Soldotna juniors Lance Chilton and Bradley Walters relax at the front of the lead pack early in the boys junior-senior race Monday, Aug. 13, 2018, at the Nikiski Class Races at Nikiski High School. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna juniors Lance Chilton and Bradley Walters relax at the front of the lead pack early in the boys junior-senior race Monday, Aug. 13, 2018, at the Nikiski Class Races at Nikiski High School. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Cross-country preview: Kardinals face stiff competition at Division II

The Kenai Central cross-country program has been on a roll recently, winning the Division I girls state title in 2015 before finishing second in 2016 and 2017. The Kardinals also won Division I individual titles from 2012 to 2014 in the person of Allie Ostrander.

This season, Kenai moves down to Division II, but that doesn’t automatically mean the string of success will continue.

“The reality is our region is so incredibly strong,” Kenai Central coach Maria Calvert said. “The top teams in the state are from our region in Seward and Homer and Grace and ACS.

“We’re still running against really great programs and really great runners. We’re looking forward to it. It is going to be really fun.”

Calvert mentioned four programs, and the top four teams from Region 3 make the state meet, so that means somebody gets left out.

All of those programs have decorated histories, led by Grace Christian. Since a separate division for small and big schools was created in 1985, the Grizzlies girls have won 11 state titles, while the boys have made off with 10. The program has also produced four individual boys titles and three individual girls titles.

Seward has not been far behind. The Seahawks have won six boys state titles and six girls state titles, as well as four boys individual titles and eight individual boys titles.

After 23 years, Dan Marshall retired after last season. Aaron Sorensen, a 2011 Seward graduate, takes over the program after assisting Marshall on the track and field team.

“Dan’s the one who kind of pushed me into the position,” Sorensen said. “He saw how well I did with kids and how well I did as a running coach and he encouraged me to apply.”

Anchorage Christian Schools has four boys state titles and a girls state title, as well as five individual boys state titles and an individual girls state title.

Homer has seen a ton of success lately, with six girls state titles, including triumphs in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Last season, Autumn Daigle, now a junior, became the first Homer runner to ever win a state cross-country title. In 2016, the boys also nabbed their lone state title.

The Mariners girls and boys were both second at state last season.

“That makes us train harder and we walked away from there knowing we have work to do,” Homer assistant coach Annie Ridgely said.

The lone Division I team left on the peninsula is Soldotna. Ted McKenney said both his girls and boys have a great shot at representing the area at state.

“Unless disaster strikes, we’re going to have a good girls team and a good boys team,” McKenney said.

While the Nikiski Class Races were Monday, the first big statewide meet of the season is Saturday in the Tsalteshi Invitational at Tsalteshi Trails. The open races start at noon, with the varsity races to follow.

The following is a closer look at the peninsula’s cross-country teams:

Homer Mariners

Ridgely resigned as the head coach after last season, but continues on as an assistant under new head coach Bob Ostrom.

“The Ostrom elite — that’s what we call our track and cross-country runners,” said Ridgely, who has 27 runners in the program. “Bob has unique workouts on the track that gives them speed.”

The girls lost one runner off the team that missed a fourth straight state title by a point. The Mariners did retain their string of four straight Region 3 titles.

Daigle returns to lead the team. In the summer, she lives on the Herring Islands in Tutka Bay so she can fish with her family, but still manages to find a way to train.

“Our runners that are a part of fishing families are working hard all summer, and that’s exactly what we want them to do,” Ridgely said. “They’re building grit by getting up at 3 a.m. and working hard.”

Sophomore Brooke Miller also returns after finishing fourth at state. The Mariners welcome senior skier Katia Holmes to the fold, while senior Siena Carey and sophomore Shine Carey return with state experience. Ridgely also is high on freshmen Kaylin Anderson and Fiona Hatton.

Senior Katie Davis was part of varsity last season but is currently building up a base after recovering from injury.

“They’re running together, training together and building each other up, making probably the best team I’ve ever coached,” Ridgely said.

The boys, who had a string of two straight region titles snapped last season, lost three of their top five finishers at state to graduation.

Seniors Corbin Mattingly and Bill Rich are ready for a big season after attending Steens Mountain Running Camp in Oregon. Senior Luciano Fasulo spent the summer focusing on wrestling, but typically builds into a top runner over the course of the season. He was sixth at state last year.

Seniors Seth Inama and Dexter Lowe, junior Mose Hayes and sophomore Clayton Beachy give the Mariners plenty of talent with which to work.

“We are looking to get back on top of the region and state with the boys,” Ridgely said. “I feel like Bob and I really complement each other in strengths and weaknesses. We want to build a championship team because we have championship kids.”

Kenai Central Kardinals

Calvert is welcomed back in her fourth season by 35 runners, the largest number in her tenure. That number was boosted greatly by the 21 freshmen in the program.

The girls team lost four of the top seven runners, a good chunk of the group that has brought the Kardinals so much success in recent seasons.

“It’s been really neat to see my senior girls and senior boys step up and lead by example,” Calvert said.

The girls team will be led by senior Jaycie Calvert, who was eighth at state last season, and Brooke Satathite, who was 15th. Seniors Sarah Drury and Maria Salzetti also have some varsity experience. Coach Calvert said she has no juniors, three sophomores and the rest freshmen.

“It’s going to be really telling the first two meets to see who’s ready to take that on,” Calvert said of a varsity spot. “There’s room. We’ll see who’s ready.”

The boys team will be led by sophomore Maison Dunham. Dunham was second at the region meet, then 11th at state last season.

Juniors Evan Stockton, Josh Foster and Andrew Bezdecny all bring varsity experience to the table. Junior Tucker Mueller rejoins the team after a year abroad, while Jacob Nabholz is the only senior on the boys team and has four years of running experience.

“There’s a lot a new faces that are freshmen or first-time runners,” Calvert said. “It’s going to be fun competition for individual spots.”

Chris and Mike Bergholtz remain as assistant coaches for the team.

Nikiski Bulldogs

Dylan Hooper takes over as head coach for Anna Widman. Currently, there are six on the team.

“I haven’t coached cross-country running before, but I’ve coached various sports for 15 years,” Hooper said. “I’m working with the former coach to try and provide a good experience for the kids.”

Hooper said junior co-captain Bryan McCollum is a great leader.

“I’m excited to see where he goes,” Hooper said.

Junior Joey Yorkowski is the other captain. He is coming off a 14-day intensive wrestling camp.

“He may have been running more at wrestling camp that we have at practice,” Hooper said. “He’s going to be in great shape and ready to build.”

On the girls team, Hooper said sophomore Emily Hufford is working hard at improving.

“Everyone has a great attitude and everyone is having a good time,” Hooper said.

Nikolaevsk Warriors

Nikolaevsk head coach Steve Klaich, who started the program 10 years ago, has six runners on the team.

The Warriors return juniors Isabelle Hickman and Sophia Klaich from the team that won the Region 2 title last season.

Junior Zachary Trail made state last year, while senior Michael Trail just missed out. Freshman Justin Trail, the brother of Zachary and Michael, also joins the team after winning the Kenai Peninsula Borough middle school meet as an eighth-grader.

Seward Seahawks

Sorensen has already coached in the wrestling program for five years, he’s the head coach of the middle school wrestling team and he assisted with track and field last season.

“I’m thankful to Dan Marshall and Ronn Hemstock for encouraging me to step into this position,” Sorensen said. “They’ve both been immensely helpful in every realm possible.”

Sorensen said one of his goals is to get the community involved in individual sports like cross-country, track and wrestling. He said the community has followed those individual sports less in the past 10 years.

In three weeks, for example, Sorensen said there will be a race for the community to Lowell Point and back.

“I’m trying hard to get the community back and involved,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen said he isn’t comfortable putting forward names of individual runners yet, because a lot of racing has not taken place.

“They’re all looking promising and growing into healthy runners,” he said.

He said the girls and boys teams are both young, but he sees both developing into championship teams in the future.

Soldotna Stars

McKenney, with over 30 years of cross-country coaching experience on the peninsula and entering his fifth year at Soldotna, has the program flourishing with 65 runners.

“We try to make it fun with game days,” he said. “Not everyone is gung-ho serious.”

The Stars lost their top five boys finishers at the state meet to graduation, but McKenney said his program can absorb the loss.

“I think we can be just as strong this year as we were last year,” he said. “The underclassmen are stepping up. We’re going to match up well if everybody stays healthy.”

Juniors Lance Chilton and Bradley Walters ran at state last season, while McKenney said junior Jack Harris also is showing a lot of promise. Sophomore Mekbeb Denbrock was having a great freshman year before an ankle injury cut short his season.

While the boys made state as a team last season, sophomore Erika Arthur was the only girls runner to represent the Stars at the state meet.

After the Colony Invitational on Saturday, McKenney has high hopes that will change.

“They run a really good chance at making state,” McKenney said of his girls. “They were second at the Colony meet and didn’t have two of their top five.”

Arthur returns, and is joined by two very promising freshmen in Jordan Strausbaugh and Ellie Burns. Sophomore Isabella Dammeyer gives the Stars more young firepower, while junior Cameron Blackwell also returns. Tanis Lorring was the top runner for the Stars in the girls junior-senior race at the Nikiski Class Races.

“We still have some runners out at other things like soccer tournaments,” McKenney said. “It’s going to be a battle to see who takes fifth place.”

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