn’t get out for two days,” he explained. “It was pretty disappointing. It felt like, especially with the girls, we had a pretty good team.”
This year, however, Glaser returns as a senior after taking 22nd at state last year, looking to anchor a squad that’s anxious to match last season’s expectations.
“I think Sarah will be good this year,” he said.
With as many as 30 skiers out for the team the biggest squad Perry has coached in his 14 years with the program optimism is high, despite the team having to ice skate rather than ski for the time being.
Seniors Tekla Backlund and Katie Peck also return to the girls team that has many newcomers vying for spots.
Perry thinks freshman Allison Barnwell will probably earn a varsity position.
“It’s too early to tell with the others,” he said. “I can tell with her because she’s got a little bit of a skiing background and on roller skis she looks good.”
Junior Mark Chase, according to Perry, appears to be the strongest on the boys side.
“I think he’d have been top 20 or 25 maybe,” he said of last year’s regions.
Senior Kevin Talens and junior Aaron Sarka round out the returners.
“They’re both strong and in better shape,” Perry said. “I think their technique is improved from last year.”
He added that other younger skiers are demonstrating potential.
With each passing year, Skyview’s program appears to be growing more popular.
According to Peterson, a few years ago there were about 18 to 20 participants. Last season he had around 25.
Now, he’s preparing to coach nearly 40 skiers this time around.
“It’s probably the most we’ve had in 10 years, I think,” Peterson said. “It’s pretty exciting.”
Both sides of the team are loaded with talent.
The boys are preparing to defend their region title and senior Kendra Merkes is returning as the region’s Skimeister.
Seniors Erick Romig, Taylor Karnikis and Lucas Thein and junior Tommy Honer return with hopes of improving on last season’s 10th-place finish at state.
“Erick, Lucas and Tommy are all on the cross country team that finished sixth in the state this fall. So they’re coming off a real successful season where they set some goals and they worked real hard to meet them,” Peterson said. “They have a good work ethic.
“They’re (including Karnikis) a good core group of guys to pull the other ones along,” he added.
Others returning from last year’s regional champion squad include seniors Kelly Skipwith and Harley Maxson and sophomore Jordan Merkes, all of whom Peterson expects to contribute highly.
“They’ve got a big job to defend the title, but it’s their goal,” he said. “They’ve obviously got a taste of what it feels like, and they want to be able to defend that.”
He said there are other skiers who could compete for the sixth and seventh spots.
Finishing 45th at state last season, Kendra Merkes was the bright spot in a girls program which barely had enough members to field a team.
And she is the only definite for the upcoming campaign, Peterson said.
“We have enough girls for a team this year,” he said. “But it’s hard to tell” who else will be on it.
“There’s a lot of new girls.”
Soldotna has 24 skiers out for this year’s team, about five more than it finished with last season, according to coach Dan Harbison.
“A lot of young kids came out, which is really good,” he said, adding they’ve been practicing on frozen lakes.
The boys will be led by senior Max Milliron.
“He’s looking really strong so far this season,” Harbison said. “He’s definitely our No. 1.”
Seniors Eddie French, Caleb Gordon and Jordan Chilson and sophomores Aaron Chase and Gabe Murray are also returning from last season’s squad, which finished fourth at the regional meet.
Senior Jacob Franzmann is coming back from a one-year hiatus after competing during his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
“He was pretty good,” Harbison said. “He’s looking OK so far, so that’s good.”
Freshman Ryan Sanders and Stryker McLane are two other guys to keep an eye on, Harbison said.
“He’s just looking strong, for one thing, and just has kind of a natural, smooth style,” he said of Sanders. “Once we clean up some things and also get through some bad habits he’s picked up, I think he’ll be good.
“We’re definitely setting high goals for ourselves this year,” Harbison added, “so, we’ll see if we can hold it together.”
There were only three girls on last season’s team and none have returned this year.
“We sort of have a new, very young girls team,” he said.
Freshmen Kailey Mucha, Emily Smola and Jasmine Clock are just some of the names to look for.
“She’s definitely a great prospect,” Harbison said of Mucha. “There are a lot of kids who haven’t really been on skis before, but I know they’ll do well in the end.”
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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