After having a major impact on the statewide prep cross-country scene last year, the Kenai Peninsula stands poised to repeat the feat again in 2016.
The season gets started for a few teams at Saturday’s Colony Invitational. Then Monday at noon, most peninsula squads will compete in the Nikiski Class Races.
In the 2015 state meet, the Kenai Central girls won the school’s first state cross-country title.
The Kardinals, led by now-junior Riana Boonstra in second place, put four girls in the top 11 en route to the championship, and each of those four return this year.
Maria Calvert, in her second year in charge of the Kards, said the team isn’t thinking ahead to regions and state.
“We’re working hard in practice and staying focused on making goals, and being patient to attain those goals,” Calvert said. “We don’t need to talk about regionals and state, we just need to focus on working hard, staying strong and staying healthy.”
On the Class 3A side, the Homer girls, led by the third-place finish of now-senior Megan Pitzman, nabbed their second-straight state championship.
The Mariners lost two seniors off the squad. Bill Steyer, now in his seventh year at the helm, said his girls squad does not have as much depth as in years past.
“I think the girls team will have a target on their back,” Steyer said. “I’ve been grooming the girls to realize the big sacrifice and challenge it will be to three-peat.”
If the Homer girls wish to see how hard other teams are chasing them, they would be wise to look at the Homer boys.
The Mariners finished second at state last season to Sitka. The Homer boys did not lose any runners and Steyer said the squad has trained hard this summer.
“The status quo doesn’t work,” Steyer said. “Sitka is going to come in strong, so we’re going to have to come in stronger that last year.”
Seward, led by Dan Marshall in his 25th year, will also play a role at Class 1-2-3A state. Seahawks junior Ruby Lindquist was fourth in the girls race last season, while senior Hunter Kratz was runner-up to the graduated Kaleb Korta in the boys race.
The following is a closer look at the peninsula’s teams:
One of Steyer’s goals was to create a running culture in Homer. More and more signs point to success.
For the fifth time in six years, Steyer had a group of athletes go to the Steens Mountain High Altitude Running Camp in Oregon. This summer, 16 from Homer went, the largest group ever.
“It’s a terrific camp in the wilderness at 9,000 feet,” Steyer said. “They do a terrific job motivating and teaching to push through challenges both physical and mental.”
Steyer said a number of Homer athletes also have shown up for Kachemak Bay Running Club workouts, which are open to the public.
The work has resulted in powerful Mariners teams.
In addition to Pitzman, the Homer girls will be powered by junior Alex Moseley (seventh at state), senior Audrey Rosencrans (eighth) and senior Lauren Evarts (19th).
“On the girls side, we need a fifth runner to take on the challenge and be a commanding fifth place,” Steyer said. “That’s my most important position this year.”
Steyer is confident the fifth position will be solid by the end of the season. Candidates are senior Haley Knott, and sophomores Katie Davis and Allison McCarron.
The boys return five runners that finished in the top 21 in junior Jordan Beachy (ninth), senior Jared Brant (11th), junior Charlie Menke (18th), sophomore Luciano Fasulo (19th) and junior Jacob Davis (21st).
And Homer just gets deeper from there in sophomores Dexter Lowe and Bill Rich, and juniors Denver Waclawski and Elan Carroll.
Steyer also is excited about junior Dexter Lowe, who he said is a great athlete that has agreed to join the team.
“The boys are looking good with a lot of depth,” Steyer said. “They’re doing really well at training.”
Kenai Central Kardinals
Calvert, assisted by Chris Bergholtz this year, has 35 runners out for the team.
In addition to Boonstra, sophomore Jaycie Calvert (fifth at state), junior Ithaca Bergholtz (sixth) and junior Addison Gibson (11th) return.
Sophomore Brooke Satathite, the crucial fifth scoring runner at state in 53rd, also returns.
“You just have to have your great races on the two most important days and we were able to do that last year,” Calvert said.
The coach said losing the leadership of graduated Mikaela Salzetti hurts, but she’s happy to have junior Kasey Paxton back on varsity. The final varsity spot is up for grabs.
Returning for the boys are sophomore Alden Bookey, juniors Karl Danielson and Braden Olsen, and seniors Cy Dull and Jaycob Goff.
The boys team was sixth at regions last season, and Calvert said the goal is to improve on that.
“We’re looking to improve at each meet — to keep improving times — and work our way up in the region,” Calvert said. “The boys are hard workers and they are great to coach.”
Coach Anna Widman is in her eighth year at the helm of the Bulldogs.
She wrote in an email she has some hopeful upperclassmen running this year in juniors Gavin Wallis, Henry Heft and Aaron McCollum. Also joining the team is freshman Bryan McCollum.
Widman added the girls team is small and working on building up enough practices to race.
Seward continues to have a popular program, with 20 boys and 15 girls out for the team.
As usual, Marshall will compete in a meet schedule different than the rest of the peninsula schools, building his team up for the end of the year.
On the boys side, Kratz has been taking the steps necessary to compete for the title, going to a cross-country camp in the state of Washington and training with Matt Adams, who won the Class 1-2-3A state title for Seward in 2004.
“He’s worked hard this summer, and he also has a lot of natural ability,” said Seward assistant Teresa Bickling of Kratz.
The boys team lost four of seven to graduation. Bickling said junior Zen Petrosius and junior Case Estes will help fill that void.
“Especially with this new group, and this largely inexperienced group, we’re going to promote a love of running and keep them healthy,” Bickling said.
The goals are similar on the girls side, where the team is led by junior Ruby Lindquist and sophomore Sadie Lindquist. Another key player will be junior Emma Moore.
Ruby is again expected to be a top runner at state.
“I love Ruby,” Bickling said. “She’s a smart runner and strong competitor. No matter what the outcome is, we’re going to keep her healthy and train her smart.”
Ted McKenney, who has been the coach at Soldotna for three years now and has coached cross-country on the peninsula for over 30, has over 40 runners out for the squad.
The girls squad, after taking heavy losses due to graduation, will be led by junior Kellie Arthur and senior Molly Erickson.
“For us, it’s a building year,” McKenney said. “There’s a lot of young runners that have come out.
“We’re looking for them to mature in-season and make it fun for them. We don’t have superhigh expectations as far as a team. We’ll see what happens as the season goes on.”
The boys will be led by junior Josh Shuler, who qualified for Class 4A state as an individual and has trained this summer with graduate Aaron Swedberg, who was eighth at state last season.
Also returning for the Stars are senior Addison Downing, juniors Koby Vinson and John-Mark Pothast and sophomore Jeremy Kupferschmid.
McKenney said it’s hard to tell where the boys will end up until a few meets are contested.
He said it’s a young team that will improve over time. He said the team should compete for a borough title and, if everything goes well, could contend for a state berth.