For a sport that is so rigorously dependent on weather conditions, Nordic skiing has seen its share of difficulties in recent years. This year has been no different, as the white stuff has been slow to arrive.
But local high school teams had a lot to be thankful about over the Thanksgiving holiday, as several inches of fresh powder blanketed Southcentral, allowing winter athletes to finally strap on a pair of skis.
Saturday behind Skyview Middle School at Tsalteshi Trails, racers from Soldotna, Kenai Central, Nikiski and Homer competed in the first race of the season — which was more of a glorified time trial — under fat flakes of falling snow.
“We don’t really have much control of the weather,” said Homer coach Alan Parks. “We pretty much have to be well-rounded athletically and have different interests to keep it interesting.”
Soldotna coach Dan Harbison said conditions at Tsalteshi are better than many may think. After a few days of skiing around Headquarters Lake, Harbison said his Stars team has been glad to get back to trail skiing.
“It hasn’t been great that we’re seeing a repeat of last year’s snowfall,” Harbison said. “I’m hoping this isn’t the new norm, but I have to remind myself that we’ve had years like this before, so knock on wood, I’m hoping we’re over the hump.”
Ask, and almost every coach will still tell you that lack of snow does not hinder their progress and preparation. Coaches and skiers know how to cope without it, and have been getting by with hill workouts, bounding exercises, ski walking, and even pool workouts and yoga, as Kenai coach Brad Nyquist has had his team doing.
The biggest question is, which team will make the most out of little?
Coach Harbison — along with assistant coach Isaac Erhardt — is confident his team can make the biggest impact among local schools, and he has recent history on his side.
The SoHi girls finished sixth at state in the team standings last season, led by the runner-up finish of Sadie Fox. Hannah Pothast also finished 10th.
After her second-place finish last season, Fox returns for her senior campaign, and is seemingly primed to become the first Peninsula skier to claim an individual state championship. The closest a local skier has come to winning is second, accomplished by Skyview’s Elisabeth Habermann (2004) and Soldotna’s Kailey Mucha (2009).
“That’s always up in the air,” coach Harbison said about Fox possibly winning it all. “But she’s definitely been working hard toward a goal like that, she’s been focused. We’re hoping good things materialize.”
After winning Saturday’s race on the Tsalteshi Trails, Fox added that her goal is to shoot for the top step of the podium come state time, but a top five will also do.
“I’ve been thinking about it, I hope to get first, but there’s always tough competition in Anchorage,” Fox said.
Fox said she believes one of her strongest challengers will be Lydia Blanchet of West, who recently returned from a year on foreign exchange in Norway — a country that regularly dominates the global sport of cross-country skiing.
Blanchet showed off her newfound speed with a win in Saturday’s Service Snowball freestyle race in Anchorage.
“We’ll see how I stack up to her at the Lynx Loppet,” Fox said.
Fox also added Service’s Taryn Hunt-Smith to the list of her closest competitors. Hunt-Smith finished second Saturday in Anchorage.
One thing Fox says she has going for her this year is more muscle, which should translate to more raw speed and power to go along with her already established endurance base.
“I started weight training in school this year, and I was pretty weak last year, so it feels a lot stronger,” Fox said. “Now I can V2 up the hills.”
Joining Fox on the SoHi girls varsity is Emily Werner, Olivia Hutchings and Pothast, as well as a few Skyview additions, such as Mieka Chythlook and Sage Link.
“That’s a nice little core right there,” coach Harbison said. “We also have a couple young freshman, so I think we’ll be skiing pretty well before the season is up.”
Harbison said the SoHi boys squad is looking stronger than last year, when the Stars took home 13th in the team standings.
“We have a lot of returning skiers, but also we have a combination of the two schools,” Harbison said. “We inherited several good skiers from Skyview, and I think the combination makes for a pretty good outlook for the team.”
Among the returnees is Levi Michael and Addison Downing, who will be joined by Daniel Shuler and Sterling Stasak, formerly of Skyview High. Coby Vinson and John Mark Pothast represent a pair of fast freshman.
Harbison said he believes the biggest competition will come from the Colony Knights, which are the defending Region III champions on the boys side, and supposedly are sporting an improved girls team this year.
With 25 members out for this year, the Kardinals look set with a strong cast of returning characters.
A trio of upperclassmen return to add star power to the girls team — seniors Alex Bergholtz and Kirsten Nyquist and junior Mikaela Salzetti — while two freshman — Riana Boonstra and Addison Gibson — will add depth to a team that finished fifth at the region meet and 12th at the state meet a season ago.
“All of our girls are skiing strong,” coach Nyquist said. “Most of them have been working together for four years now.”
The Kenai boys team finished 11th last year at the state meet, tops among Peninsula squads. This year, Nyquist said a top-10 result at state is easily within reach, and believes the Kards could finish as high as sixth.
“I expect everybody to ski their very best all year long,” Nyquist said.
Leading the Kenai boys is senior Travis Cooper, who returns for another year. Cooper finished seventh in last year’s region meet and 28th among 110 racers to lead the charge for Peninsula athletes at last season’s state meet. Nyquist said he believes Cooper could potentially grab a top-five result at state this year if things go his way.
“But I’m not putting any pressure on him,” said Nyquist. “He’s set his goals where he wants to be, he’s very goal-oriented.”
Joining Cooper is Jordan Theisen, James Butler, Karl Danielson and Liam Floyd.
“I’m excited just to see our kids ski and perform and do what they love to do,” Nyquist said. “We’ll see where our top skiers end up and where our new skiers are.”
The Mariners are getting a new head coach in Alan Parks, but anyone involved with skiing in Homer will see a familiar face.
Parks is taking on his first position as a high school coach, but his experience in Nordic skiing goes quite a ways back. Parks has coached the junior Nordic ranks for over a decade, and is president of the Kachemak Nordic Ski Club in Homer, where he has lived since 1975.
“I’ve seen a lot of great skiers come through and I’ve always just enjoyed skiing and found it as just a natural fit,” Parks said.
Parks is partnered up with assistant coach Allison O’Hara, and said he hopes his experience in the lower ranks of community skiing will pay off at the high school level.
“The biggest difference is, I can’t think of any one athlete on the high school team that doesn’t wanna be there,” Parks said.
Parks said Homer currently holds a strong girls team and an emerging boys team which will be built up.
“We have a lot of great athletes on the team, some that I’ve coached since their junior Nordic days,” Parks said. “And once you get a group of kids enthused about skiing, it’s easy to coach them. They want to have fun.”
Among the leading candidates to take hold of the boys team is senior Ghen Sasakura and freshman Jacob Davis. Parks said both of them hold a lot of potential.
On the girls side, senior Aspen Daigle and junior Rachel Ellert lead a promising class of skiers which hope to improve on the sixth-place result from last season’s region meet.
The one thing that Parks stresses the most is learning to be positive. The longtime coach said on the first day of practice in early November, the Mariners ran down to the beach in Homer and incorporated heavy rocks into their workout routine.
“You have to be positive, because the only thing you can control is yourself,” Parks said.
Anna Widman returns for her fifth year as coach of the Bulldogs, and is currently leading a group of seven skiers, divided with two girls and five boys.
In Saturday’s races, Widman entered her team in only the JV events, but said she will determine at a later date if the team is ready for varsity competition.
“I’m just trying to get more kids involved in the program, trying to get a ski culture going out in Nikiski,” Widman said. “The more student involvement we have, the better.”
Nikiski will skip next weekend’s Lynx Loppet Invite in Anchorage, but will be back in action Dec. 18 at the Candy Cane meet in Soldotna.
Among the top skiers for the Bulldogs are Tirza Young on the girls side and Matthew Minium for the boys.
“I’m just looking forward to seeing our skiers times go down and seeing their confidence grow,” Widman added.
Logan Schulz has climbed aboard as the head coach of the Seahawks this season, taking over for Mark Swanson.
It’s been five years since the Seahawks ended the year as the top small-schools team, last doing so in 2009 with the boys squad. Seward was the top finishing team on the 1-2-3A level in 2005, 2007 and 2009 for the boys, and 2008 for the girls.