Among the many high school sports that see the most crossover between athletes, cross-country running and skiing go hand-in-hand most naturally.
So don’t be surprised to see the Kenai Central girls ski team contending for another Region III crown this winter and, possibly, a state title.
The Kardinals took home the winner’s hardware last February at the Region III meet, a week before picking up a sixth-place team result at the state meet.
The crimson birds are also fresh off of capturing their first ever cross-country running championship in October by placing four runners in the top 11 of the girls five-kilometer race, led by the runner-up finish of sophomore Riana Boonstra.
“They’ve got the motor, that’s for sure,” said Kenai coach Brad Nyquist. “It’s a matter of transferring that power to skiing. We saw what they can do last year.”
The group has also been busy making a name outside of high school sports. Boonstra won the junior girls Mt. Marathon race in Seward on July 4, running a course time faster than any junior girl in Mt. Marathon history not named Allie Ostrander.
Other coaches are taking notice as well.
“Kenai has a strong young contingent of girls, I think they’re going to have a great year,” said Soldotna’s Dan Harbison.
Boonstra, Addison Gibson and Ithaca Bergholtz — all underclassmen — were a part of the state-winning cross-country running team, and all three return fresh off that unprecedented performance to join the Kenai ski team.
“I’m confident they’re going to be stronger,” Nyquist said.
The girls team was not the only successful Kenai contingent in 2014-15. The Kardinals boys also took home a championship at the Region III meet, led by region champion Travis Cooper.
Unfortunately, the boys suffered several key losses to graduation. Most notable of those was Cooper, as well as fellow Kenai contender Jordan Theisen.
Like Cooper for the Kenai boys, Soldotna’s Sadie Fox left a significant gap on the Peninsula girls varsity scene. Fox challenged for state Skimeister award — the de facto state ski champion — for the last two years, coming up shy both times.
Harbison pointed to the Colony Knights as region contenders on both the boys and girls sides, but did not speculate any further as to how the region will shake out. But, he did say that multisport athletes like Boonstra, Gibson and Bergholtz bring a certain pedigree that is challenging to duplicate in single-sport athletes.
“Being a well-rounded athlete like that is more advantageous, rather than focusing on one sport at a young age,” Harbison said.
The first meet for local teams will be held at the Tsalteshi Trails on Nov. 25, a day before Thanksgiving. Most Region III teams will then meet at the Government Peak trails north of Palmer for a race on Dec. 5, and the following weekend will see the annual Lynx Loppet in Anchorage, which looms as the first big season meet on Dec. 11 and 12.
The Region III meet will be held Feb. 19 and 20 in Valdez.
After Thursday’s blizzard blanketed the Kenai Peninsula, coach Nyquist pulled no punches when predicting the odds of sustaining a suitable snowpack for the remainder of the winter.
“Let me look into my crystal ball,” Nyquist joked. “We’re staying positive that this will be a good winter.”
Whether the white stuff remains or not, the Kenai teams will be a force to be reckoned with this year. Nyquist said he expects both the boys and girls squads to contend for dual region titles again.
“It’s realistic, it’s within their capabilities,” he said. “It’s hard to say, I don’t know what the other schools are bringing.”
Returning on the girls team are sophomores Gibson, Boonstra and Bergholtz, who will be joined by senior Mikaela Salzetti and juniors Katie Cooper and Lindsey Floyd.
The boys will feature seniors James Butler and Liam Floyd, juniors Eric Kempf and Patrick Michael and sophomore Karl Danielson. Nyquist expressed confidence that the boys can step up and fill the gap left by Cooper, but the knowledge and technical aspect will be harder to replace.
“What (Cooper) brought for four years on the team was a work ethic, and he was a hard worker,” Nyquist said. “He was a good role model for the rest of the group.”
Joining Nyquist on the coaching staff this year will be Chris Bergholtz and former Soldotna and Kenai Central skier Kailey Mucha, who is back on the Peninsula after a ski career at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay.
Coach Dan Harbison said the roster numbers are down for SoHi, which he attributes to the poor winter weather conditions in recent years. A lower freshman turnout combined with a few competitors that did not return has led to a smaller team, but at least the white stuff is here. Harbison said the Stars have been on skis for nearly two weeks.
“I like believing in the pundits that tell us in an ‘El Nino’ year, we get more moisture combined with colder temperatures,” he said. “Hopefully that produces more snow that stays.”
According to the National Weather Service, the winter of 2014-15 measured just 25.1 inches of snowfall in the Anchorage area, about a third of the average mark and the lowest season ever.
The longtime SoHi coach places the blame of the lower turnouts squarely on the weak winters of late, as potential future stars are being discouraged by the lack of quality season being spent on skiing.
“We’re starting to see a compounding effect too, starting with the youth program,” Harbison said. “The kids didn’t get to ski much in (the youth programs) and the middle school season was almost nonexistent. It’s just a bad combination of things.”
But, Harbison said the athletes that have returned can pick up the slack.
One of the biggest losses that will be felt by the Stars is that of Fox, a 2015 graduate that now competes for the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves. Fox finished second overall in the individual Skimeister standings at the state meet her junior year, then slogged her way to a ninth-place finish last year as a senior in a season in which she was hampered by sickness in the late weeks.
Harbison said the top returning girls skiers will be seniors Hannah Pothast and Mieka Chythlook, both experienced veterans of the sport that will help fill the hole left by Fox.
Returning on the boys team is senior Levi Michael, who finished fifth at regions last year, along with Koby Vinson, Addison Downing, John-Mark Pothast, Jeremy Kupferschmid and Josh Shuler.
“I think those guys will be competitive,” Harbison said. “Levi’s healthy, looking good and he brings a very smart approach to the season.”
A small group of four skiers make up Nikiski’s squad, led by cross-country running and skiing coach Anna Widman.
Widman explained that because the available trails around the Nikiski area have not been groomed and the school’s soccer field is essentially snowless, the lack of practice opportunities have made it tough for the Bulldogs to get out on skis, which they have done three times thus far. Widman has led Nikiski in a combination of dry-land activities.
“I think mostly the students just enjoy skiing and want to get out in the winter,” Widman said.
The squad is composed of junior team captain Matthew Minium, who is joined by fellow junior Avery Carew on the boys side and junior Tirzaah Young and freshman Allie Minium on the girls side.
Widman said the goal is to have Nikiski climb into the varsity ranks by the end of the year, but more importantly just enjoy the season and the racing on the central Peninsula.
Second-year coach Alan Parks has kept his Homer squad prepared to meet the elements, no matter which form they take on. In their third week of practice, Parks said the Mariners have been on skis more often than in running shoes, which is a promising sign.
“I’ve heard that we started skiing almost earlier than we ever have in the past,” Parks said. “There may be one other year we started sooner.”
Coach Parks added that the tradition of using an extra pair of “rock skis” — used in paltry snow conditions — has taken on added importance in recent years. Typically, ski enthusiasts will use an older, less valuable pair of skis early in the winter and late in the winter, when the snowpack is minimal.
However, Parks said a rapid shift in the average peak for trail conditions have changed the norms.
“With the recent weather changes, the window for winter weather is closing and narrowing,” he explained. “So you’ve got to use rock skis, or have a pair of skis that you don’t care to trash.”
With about 20 skiers on the current roster, about the same as last year, the Mariners have been making regular trips out to the Lookout Mountain trails.
Top returning members for the boys team include sophomore Jacob Davis, who finished 61st in the overall state Skimeister standings to lead the Homer boys to a 15th-place result. Davis had finished 17th at the Region III meet a week prior. Joining Davis will be freshman Caleb Rowe and Hoxie Parks.
The Homer girls lost their top skier, Aspen Daigle, to graduation, but a big chunk of last year’s varsity team does return. Leading that charge will be seniors Rachel Ellert and Mariah Vantrease. Ellert finished 50th in the overall state Skimeister standings last year, a week after she picked up a 17th-place finish at the Region III meet. The Homer girls ended up 11th in the state team standings.
The Seward ski team will be beginning another year with a new coach as Luke Rosier takes over for Logan Schulz, who spent just one year with the team.
Rosier, who has no previous experience as a head coach, let alone a ski coach, said his most important task is to establish a consistent leadership presence for the Seahawks, something that has been lacking for several years after a number of coaching changes. Rosier said he only took the job in the last two weeks, and before that, the ski program was in jeopardy of being dropped.
Rosier, a 2008 University of Michigan graduate, said his time spent with the Wolverines rowing team has helped him in learning the proper leadership necessary to lead a group of athletes.
“I think that helped in terms of my role on the team,” Rosier said. “I have experience running training plans and that coaching role of motivation and encouragement.”
Rosier said he will also be getting help from assistant coach Marion Glaser, a 2002 Seward graduate.
With 15 on the current roster, the leading candidates to lead the Seahawks girls are sophomore Ruby Lindquist and younger sister Sadie Lindquist. On the boys side, first-year senior skier Alex Estes joins third-year skier Logan Smith.
Rosier said he believes those leading contenders can provide Seward with a few highlights as the season goes along.