With sporadic snowfall and stretches of high wind across the Kenai Peninsula the past two weeks, training conditions were less than ideal for area cross-country skiing teams as they prepared for the 2010-11 ski season.
In Homer, coach Jan Spurkland said the team had a "great two weeks" of training after an early season snow on Lookout Mountain. That was followed by a stretch of warm weather. In Nikiski, the wind blew more than the snow fell.
"It's been tough," first-year coach Anna Widman said.
Skyview coach Kent Peterson likened his squad's training to that of a basketball team trying to hold practice on a cracked court.
"We just have to do the best we can," he said.
Most teams ran, many trained on dry land, and they all hoped for snow.
No matter the conditions, the season has finally arrived. The campaign begins at 1 p.m. today with the Homer Invite at Lookout Mountain, continuing Saturday at 11 a.m.
Skyview, Soldotna, Kenai Central, Homer and Nikiski all will compete, some featuring experienced squads, others hoping young talent will make the 2010-11 a memorable one.
The following is a closer look at the teams:
Peterson is optimistic heading into the season -- and for good reason.
The Panthers return every athlete on a girls squad that finished 12th at state a year ago, while the boys team has 15 skiers.
"We'll just try to keep building our numbers, and I think we will be able to compete at a higher level than we did last year," Peterson said.
Tamlyn Silva, a senior, leads an experienced 12-member girls team. The four-year skier joined Hannah Hutchison, Catherine Wolk and Carol Clonan on last year's state relay team, which placed 16th.
All four return, although Peterson said Clonan will be unavailable early this season because of illness. Add a few freshman and foreign exchange students to the roster, and the squad is larger than it's been in years.
"It's really good," Peterson said, adding the team has been made up of about seven athletes the past few seasons. "We have an experienced girls team, and they are looking to build on last year."
Chelsea Winter, a junior who competed at state last season, also returns along with Elisha Hollers, who took a year off but is back for 2010-2011.
On the boys side, seniors Brayden Holt and Leif Danielson return as four-year skiers. Peterson called them the core of the team .
A group of newcomers join Bud Sparks and Joey Bishop, as well as Kade Cooper, a sophomore who Peterson said trained hard this offseason after he broke his leg during the soccer campaign.
"We have some good leadership coming back," Peterson said.
Call it a semitransition year for Spurkland and the Mariners.
Homer returns the majority of its roster for the boys team, but lost four of the six athletes who qualified for state last year on the girls side. The squad has 29 skiers.
Seniors Parker Sorenson and Andre Lovett and junior Kevin Rowe lead a boys contingent that placed 11th at the state meet a year ago.
The arrival of freshmen Brian Rowe and Josh Vantrease, in addition to the return of junior Kyle Wence, gives the Mariners a core group that Spurkland believes can compete with any team in the area.
"We are excited to see what they come up with," Spurkland said. "The boys have an energy that's contagious, which is exciting."
There will be many new faces on the girls team.
The Mariners are without former state competitors Maggie Bursch, Frances Bursch and Kaya Morelli, but they return experienced skiers Alaine Miller and Katie Schmidt, Marie Schmidt and Emily Schmidt.
With five foreign exchange students and a group of freshmen joining the roster, Spurkland isn't sure what to expect of the girls squad.
"We are kind of having a transition year with the girls," the coach said. "There's a lot of untested talent on the team."
Kenai Central coach D'Anna Gibson decided to make a change before the season.
"We've really been focusing more on bringing back the fun aspect of skiing," Gibson said. "This year it's been a little more relaxed, we're taking a step back."
Not that the squad never had fun last year, when Gibson's daughter, Kaylee Mucha, won her fourth Region III championship in as many years to cement her legacy as one of the school's best skiers.
Mucha has since graduated, attending the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, which leaves an opportunity for someone else to emerge as the team leader.
The Kardinals feature 34 skiers, including a large crop of returning athletes.
On the boys side, the leaders are James Watkins, Evan Atchley, Tyler Cooper, Ben Gilman, Joe Bressler, Fox Michaud and Isaac Cryer. Gibson is confident the unit can compete with any in the area, but she said it's too early to tell.
"It will be interesting to see how things shake out," she said. "I don't really know where we are going to be until we have a few races."
Although the girls team is without Mucha, the squad features a large group of returners.
Among the leaders are Michelle Klaban, Olivia Fair, Vanessa Anderson, Olivia Pfeifer, Carolyn Knackstedt, Annalise Theisen, Eve Ferguson and Taylor Ostrander.
"They keep getting stronger and stronger," Gibson said.
Widman begins her first season at Nikiski, which was in danger of losing its program for the 2010-11 season.
"I was told we couldn't have a team unless there were eight skiers," Widman said.
The Bulldogs actually have 10 athletes on the roster, which is more than double the size of last year's four-member team. Widman credited returning skiers Cole Covey, Steven Lohry, Josh Croze and Ty Shoemaker for recruiting enough classmates to fill the roster.
Eight of the 10 athletes will compete this weekend at the Homer Invite, which Widman said will serve as good practice because the team has seen little time on the trails due to a lack of snow -- and high wind -- in Nikiski.
For now, the first-year coach's primary focus is to teach the fundamentals of skiing and spread the word that the Bulldogs have a team.
"We're trying to make this catch," she said. "Hopefully the program sticks around."
Six years ago, coach Dan Harbison remembered, the Soldotna ski team was made up entirely of boys. There wasn't a single girl on the squad.
Things have certainly changed.
The Stars have 26 athletes for the 2010-11 season, but 18 of them are girls. The boys team was cut down to eight skiers, led by lone senior IntiMayo Harbison and sophomores Luke Michael, Dillon Jensen and Joseph Rife.
"There was a lot of turnover," Harbison said of the boys. "Right now the challenge is just putting together a team without having much experience."
That shouldn't be a problem with the girls team.
The Stars return Bree Mucha, Maranda Merkes, D.Anne Martin, Jordann Nelson, Ashley Gerola and Xochi Harbison. The coach hopes the girls can remain competitive with every team in the league. Harbison also is excited to welcome freshman Mary Valenzuela.
"I know there will be a couple teams in the region that will be strong," Harbison said. "I'd like to see us get there, and be competitive with all of them."
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