Coaches never want to send their athletes into competition knowing they will face something for which they are not totally prepared.
Soldotna High School cross-country ski coach Dan Harbison said central Kenai Peninsula ski coaches have little choice in that matter this season.
As the Region III ski meet gets set to slide into action today and Saturday in Valdez, what is it skiers won’t be fully prepared for? Oddly enough, snow.
“Our problem with all these young guys is that year after year, when the skiing is not very good, it’s hard to work on technique day in and day out,” Harbison said. “It’s hard to work on things you need to work on, like hills.
“It makes it difficult to progress as much as you should progress.”
Due to three straight warm and low-snow winters, even juniors at the central peninsula’s schools only have a few days in classical tracks at Tsalteshi Trails in their high school careers.
The winter of 2013-14 got off to a decent start, but melted down over Christmas and a good snowpack never returned after that.
Last winter, no classic tracks were set at Tsalteshi. This winter saw a few days of classic tracks at Tsalteshi early in the season, but those melted away and have yet to return.
Kenai Central ski coach Brad Nyquist said when the Kards travel to find snow, he really notices what the skiers are missing out on.
For instance, Kenai and Soldotna have gone down to Homer the last three weekends. Homer has good skiing above 1,000 feet.
“When you’re on ground ice that’s hard and thin, it’s tougher for the younger skiers to come all the way over a ski and create a flat ski,” Nyquist said. “I noticed a huge improvement those two weekends we were able to be on real snow.
“The kids noticed a different speed of real snow vs. ball bearings. They said, ‘It feels draggy.’ I said, ‘That’s skiing on snow.’”
While Homer has had decent snow conditions this season, Mariners coach Alan Parks can still sympathize with central peninsula coaches after last season.
“Coaching a ski team without snow is like coaching a swim team without a swimming pool,” Parks said. “As a coach, it’s just a challenge teaching technique, keeping a team fit and keeping morale up on all fronts.”
The peninsula’s skiers have been up to the challenge so far, and stand a good chance of continuing that trend.
“We’ve just got a bunch of great kids approaching the season with a positive attitude,” Nyquist said. “We’ve also got a good coaching team (in Chris Bergholtz and Kailey Mucha) that all brainstorm and try and come up with good ideas for making things interesting.”
The Kenai girls and boys are the defending region team champions.
Nyquist said the girls have the pieces in place to be strong again.
“There’s some real competition out there, but our girls are going to be tough,” Nyquist said.
Kenai will be led by sophomores Addison Gibson and Riana Boonstra. Gibson was second at regions last season and Boonstra was third as SoHi’s Sadie Fox took her second straight region title before graduating.
Sophomore Ithaca Bergholtz, junior Katie Cooper and senior Mikaela Salzetti all are capable of making low additions to the team time.
Harbison said his girls squad is developing, but he’d like the team to be in there with the region’s best.
The squad is led by senior Hannah Pothast, while additional experience comes from Mieka Chythlook and Brianna Bennett. The infusion of youth comes from sophomores Kellie Arthur and Selby Hill and freshman Hannah Delker.
Parks, who will return to Valdez for the first time in 40 years after fishing herring there at one time, said it’s hard to tell how his girls will stack up because the whole region hasn’t raced together.
He said senior Rachel Ellert and sophomore Sarah Wolf should be contenders. He expects a solid race from senior Mariah Vantrease, and is anxious to see how Katie Davis and Katia Holmes do after moving up from JV.
Seward also contributes a couple of solid skiers to the mix in Ruby Lindquist, who was fourth at boroughs, and Sadie Lindquist, who was 11th.
The Kenai boys will have a tough time defending their region title due to heavy losses to graduation, but the Soldotna boys are aiming to keep that hardware on the peninsula.
“I think they’re in there,” Harbison said of his boys. “Colony, of course, is standing in their way, and there’s some good skiers on Grace and Palmer, too.
Last season, Grace’s Trent Fritzel was just 18 seconds behind region skimeister and Kenai graduate Travis Cooper.
Fritzel will try to grab the title against a number of other top finishers from last year’s region meet, including Colony’s Tracen Knopp in third, Kenai’s Karl Danielson in fourth and Soldotna’s Levi Michael in fifth. Tracen’s brother, Dawson, also will be a factor.
Michael, a senior, will have plenty of help as he chases the team title, including from sophomore John-Mark Pothast, who also should play a role in the skimeister race.
Harbison said sophomore Koby Vinson, junior Addison Downing and freshman Jeremy Kupferschmid also are capable of top performances.
“I’m excited to see where the chips fall,” Harbison said. “They’ve been working really hard given the season has been quite the challenge.”
For the Kards, Nyquist said senior James Butler is a class individual on the verge of breaking off a great race, and senior Liam Floyd also has the motivation of skiing in his final region meet. Juniors Patrick Michels and Eric Kempf also will play a role in keeping the team time low.
Parks is shooting to get one or two of his boys in the top 10 or 15. His top varsity skiers are sophomore Jacob Davis, freshman Caleb Rauch, junior Hoxie Parks and junior Tadhg Schulz. Sophomore Josh Wisner will move up from JV to varsity for the Mariners.
For Seward, Alex Estes was 20th at the borough meet.
Nikiski will not have any varsity skiers at the meet, but juniors Matthew Minium and Tirzah Young will race junior varsity.
“It’s been really tough with the lack of snow, but we’ve gotten to ski more than last year,” Nikiski coach Anna Widman said. “The skiing in Valdez should be a great experience for our team. We’re looking forward to it.”