In a strange year of COVID-19 related limitations, the Boonstra family of Kenai can count two major accomplishments.
First, the fall hunting season delivered a massive brown bear that patriarch Todd Boonstra took down from the Caribou Hills on the southern Kenai Peninsula — matriarch Kelli Boonstra estimates the bruin weighed close to 1,000 pounds.
The second accomplishment came Saturday afternoon at Anchorage’s Kincaid Park, thanks to the Boonstra’s daughter, 15-year-old Jayna, who raced to a Division II girls state cross-country championship. It was the first high school cross-country title for the Boonstra family, and the fifth for a Kenai Central girl in the last nine years.
The meet was the first state championship event held by the Alaska School Activities Association since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Alaska in March. ASAA also sanctioned the state tennis championships the same day in Anchorage.
In accordance to state guidelines and recommendations by ASAA, the meet was limited to the minimum amount of people in the Kincaid stadium — just runners, coaches and some media, and all were either required or encouraged to wear face coverings. Racers wore face coverings up until the start time of their race.
In the Division I race for larger schools, the Soldotna Stars also had something to celebrate, albeit on a far sadder tone. The Stars wrapped up a season that included the tragic passing of longtime peninsula running coach Ted McKenney, who died June 24 to brain cancer.
The SoHi running team honored McKenney with team hoodies that bore the inspirational words “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” on the front, and “Ted’s Team 2020” on the back.
“Ted meant a lot to us,” said Krista Arthur, one of Ted’s former assistant coaches who took over the head role this year. Arthur said McKenney inspired every runner on the team to find their next level in the sport, whether that be trying for a spot on a collegiate team or simply running a PR at the next race.
“The last time I talked to him in person was end of ski season, and he called me on the phone and gave me the name of this runner,” Arthur recalled. “And he said, ‘I want Erika to look her up, because I’m going to take her to the next level.’”
Erika Arthur, a senior, finished 30th Saturday in the Division I girls event, second among SoHi runners, just three weeks after dealing with a leg injury. Soldotna junior teammate Jordan Strausbaugh finished 28th with a time of 20:55 to lead SoHi, while Jordan Ruffner was 34th and Katie Delker was 36th to fill out the rest of Soldotna’s girls contingent.
“I’m always thinking about him,” Erika Arthur said about keeping McKenney in her memory during race season.
Arthur got to know McKenney as a volunteer at Solid Rock Bible Camp on the peninsula, where McKenney was executive director. She said he passed on a lot of valuable knowledge to his runners and those youth who attended Solid Rock.
“He always said, ‘First you learn to run, then you learn to run fast, then you learn to race,’” she said. “And that’s what he said almost every single practice.
“He’s just always been a huge part of my life, and not having him around this year has been really, really hard.”
Strausbaugh said McKenney helped mold her into an athlete. Strausbaugh became one of the top girls runners at SoHi during his time there.
“He just made us into amazing runners, and I wouldn’t be here without him,” Strausbaugh said.
The Division I girls race was won by West Valley’s Naomi Bailey with a time of 17:56, a girls course record.
In the Division I boys race, Service’s Alexander Maurer took the win in 15:24.
SoHi’s top finisher was junior Nate Johnson in 34th with a time of 17:52. Fellow junior Maleda Denbrock in 39th.
Johnson said it was important for him and his teammates to run their best races Saturday to honor the memory of their former coach.
“This season was definitely for Ted,” Johnson said. “We were all shooting for that today.”
Boonstra, a KCHS sophomore, emerged victorious in the Division II girls race on a brisk, sunny day with a top time of 19 minutes, 38 seconds, beating runner-up Megan Nelson of Grace Christian by eight seconds.
The state title carries on a tradition of success for Kenai Central, following up individual titles by Allie Ostrander (2012, 2013, 2014) and Jaycie Calvert (2018), as well as two team crowns in 2015 and 2018.
“It’s really exciting,” Boonstra said.
Peninsula schools did not compete with teams outside the area this year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, so Boonstra was unsure how she would fare against the state’s best Division II competition.
“Just coming in, I knew it was going to be tough,” she said. “I hadn’t run with anyone other than from the peninsula, so I wasn’t sure what the competition was going to be like, but it was definitely tough.”
ASAA did not award team titles Saturday due to limited participation by teams that had to travel from out of town. Some smaller teams across the state opted to forgo the meet altogether.
But Boonstra showed out at the best possible moment. The fields for all three divisions were released from the starting line in waves, with no more than eight runners starting at one time.
It made for some anxious moments after the finish as runners from other waves continued to trickle in with the possibility of a fast time being posted behind the winner.
Turns out Boonstra had nothing to worry about.
“Having somewhere up there to go catch was nice,” she said. “I think it’s easier to have someone ahead of you, because then you’ve got someone to keep you going. When I’m by myself it’s hard to go faster when there’s no one inside or behind me.”
Boonstra hung back early and trailed Nelson and Anchorage Christian’s Debbie Brower for much of the race before making her move up a hill inside the race’s final kilometer.
“My plan was just to stay with the lead pack, and when it came down to the last 400 (meters) or before that, if I felt good, just make a break for it,” she said. “I just saw myself gaining on her, and I knew I had to go.”
The victory was the latest for a family known for success on the running and ski trails. Boonstra’s parents both were Olympic-caliber Nordic skiers — Todd competed at three Olympic Games while Kelli almost qualified in 1998 — and Jayna’s older sister, Riana, is a former state runner-up in cross-country and a region champion in skiing.
Riana joined her dad this fall as an assistant coach for the Kardinals, which helped as the family worked to balance coaching the high school team with their fall tradition of hunting.
In the end, it was Jayna who bagged the family’s first state running title, even thought Riana still has the fastest 5K time between the siblings, according to Jayna.
“On the Homer Spit, she got an 18-something,” she said.
In the boys Division II race, winner Tristian Merchant of ACS scorched the field with a course record of 14:51. Merchant had a lot of eyes on him after posting sizzling times this season that stood up with some of the fastest in the nation. Saturday’s runner-up David Sliwinski of Grace finished in 16:33, a full 102 seconds behind.
Seward senior Max Pfeiffenberger led the peninsula in sixth with a time of 16:51, while Kenai senior Maison Dunham took eighth in 16:54.
Pfeiffenberger became the highest placing Seward runner at state since Hunter Kratz took second in 2016, and said advice from his coach helped spur him to beat Tobin Hobbs of Nome in a sprint finish.
“He said if you ever find yourself in that situation, just really pump your arms and get your knees up,” Pfeiffenberger said. “I just thought of that, and it worked.”
Dunham put a bow on a sterling prep cross-country career with his third top 10 in four tries. He finished 11th as a freshman at the Division I level in 2017. Dunham said Saturday was his first time breaking 17 minutes this season after recovering from a non-COVID illness.
“I just wanted to break 17 today and I did,” Dunham said. “I wasn’t really going for place because of the waves.”
Dunham said his focus will now shift to racing a handful of Outside indoor track meets this fall and winter as he gears up for the spring track season and possible college opportunities.
“Whatever I can find in the Northwest,” he said. “I’m just trying to travel to some states to do some indoor meets.”
In the Division II girls race, Seward was led by Hailey Ingalls in 10th with a time of 21:33, as well as Maranatha Brueckner in 14th and Lena Jagielski in 15th.
The Homer girls were led by Eryn Field in 17th with a time of 22:27, Frida Renner in 20th and Elena Badajos in 26th.
Kenai also got a 13th from Emilee Wilson.
In the boys field, Dunham was joined by Kenai teammates Greg Fallon in 11th, Joe Hamilton in 14th and Jack Laker in 17th.
In addition to Pfeiffenberger, Seward’s Levi DeBoard took home 20th.
Homer was led by Lance Seneff in 16th and Seamus McDonough in 18th.
ASAA Cross-Country State Championships
Saturday at Kincaid Park
Division III Girls
1. Aileen Lester, Newhalen 21:11 2. Teagan Rude, Glennallen 21:21 3. Brynna Gerlach, Glennallen 22:01 4. Malea Voran, Tanalian 22:39 5. Leah Amukon, Scammon Bay 24:02 6. Alaina Pete, Brevig Mission 24:54 7. Patricia Washington, Anthony Andrews 26:36 8. Tatyana Nashookpuk, Tikigaq 28:54 9. Virginia Teayoumeak, Tikigaq 28:54
Division III Boys
1. Kael Gerlach, Glennallen 17:14 2. Daniel Wardell, Tanalian 17:57 3. Isaac Titus, Scammon Bay 18:27 4. Kona Atkins, Gustavus 18:54 5. Kanayaq Ivanoff, Unalakleet 18:55 6. Taylor Dolge, Kenny Lake 18:59 7. Keegan St Amand, Glennallen 19:53 8. Trevor Dolge, Kenny Lake 19:54 9. Bowen Korth, Glennallen 20:10 10. Jordan Korth, Glennallen 20:28 11. Caelin Kingeekuk, Hogarth Kingeekuk 20:34 12. Joshua Hughes, Meade River 20:45 13. Jaden Tretikoff, Newhalen 22:06 14. David Blaine Shatswell, Gustavus 25:20
Division II Boys
1. Tristian Merchant, Anchorage Christian 14:51 2. David Sliwinski, Grace Christian 16:33 3. Ty Elliott, Grace Christian 16:40 4. Ben Thatcher, Grace Christian 16:44 5. Cole Fritzel, Grace Christian 16:46 6. Max Pfeiffenberger, Seward 16:51 7. Tobin Hobbs, Nome-Beltz 16:51 8. Maison Dunham, Kenai Central 16:54 9. Aiden Zingone, Grace Christian 17:18 10. Preston Wethington, Grace Christian 17:19 11. Gregory Fallon, Kenai Central 17:25 12. Silas Demmert, Sitka 17:43 13. Preston Merchant, Anchorage Christian 17:44 14. Joe Hamilton, Kenai Central 17:54 15. Kobi Weiland, Sitka 17:56 16. Lance Seneff, Homer 18:05 17. Jack Laker, Kenai Central 18:06 18. Seamus McDonough, Homer 18:39 19. Son Erikson, Nome-Beltz 18:41 20. Levi DeBoard, Seward 18:45 21. Billy Bast, Monroe Catholic 18:49 22. Stephen Felix, Monroe Catholic 19:10 23. Annon Weiland, Sitka 19:12 24. Cormac Kesey, Hutchison 19:31 25. Bruce Otey, Monroe Catholic 19:48 26. Phillip (Wa Jones, Hutchison 19:56 27. William Benes, Valdez 20:23 28. Jason Buffington, Hutchison 20:27 29. Sebiyam Werdin-Kennicott, Hutchison 20:51 30. Seth Waln, Hutchison 20:51
Division II Girls
1. Jayna Boonstra, Kenai Central 19:38 2. Megan Nelson, Grace Christian 19:46 3. Debbie Brower, Anchorage Christian 19:51 4. Mya Campbell, Redington 20:07 5. Katie Bast, Monroe Catholic 20:11 6. Annan Prussian, Sitka 20:28 7. Jeannie Cook, Monroe Catholic 20:42 8. Lauren White, Monroe Catholic 20:49 9. Sophia Coverdell, Grace Christian 21:29 10. Hailey Ingalls, Seward 21:33 11. Elise Metzger, Grace Christian 21:39 12. Brennyn Edwards, Grace Christian 21:40 13. Emilee Wilson, Kenai Central 21:42 14. Maranatha Brueckner, Seward 21:42 15. Lena Jagielski, Seward 21:44 16. Reagan Lash, Grace Christian 22:13 17. Eryn Field, Homer 22:27 18. Miranda Wilkerson, Monroe Catholic 22:29 19. Natalie Clemente, Hutchison 22:33 20. Frida Renner, Homer 22:38 21. Tawny Smith, Sitka 22:44 22. Genevieve Trevithick, Grace Christian 22:45 23. Claire Fry, Nome-Beltz 23:04 24. Lindsey Bartaloba, Sitka 23:55 25. Nadia Chernich, Monroe Catholic 24:07 26. Elena Badajos, Homer 25:05 27. Anika Palomer, Valdez 25:11 28. Natalie Tobuk, Nome-Beltz 25:15 29. Myah Winningham, Hutchison 27:13 30. Reagan Boucher, Ben Eielson 31:45
Division I Boys
1. Alexander Maurer, Service 15:24 2. Michael Earnhart, Chugiak 15:51 3. Daniel Abramowicz, West Valley 16:01 4. Tim Degener, Juneau-Douglas 16:12 5. Jacob Lestina, Chugiak 16:33 6. Aaron Power, Service 16:37 7. Jared Gardiner, Dimond 16:43 8. Forrest Rodgers, West Anchorage 16:49 9. Tayson McKenzie, Dimond 16:50 10. Zac Cheyette, Colony 16:51 11. Shane Fisher, West Valley 16:51 12. Brady Burrough, South Anchorage 16:58 13. Tobias Buchanan, Colony 16:58 14. Finn Morley, Juneau-Douglas 16:59 15. Michael Connelly, Chugiak 17:01 16. Ethan Howe, East Anchorage 17:03 17. Landon Hayes, Wasilla 17:05 18. Josh Baurick, West Valley 17:07 19. Fisher Adams, Palmer 17:07 20. Garrettt Streit, Colony 17:08 21. Joel Power, Service 17:09 22. Benjamin Pilon, Lathrop 17:18 23. Bryson Powell, South Anchorage 17:23 24. Mike Reem, Palmer 17:24 25. Quinn Smith, West Anchorage 17:25 26. Nicholas Prosser, Dimond 17:28 27. Eli Crupi, Juneau-Douglas 17:28 28. Owen Young, South Anchorage 17:39 29. Aubrey Hekkers, Juneau-Douglas 17:41 30. Asher James, Lathrop 17:43 31. Brennon Lackey, Wasilla 17:49 32. Paul Hlasny, Service 17:49 33. Jonathan Ebel, Lathrop 17:52 34. Nathaniel Johnson, Soldotna 17:52 35. Tobin Miller, Palmer 17:52 36. Samuel Holst, Juneau-Douglas 17:56 37. Matthew Johns, Thunder Mt 17:58 38. Will Robinson, Juneau-Douglas 18:05 39. Maleda Denbrock, Soldotna 18:28
Division I Girls
1. Naomi Bailey, West Valley 17:56 2. Ava Earl, South Anchorage 18:32 3. Delainey Zock, Dimond 18:54 4. Tatum Witter, Service 19:07 5. Emily Erickson, Dimond 19:13 6. Nowelle Spencer, Service 19:17 7. Robyn Miller, South Anchorage 19:19 8. Kiah Dihle, Thunder Mt 19:19 9. Gloria Bailey, West Valley 19:20 10. Meredith Schwartz, Service 19:23 11. Madeline Castillo, North Pole 19:36 12. Skyler Belmear, Chugiak 19:38 13. Emily Moore, Chugiak 19:46 14. Addison Capozzi, Chugiak 19:46 15. Sophie Wright, Palmer 19:46 16. Skylar Tuckwood, Juneau-Douglas 19:46 17. Anika Schwartz, Juneau-Douglas 19:49 18. Iris White, Juneau-Douglas 19:52 19. Campbell Peterson, Chugiak 20:00 20. Payton Smith, West Anchorage 20:04 21. Rayna Tuckwood, Juneau-Douglas 20:08 22. Elliana Zock, South Anchorage 20:08 23. Lucy Young, South Anchorage 20:20 24. McKenna McNutt, Juneau-Douglas 20:23 25. Natalie Hood, West Anchorage 20:34 26. Lia Castillo, North Pole 20:36 27. Riga Grubis, West Valley 20:53 28. Jordan Strausbaugh, Soldotna 20:55 29. Madeline Ortiz, Palmer 21:21 30. Erika Arthur, Soldotna 21:26 31. Danika Dawley, North Pole 21:42 32. Shea Alaniva, Colony 21:46 33. Lydia Bushey, Colony 21:48 34. Jordan Ruffner, Soldotna 21:51 35. Lucy Shea, Colony 22:15 36. Katie Delker, Soldotna 22:16
By JOEY KLECKA
For the Clarion