Soldotna's Molly Erickson leads teammates Emily Werner, left, and Daisy Nelson down a decline in the trail during the Colony Invitational Aug. 15 at Colony High School in Palmer. Soldotna finished second in the girls team standings.

Soldotna's Molly Erickson leads teammates Emily Werner, left, and Daisy Nelson down a decline in the trail during the Colony Invitational Aug. 15 at Colony High School in Palmer. Soldotna finished second in the girls team standings.

Cross-country preview 2015: A chance to fill 3-time champs’ void

The odd concurrence of Alaska having a top girls runner and one of the top boys runners in the nation has passed.

Let the racing begin.

Last season, Kenai Central’s Allie Ostrander and Kodiak’s Levi Thomet wrapped up their senior campaigns with three straight Class 4A titles each.

Both national caliber runners, Ostrander won the state title by 1 minute, 39 seconds, while Thomet was 33 seconds better than the field.

This season, runners across the state are racing to fill the void the pair left behind.

“It gives something for everybody to strive for,” SoHi coach Ted McKenney said of the vacated thrones. “It’s up there for whoever wants to work hard.

“But Allie’s shadow will be felt in the girls she left behind her at Kenai, and what Levi did will help keep what they have at Kodiak going.”

SoHi senior Olivia Hutchings, who was second at state last year, is one of those with a fresh shot at the crown.

But, amazingly, Hutchings will have to battle yet another Kenai runner for that title in sophomore Riana Boonstra.

Boonstra was ninth in her debut at state last season, then turned some heads in the Mount Marathon junior race when she quietly clocked the fastest girls time of anyone not named Ostrander.

Boonstra was in the community race Monday at the Nikiski Class Races, but her unofficial time was faster than Hutchings’ clocking.

“Olivia has work to do to catch up with (Boonstra), then I don’t know who else is out there,” McKenney said.

Hutchings and Boonstra will also lead their teams in a loaded girls Region III/4A team race.

Soldotna was second at state last season, while Kenai was third. Each lost two of their top seven runners to graduation.

“West, Colony, Kenai and us are all pretty good,” McKenney said. “Three of them are in our region, then who knows who shows up from somewhere else.”

Kenai head coach Maria Calvert, an assistant the past few years, isn’t about to make any predictions.

“I don’t know if we are one of the better teams in the state,” she said. “We just have to work hard so we can get there.”

Ostrander, for one, is confident in the team she left behind.

“I’m so excited to get to school, but really bummed out that I can’t be a part of this team coming up, because I know they’re going to be really special,” she said after winning the Run for Women on Aug. 8.

On the boys side, Kenai must deal with the loss of its top three runners, including state runner-up Jonah Theisen and sixth-place finisher Jordan Theisen.

“Allie and the Theisens gave us so much recognition,” Calvert said. “It’s a privilege to wear a Kardinals uniform and these guys know that.”

Meanwhile, the Soldotna boys, who have not been to state since 2008, are ascendant. The Stars were second at Saturday’s Colony Invite, then won the freshmen-sophomore and junior-senior races at Monday’s Nikiski Class Races.

“It’s been years since the SoHi boys won any kind of trophy,” McKenney said. “I think there’s a good chance they’ll qualify for state.”

Peninsula squads also figure to play a major role in Class 1-2-3A state title hunting.

In just five years, Bill Steyer has built a powerful program at Homer.

Led by state runner-up and current junior Megan Pitzman, the Mariners snapped Grace Christian’s six-year string of state titles last season.

Homer returns six of seven runners from that team, which placed everybody in the top 29 at state.

“They look strong, but I don’t want to be overconfident,” Steyer said. “They still have to be motivated to work toward that goal.”

The Homer boys also are rising, finishing third at state and losing just two off the squad.

Seward, led by Dan Marshall in his 24th year, also will be a contender again. The Seahawks were second on both the girls and boys sides, and return four runners from each team.

Sophomore Ruby Lindquist, fifth at state last season, and junior Hunter Kratz, third at state last season, are expected to again be top runners in the state.

The following is a closer look at the Peninsula’s teams:

Homer Mariners

Steyer has 32 out for the team this year. That number sets a new high-water mark for the program under his watch.

Returners behind Pitzman at state last year were senior Aurora Waclawski, sophomore Alex Mosley, junior Lauren Evarts, senior Aziza Shemet Pitcher and junior Haley Knott.

Steyer said there will be plenty of competition for varsity slots, with junior Audrey Rosencrans and freshman Katie Davis expected to be factors.

The boys are also are on the rise.

“My boys are really young and I think they might surprise some people,” Steyer said.

Junior Jared Brant led the Mariners by taking seventh at state last year, while sophomores Jordan Beachy and Jacob Davis were the next Mariners across the line.

Sophomores Denver Waclawski and Elan Carroll also return.

Homer also gets a boost from sophomore Charlie Menke, who won the first cross-country race of his career Monday at the freshman-sophomore race at Nikiski.

Freshmen Luciano Fasulo and Dexter Lowe also will be factors.

“I’m just really excited about the number of kids we have out for running — enjoying running and learning about goal-setting and pushing themselves,” Steyer said.

Kenai Central Kardinals

Calvert brings 13 years of coaching experience in track, cross-country and tennis to the job. There are 32 runners out for the team.

In addition to Boonstra, the sophomore class is made up of Addie Gibson (22nd at state), Ithaca Bergholtz (26th at state) and Kasey Paxton (70th at state).

Juniors Katie Cooper and Mackenzie Lindeman, and senior Mikaela Salzetti, add experience to the squad.

Sophomore Leah Johnson and freshmen Jaycie Calvert and Brooke Satathite give more promising youth.

Calvert won the freshman-sophomore race Monday at Nikiski.

“We have 20 girls,” coach Calvert said. “It’ll be kind of neat to see them competing. You never know what will happen by the end of the year.”

The boys return sophomore Karl Danielson, junior Tristan Landry and senior James Butler.

Those angling for varsity slots are juniors Jaycob Goff, Roy Taylor and Cy Dull, sophomores Matthew Torkelson and Braden Olson, and freshman Alden Bookey.

“Everybody’s just working hard at getting better every single race,” Calvert said. “They’ll keep improving their times and we’ll see what happens at regionals.”

Nikiski Bulldogs

In her seventh year as coach, Anna Widman has nine runners out for the team.

The returning runners for the Bulldogs this year are sophomores Gavin Wallis, Aaron McCollum and Henry Heft; junior Tirzah Young and senior Autumn Walters.

“The rest of the team is new this year but shows great promise,” Widman wrote in an email. “They are a dedicated and enthusiastic group.

“It is good to see Nikiski’s team get a few runners stronger each year!”

Widman also sees potential for the growth of the runners as a group.

“I would like to see my girls team grow and make varsity times this year,” she wrote. “I would like to see my boys team race competitively at the varsity level.”

Nikolaevsk Warriors

Steve Klaich has five runners out for his team, which computes to 22 percent of the high school. The coach said a couple more runners are just coming on board.

The team will be led by three seniors. Greg Trail was second at the Region II meet last season and then finished 31st at the Class 1-2-3A state meet. Jonah Fefelov and Megan Hickman also qualified for state for the Warriors.

Seward Seahawks

Marshall enters the 24th year at the helm of his perennially successful program with 25 runners out for the team.

The Seahawks hit a different trail of meets than other Peninsula squads, not taking part in the Nikiski Class Relays and the Tsalteshi Invitational, but it’s hard to argue with success.

Marshall typically has his squad in peak form as regions and state roll around.

“I think we like to run against teams we don’t normally see,” assistant coach Teresa Bickling said. “It’s nice to see different teams and different places in the state.”

The girls will be led by Lindquist, who Bickling said has the talent to be one of the top runners in the state again this year.

Also returning are sophomores Ashley Guernsey and Emma Moore, and senior Iris Anderson.

Bickling said freshman Sadie Lindquist and sophomore Kriziel Sarmiento are good candidates to fill varsity slots.

Bickling said the goal for the girls is the same for the boys — to have fun and stay healthy.

The boys will be led by Kratz.

“I think he definitely has the potential to be a state champion,” Bickling said.

Also returning for the Seahawks are seniors Seth Brewi, Thomas Zweifel and Paxson Berry.

Bickling said senior John Kingsland also should move up to varsity.

Soldotna Stars

McKenney, who is starting his second year at Soldotna but who has been coaching cross-country on the Peninsula for about 30 years, has 45 runners out this year.

“When you have that many it takes the pressure off young runners and lets them mature, rather than trying to get something out of them too soon,” he said.

After Hutchings, the SoHi girls return seniors Daisy Nelson and Emily Werner, junior Molly Erickson and sophomore Kellie Arthur.

Senior Hannah Pothast also rejoins the team after not competing last season.

The SoHi boys lost three of their top seven runners, but McKenney said early season results have shown the Stars are more than able to fill those holes.

Senior Aaron Swedberg qualified for a state as an individual, while senior Levi Michael and sophomores Koby Vinson and Josh Shuler also return.

Sophomore John-Mark Pothast and freshmen Jeremy Kupferschmid and David Michael have given SoHi the boost that has hopes running high.

“It’ll be fun for us,” McKenney said. “It’ll be the first time in a while the SoHi boys will be able to bring pride to the course.”

Voznesenka Cougars

After competing as a club team last year, the Cougars move up to the varsity level this season.

“All the boys play football,” Voznesenka coach Rachel Allmendinger said. “We’re trying to get some girls sports going at the head of the bay.”

Voznesenka, Kachemak Selo and Razdolna are a trio of Russian Old Believer schools at the head of Kachemak Bay. Allmendinger is a teacher at Voznesenka and said the idea is for the three schools to combine to form a cross-country team in fall and a soccer team in spring.

The cross-country team currently has four girls out for the team — freshman Lydia Chernishoff, sophomore Sophia Ivanov, junior Ustina Chernishoff and senior Kelina Polushkin. All go to Voznesenka. Allmendinger hopes to get a few runners from Kachemak Selo.

“We’re trying to get the girls to a varsity level,” Allmendinger said. “They’ll start at JV and move their way up.”

The coach said there are a lot of really competitive girls at the head of the bay that like to be active.

“We hope to get it to a place where when you get to ninth grade, doing cross country and soccer is a normal thing,” Allmendinger said.

Soldotna's Aaron Swedberg, left, and Seward's Hunter Kratz, right, prepare to pass a pair of Grace Christian runners during the Colony Invitational Aug. 15 at Colony High School in Palmer. Kratz won the boys varsity race.

Soldotna’s Aaron Swedberg, left, and Seward’s Hunter Kratz, right, prepare to pass a pair of Grace Christian runners during the Colony Invitational Aug. 15 at Colony High School in Palmer. Kratz won the boys varsity race.

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