Kenai Central’s Summer Foster is chased by Homer’s Brooke Miller and Autumn Daigle on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in the Division II girls race at the Region 3 meet at Tsalteshi Trails. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Central’s Summer Foster is chased by Homer’s Brooke Miller and Autumn Daigle on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in the Division II girls race at the Region 3 meet at Tsalteshi Trails. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai girls, Calvert try to cap successful move to Division II

The Kenai Central girls cross-country team won the Region 3 meet Saturday, while the Kardinals boys earned their first state appearance since 2014.

It says something about the strength of the Kenai program that despite those accomplishments, Kenai will swap out two varsity runners on the girls team and another on the boys team for Saturday’s state meet at Bartlett High School in Anchorage.

The Division II girls race is at noon, while the Division I girls race at 12:45 p.m., the Division II boys race at 1:30 p.m. and the Division I boys start at 2:15 p.m.

“The great thing when you have 38 runners is you have to be competitive every race,” Kenai coach Maria Calvert said. “By the end of the year, you’re looking at who is really stepping up and cutting time.

“It’s never an easy decision but you have to do what works best for the team.”

Kick-started by Division I state titles by Allie Ostrander from 2012 to 2014, the Kenai program is flourishing and that has continued with the move of the Kardinals to Division II this season.

The Kenai girls, who won the Division I state title in 2015 and finished runner-up at that level the past two years, have not lost to Division II competition all season, and neither has senior Jaycie Calvert.

Maria Calvert said the program is strong because of what is going on below and above the high school level.

“(Kenai Middle School) does a really nice job getting large numbers of kids out for cross-country,” Calvert said. “This year of the 38 on our team, 19 or 20 are freshmen.”

Some of those kids have gone on to great success, with Ostrander winning the last two NCAA Division I 3,000-meter steeplechase titles and fellow 2015 graduate Jonah Theisen winning the NCAA Division II steeplechase crown in 2016. Many others are competing at the college level.

“When I text these college kids and tell them to send the team words of encouragement, they all step up,” Calvert said. “It’s been really awesome.

“The running community has been stellar. Our kids go to the middle school and help out with meets or practice. It cultivates a love of running.”

But the Calverts are fully aware there are plenty of other programs that have cultivated a strong love for running, like Grace Christian and Homer, that will be looking to chase down Kenai at state. The Grizzlies and Mariners have won every Division II girls title since 2008, with Homer winning from 2014 to 2016.

“We can’t feel confident at this point,” Jaycie Calvert said Saturday at the Region 3 meet. “We have such good competition. We have to stay focused.”

Calvert was able to defeat Grace senior Mazzy Jackson and Homer junior Autumn Daigle — the defending Division II state champ — at the region meet. Petersburg sophomore Maia Cowan also looms as a threat, as does the unknown.

“You just never know, that’s the thing about state,” Maria Calvert said.

Homer coach Bob Ostrom said throwing different runners in the mix changes things. For instance, he said last year in the girls state race, Sitka went out fast and forced the top runners to chase. When those top runners slowed at the end of the race, Daigle pounced.

“The race required a different kind of toughness and she’s so tough. She doesn’t give up,” Ostrom said of Daigle.

Calvert, Daigle and Jackson also will be battling for crucial team points in the team race.

“She’s been leading the team so well,” senior Brooke Satathite said of Jaycie after the Region 3 race. “Without her, I don’t know where we’d be.”

Satathite continued a late-season surge by finishing third at the region race. Also running for the Kardinals will be sophomore Nia Calvert and freshmen Logan Satathite, Summer Foster, Leah Fallon and Shelbi Naylor.

Coach Calvert said senior Maria Salzetti will be an alternate after battling shinsplints. The coach said Jaycie Calvert, Brooke Satathite and Salzetti have done a great job leading the team.

Homer will go with the same lineup as at regions — seniors Sienna Carey and Katia Holmes, Daigle, sophomore Brooke Miller and freshmen Fiona Hatton and Kaylin Anderson.

Ostrom said he has a good feeling about the girls headed into state.

“At regions, we were still just a bit tired,” he said. “Everybody didn’t quite have their best race. Everybody just has to move up a few spots to make the difference.”

The Homer coach also said his boys team should be stronger than it has been all season. The Mariners have finished in the top three at state every year since 2012, winning it all in 2016.

Ostrom would like to see seniors Luciano Fasulo and Bill Rich, and sophomore Eyoab Knapp, get up and battle with race favorite Tristian Merchant of Anchorage Christian Schools. If that happens, it will be up to senior Corbin Mattingly, sophomores Clayton Beachy and Daniel Reutov, and freshman Austin Cline to score crucial points from the fourth and fifth slots.

“I think it’s going to come down to the fourth and fifth runners who move up to get points,” Ostrom said. “Every team is strong in the top three. It’s going to come down to how the fourth and fifth runners perform.”

Calvert will have a very young team toeing the line in juniors Ocean Matley, Tucker Mueller and Evan Stockton, sophomore Maison Dunham and freshmen Joe Hamilton, Samuel Roberts and Luke Cross.

Dunham is the only member of the team who has run at state before. He ran 16:41 last Saturday at the Region 3 meet, just four seconds off his personal record. His times will have to keep dropping considerably if he wants to keep up with Merchant.

“I really can’t predict what is going to happen,” Calvert said. “State is such a special place and special arena. There’s a lot of excitement and a lot of people.

“It’s going to be new for Maison to have a team with him and it will be new for the six other guys.”

Seward sophomores Neil Lindquist and Max Pfeiffenberger both return to state at the Division II level.

“Both runners have the same goals,” Seward coach Aaron Sorensen wrote in a text message. “They want to come into this meet healthy and hopefully race for a PR.”

At the Division I level, the Soldotna boys return to state for the second straight year while the Stars girls make their first appearance since 2015.

Soldotna coach Ted McKenney said his squad is not at the level of the top teams in the state.

“We work hard but we just enjoy state right now,” McKenney said. “There’s no use ratcheting up the pressure when we’re still a notch away from competing at that top level at state.”

The coach did say there is value in seeing what that top level looks like.

The top five boys runners — juniors Bradley Walters, Lance Chilton, Jack Harris and sophomores Makbeb Denbrock and Anchor Musgrave — all have a chance to test themselves against the best and see what happens.

“We’ll see if they can move up,” McKenney said. “We’ll see if anybody can break the top 15. It’s going to be a tough race.”

Freshmen Nate Johnson and Logan Shane also will run if they are healthy, with freshman Maleda Denbrock ready to step in if there is an injury.

The girls have been led by freshman Jordan Strausbaugh, who finished third in her debut at the Region 3 race.

“We learn to run, run fast and then race,” McKenney said. “Now, she’s deciding if she has any idea how to race.

“She’s a good kid. I’m going to let her try it and not put too much pressure on her. Incremental improvement can take time or you can hurt the kid.”

Seniors Tannis Lorring and Victoria Denison will cap their careers at state.

“They’ve been great runners and great teammates and I’m looking forward to that for them,” McKenney said.

Sophomore Erika Arthur returns to state, while junior Cameron Blackwell and freshmen Jordan Ruffner and Ellie Burns will gain valuable experience.

The peninsula also will have four runners at state who qualified at the Region 2 meet.

Nikolaevsk qualified senior Michael Trail, junior Isabelle Hickman and freshman Justin Trail.

Michael Trail went to state as a freshman and sophomore before just missing a berth his junior year, so coach Steve Klaich wrote in an email that this is a great way for Trail to end his career.

Justin Trail finished second in the Region 2 meet. Next season, Klaich wrote, state cross-country goes to three classifications, so this year Trail will gain valuable knowledge of what the rest of the state has to offer.

“Isabelle Hickman shows a lot of heart and character as she has demonstrated that work ethic and determination produces great results,” Klaich wrote.

Port Graham’s Eli Moonin will become the first runner from the school to run at state, according to coach Colby Way.

“Eli is expected to enjoy the spectacle that is the state meet and put together a time that he can be happy with,” Way wrote. “A personal record at the meet would be a great way to cap his year.”

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