“Run fast. Jump far.”
Those are the words of Kenai Central track and field coach Chris Hanson regarding the not-so-secret strategy to success at the season-ending Class 4A and 1-2-3A track and field meets at Dimond Alumni Field in Anchorage.
Runners, throwers and jumpers will be doing a lot of that this weekend at the state meet, in which only the best of the best are invited.
Competing among schools that feature student populations upward of 2,000 heads, the Soldotna and Kenai Central track teams have historically struggled to match the brute force brought by powerhouses such as Bartlett, Chugiak, Dimond, Service and Kodiak. The only team championships won by a Kenai Peninsula team remain the 1996 and ‘97 Soldotna girls and the 1994 Soldotna boys.
This weekend, the SoHi girls stand a chance to end that lengthy drought. The Stars are facing long odds, but have made it through this season with team titles in all but one meet in the “regular season,” the lone exception being a close runner-up finish to Chugiak at the Anchorage Invite in early May.
At last weekend’s Region III championships, held at a blustery and cold Colony High track, the Soldotna girls just missed the team title with 139.75 points to Colony’s winning amount of 145.25.
“It was close, but that one stung a little bit,” said Soldotna head coach Phil Leck. “We had our opportunities to take it, but we just missed it by a bit.”
Leck acknowledged that a few missed points here and there added up to be enough to deny the Stars the top prize, but it was a result that gives him confidence in his runners, throwers and jumpers.
“There are five teams there that should be able to compete,” Leck said, noting Chugiak, South, Dimond and Colony as the other girls squads that should be considered favorites. “We have a chance.”
In 2015, the Kenai girls came close to winning a team title, riding the strength of three individual victories from senior Allie Ostrander to a runner-up finish by a 76-54 margin to South Anchorage.
With Ostrander out of the picture, the Kards will be looking more toward individual glory.
Leading the way is junior Josh Jackman, who picked up region victories in the boys 400-meter dash and the long jump. Jackman is competing this weekend in the long and triple jumps as well as the 100-meter sprint.
“Josh did great,” Hanson said. “I thought he showed a lot of toughness in that (400) race.”
Earlier this year, Jackman leapt to a distance of 21 feet, 8.5 inches, in the long jump to lead the state, a mark that continues to stand as the 2016 state best. Hanson noted that Jackman tends to rise with the competition.
“Josh is a big game hunter,” he said. “He does well when the competition is high.”
Senior Keenan Orth took second in the region meet at the boys high jump, an event Orth is ranked fourth in the state in at 6 feet even. Orth’s PR this year is just 2 inches away from the second-highest mark, although it is a distant 8 inches from the top height of 6-8, set by Bartlett’s Bryce Hellman.
Hanson added that Kenai freshman Jarret Wilson is worth watching. Wilson finished second in the boys 110-meter hurdles at the region meet and third in the 300-meter hurdles, and Hanson said that talent bodes well for a bright future.
On the girls side, sophomore Ithaca Bergholtz kept the girls 3,200-meter race in the Kardinals family with a region victory last weekend, but against a much more stacked field of racers at state, the gold medal may be harder to come by.
“I thought she did well running out in front,” Hanson said, noting that setting the pace in the girls distance races has been a thing of the past before Ostrander graduated last spring. “That’s a different skill set in itself, and I thought Ithaca did it like a champion.”
Also winning a region title was junior Abby Beck, who claimed the girls discus with a new PR of 126 feet, 5 inches, which is just over a foot away from the current best in the state, a 127-8 by Dimond freshman Alissa Pili.
The Kenai girls 800-meter relay also lapped up a victory at the region meet, but will have to cut almost four seconds off that season-high of 1:15.14 if the top team of Chugiak matches its season best.
“They’re in the mix, and anything’s possible when you look at relays,” Hanson said. “Strange things happen.”
Among the leading Soldotna contenders is senior Daisy Nelson, who was named the Outstanding athlete of the Year for Region III teams. Nelson scored big for SoHi last weekend with wins in the girls 100-, 200- and 400-meter sprints, and anchored the SoHi girls 1,600-meter relay, giving the Stars a maximum 40-point effort.
“We got exactly what we wanted out of her,” coach Leck said. “She gave us 40 points and we can’t ask for more there.”
Nelson set her fastest 200 time of the season at the meet with a 26.17-second victory, but her season best wasn’t needed for the 100 or 400 races. Leck said the slower times were due more to the colder weather.
“The weather was cold, she hasn’t been tested in a while, and plus, she ran four races,” Leck said.
Nelson’s 400 time of 58.95 seconds, set way back at the Big “C” Relays in April, currently stands as third-fastest this season, and second among 4A runners, just .06 seconds behind Eagle River senior Jordyn Bruce.
Joining Nelson on the region champion 1,600-meter relay squad was freshman Brittany Taylor, who Leck said is another “Nelson” star in the making.
“Brittany had a great meet for a freshman, she showed up for the biggest meet of her life,” Leck said.
Taylor finished second in the individual 400-meter race, behind Nelson, and senior Olivia Hutchings was third as SoHi runners swept the top three in a dominant showing.
SoHi senior Dalton Best also enters the weekend on a roll after picking up finishes of second and third in the shot put and discus throws, respectively, at the region meet. Best is ranked third in the state in the discus and fourth in the shot put. Both of Best’s current highs this year — set at the Kenai Invite on April 23 — are within striking distance of Kodiak senior Kordell Pillans’ current marks.
“Six feet is a lot in the shot put,” Leck said. “It would take Kordell to have a bad meet and Dalton to have a great one to win it.”
The SoHi boys 3,200-meter relay, which was barely nipped by Kodiak for victory at the region meet, is among the state’s fastest. Teammates Aaron Swedberg, Emmanuel Van Hout, Koby Vinson and Levi Michael combined to run a time of 8:16.83, just three-tenths behind the region champion Kodiak Bears team.
Leck said he liked the look of the group and expects them to contend for the win at state.
“We’ll change it up, use the same kids but different order,” Leck said. “We’ll see if we can’t drop five or six seconds, because that’s what it’ll take.”
Swedberg also claimed an individual region title in the boys 800, hanging back while teammate Levi Michael set the pace early, then pouncing in the final 50 meters to win it.
The SoHi girls 1,600-meter relay team took the region crown, beating Kenai Central by over 3.5 seconds, and enters the state meet with the season’s fastest time of 4:15.33, set at the Anchorage Invite in early May, but Eagle River’s girls relay is not far behind.
“We need to run under 4:10 to win,” Leck said. “There’s no reason why that group can’t do it, we have three girls who are sub 62 (seconds), so there’s no reason we can’t do it.”
The group consists of Taylor, Hutchings, Lindsey Wong and Nelson.
Also, senior Sylvia Tuisaula defended her region championship in the girls shot put, but won it for the first time as a Soldotna thrower. Tuisaula took the state crown in 2015 competing for Wasilla.
In the 1-2-3A meet, the Homer girls contingent enters the weekend with a shot to win the team title, but will have to topple Anchorage Christian first.
At the 2015 state meet, the Mariners took home second place with 80 points, 15 behind team champion ACS. Last weekend at the region meet, ACS beat Homer again, this time 144-135.
The Mariners got wins at the region meet from junior Lauren Evarts (100-meter girls hurdles), the boys 800-meter relay and three relay wins on the girls side, snatching victory in the 400-, 800- and 3,200-meter relays.
Evarts holds the fifth-fastest time in the girls 100 hurdles, and second best among 1-2-3A athletes.
Freshman Kaylee Veldstra enters the weekend with the fifth-fastest time in the girls 100, and second-fastest among 1-2-3A racers, only behind ACS superstar sprinter Tanner Ealum.
Another local star to keep an eye on this weekend is Cook Inlet Academy junior Noah Leaf, who swept region titles at last weekend’s Region II championships in the boys hurdle races. Leaf’s time of 41.08 seconds in the 300-meter hurdles — set at the Kenai Invite in late April, has stood as the fastest in the state, and Leaf figures to be a favorite in the event at the 1-2-3A state championships. In the 110 hurdles, Leaf is ranked third in the state with a time of 15.73 seconds, but first among 1-2-3A hurdlers.