Instead of worrying about whether there will be a region ski meet, ski coaches can get back to worrying about who will win the region ski meet this year.
Cross-country skiing teams across the peninsula have been enjoying trails covered with snow after last year's winter that wasn't.
"It's worked out great," Skyview coach Kent Peterson said. "Even when we got that first little bit of snow this year, it was almost better than the best skiing we had last year."
Coaches said skiers gamely tried to keep chipper attitudes last season, but the lack of snow made that increasingly hard. That has not been a problem thus far this year.
"It's a welcome turn of events," Soldotna coach Dan Harbison said. "What it really does is get everybody so much more excited to be there."
Added Homer coach Daryl Farrens: "The kids signed up for a ski team, not a cross country running team. Most are actually from the cross country running team, so they're ready to ski."
The ski season kicks off today and Saturday with the Skyview Invitational. Last year, a meet this early in the season had to be held at Hatcher Pass, which is north of Palmer. This year, the meet can be held at Tsalteshi Trails, which is behind Skyview High School.
The event starts at 5 p.m. Friday, when there will be a 1-kilometer freestyle race illuminated by torches. Saturday, the affair will wrap up with a 5-kilometer classical race starting at 11 a.m.
The following is a closer look at what to expect from the Kenai Peninsula's six ski teams this season:
Second-year coach Daryl Farrens is welcomed back by a group of about 25 skiers, including a girls team loaded with potential.
The leader of the girls team will be Aleta Phelps, who finished third in the region last year.
Other returners for Homer are juniors Samantha Halpin and Monica Peters and sophomore Kacey Aderhold.
Farrens adds to that mix junior Sarah Arsenault, a first-year skier, and a group of promising freshmen.
That group is headed up by Erika Klaar, a middle-school borough champion. Also in that group is Katie Arsenault, Kristin VanTrease and Johanna Spaeder. Each made the varsity cross country running team this season.
Finally, freshmen Jenny Merritt, Alina Rykaczewski and Mallory Hines are all able skiers.
"I think in a couple of years, if we keep everyone skiing, we should have a fairly competitive team," Farrens said. "We'll just have to see how these freshmen respond."
The boys team will be led by returners Morgan Jones, a sophomore, and Travis Hines, a junior.
Homer also has sophomore Simon Schaad, a first-time competitive skier, and freshman Tad Martin.
"The whole team is kind of in a state of flux right now, especially the boys," Farrens said. "We'll just see how it plays out this year."
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
The Kenai girls and boys both finished third last year at the Region III meet. Coach Dave Feeken is looking to senior captains Shauna Hall and Mike Kent to keep the Kardinals as one of the top programs in the region. Kenai has 16 skiers out for its team this season.
On the boys side, Feeken is looking for strong performances from junior Chris Amen and sophomores Clay Nelson and Kyle Latz. Nelson was second at state last year amongst the freshmen in attendance, while Latz is just getting into a normal training schedule after a soccer injury.
Feeken said that with strong performances from freshmen Chris Hall, DC Reed and Kirk Loutham, the Kardinals should be in the mix at both boroughs and regions.
Freshmen Ben Phillips and Timothy Amen are new to the sport, but Feeken said they are showing an attitude that will serve them well in skiing.
On the girls side, the Kardinals have a solid crop of juniors in Synneva Hagen-Lillevik, Kira Matiya and Jessica Summer. Hagen-Lillevik finished ninth overall in the region last year, and Feeken said she is adding even more speed to complement her endurance.
Feeken said he expects his girls to be competitive in the borough. He also is looking forward to watching the development of first-year skiers Angelica Avila, Rebekah Summer and Cristina Harman.
Dale Bakk starts his eighth year of coaching at Nikiski with seven people out for the team.
"It's been kind of fun having such a small team," Bakk said. "You're able to spend more time on technique."
The boys team is made up of junior Levi Lounsbury and freshmen Mike Wicker, Aaron Bakk and Jordan Chilson.
"We've got some more middle-schoolers coming up, plus I have another son in eighth grade, so we're looking forward to next year and having a full team of guys and then some," Bakk said. "I don't think there is such a thing as a rebuilding year, but if there was, this is what it would be.
"We've got a good, motivated group of young kids."
The girls team is made up of senior Debbie Duggin, junior Callie Ware and sophomore Kuunani Landford. Bakk also looks forward to seeing that team grow next year, when some girls who are focusing on drama this year will be able to rejoin the team.
Seward is one of the smaller schools to field a ski team, but with experienced coaching from Rich Houghton, who has coached on the peninsula for 15 years and elsewhere for five years, Seward can sometimes compete with the bigger schools.
This season, Houghton has 12 skiers out for the team.
On the boys side, Seward boasts five returners in seniors Chad Adams and Kenny Faust, junior Matt Adams and sophomores Leif Bardarson and David Apperson. The Seahawks, whose boys finished ahead of big schools like Palmer and Wasilla at regions last year, also have a first-year skier in sophomore Luke Fry.
"It's nice to be working with some experience," Houghton said. "You've still got to pay more attention to the first-year skiers, but the experienced kids don't need to work on the fundamentals as much."
On the girls side, the Seahawks return senior Heather Apperson and junior Anna Clock. Houghton also gets three first-year skiers to work with in senior Jolie Glaser and freshmen Sarah Glaser and Katie Peck.
Clock will be leaving the team due to a foreign exchange program in January, but Houghton is hoping the rest of the team sticks together to post a team time at the region and state meets.
The Skyview girls have been the dominant program in the region, taking nine team championships in the last 12 years.
Last year, Stephanie Lambe, Elisabeth Habermann, Lela Wiley, Elisha Tarries and Jaime Miller all finished in the top 10 at the region meet to lead Skyview to another title.
Lambe will not be able to ski with the team due to injury, and Wiley has graduated, but Peterson still has a solid nucleus to work with in Habermann and Miller, both juniors, and Tarries, a senior.
Peterson also thinks the team will get good performances from freshman Kendra Merkes.
"We have some good returning kids, but we don't have any cushion," said Peterson, who has just seven girls out for the team. "They all have to be healthy the whole season, especially the end of the season."
The boys team returns senior Kyle Dudley, who finished in the top 10 at regions last year. Junior Noah King also had a top-10 finish, but he is away on an exchange program and Peterson is not sure if he will join the team this year.
The Skyview boys also get varsity experience from senior Jess Orr and junior Nick Byrne.
After that, Peterson is excited about a group of five freshmen boys that should provide a foundation for the program for years to come.
The boys team will look to three returning seniors in its quest for a fifth straight Region III crown. The three returning seniors are Ryan Walton, Alex Hundertmark and Matt Habermann.
"We're not very deep," Soldotna coach Dan Harbison said. "This year, there are several other teams that are going to be very competitive.
"In fact, I think this is the year we'll see teams in the region be much more even."
Sophomore Caleb Chase also will be an important skier for the Stars, and freshman Max Millron will lead a pack of good, young skiers for the Stars.
"It's nice to have new skiers out to revitalize the program," said Harbison, who has 25 skiers out for the team. "That's what's been missing the last couple of years."
On the girls side, the Stars lost just one skier from last year's top five, but Rachel Goldstein was a big loss.
Leading the returnees is junior Katie Franzmann, who finished seventh in the region last season. Also back are seniors Heidi Keller, Jenny Smola and Tess Caswell.
Harbison also sees a lot of potential in junior Katy Pankoski and freshman Lauren Olendorff.
"Like the boys, there's some new faces this year and that's always a good thing," Harbison said. "We gained more than we lost, and we'll be losing several this year so we need to keep (the newcomers)."
Harbison also said the Soldotna program will have its own waxing facility at the high school this year. The structure, a community endeavor that has taken six years, will relieve the space squeeze on other sports at Soldotna.
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