Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion Cook Inlet Academy junior Noah Leaf (right) reaches the first hurdle ahead of Palmer's Brady Southwick in the boys 110-meter hurdles April 23 at Kenai Central High School. Leaf claimed the win on his 17th birthday, and is a leading contender this weekend at the Region II track and field championships at Su Valley High School.

Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion Cook Inlet Academy junior Noah Leaf (right) reaches the first hurdle ahead of Palmer's Brady Southwick in the boys 110-meter hurdles April 23 at Kenai Central High School. Leaf claimed the win on his 17th birthday, and is a leading contender this weekend at the Region II track and field championships at Su Valley High School.

Local track & field stars ready to shine at region meets

The Region II track and field championships to be held today and tomorrow at Su Valley High School near Talkeetna will feature many small schools, but one of the state’s biggest stars will take up the spotlight.

Cook Inlet Academy junior Noah Leaf enters the weekend with the current top time statewide in the boys 300-meter hurdles, and is among the favorites at the Region II championships.

Leaf, who celebrated his 17th birthday April 23 at the Kenai Invitational with his new state best of 41.08 seconds, also holds the third-best time in the state this year in the 110-meter hurdles at 15.73 seconds, just three-tenths off the top.

Drew Dickson, a volunteer assistant with the Eagles this year that has spent time in the past as the CIA head coach, chalked Leaf’s sterling record up to hard work and effort.

“It’s just been a little bit of time in the offseason this year,” Dickson said. “He’s been getting in some extra training, it’s definitely allowed him to come out working pretty hard in the hurdles.”

Dickson also credited Elana Spraker in helping Leaf reach his potential, although Dickson said that ceiling has yet to be reached.

“He’s certainly not tapped out his potential this year. “I’m not surprised, he’s put in the work, and if he comes in next season in better shape, can continue to get faster.”

Dickson added that Leaf also surpassed the CIA school records in the 200- and 400-meter races as well, with times of 23.33 and 56.54 seconds, respectively.

Noah’s two brothers, Jiabao and Connor, also compete on the 400-meter sprint relay, which has set the CIA boys school record with a time of 46.51 seconds, surpassing the previous best by nearly two seconds.

“Brady and Noah have run together since sixth grade,” Dickson said. “(CIA) is like a small family, it’s a lot of fun.”

Dickson said in the smaller Region II meet, the potential of the CIA boys winning a team championship exists, while the girls may be harder to attain, but the big goal is to compete hard and bring as many athletes to the Class 1-2-3A state meet in Anchorage a week later.

In the race for the team title this year, the Soldotna have been on a charge since the opening gun.

The Stars have captured team titles in all but one meet this year on the girls side, racking up trophies at the Kenai and Homer invites and last weekend’s Kenai Peninsula Borough championships. The lone meet that they fell short in was the Anchorage Invite, when they lost by a measly six points to Chugiak among 13 teams that participated.

Leading into Friday and Saturday’s Region III championships at Colony High School, the Soldotna girls are hoping for another team title, this time in the region meet.

“It’s going to be a dogfight,” said Soldotna coach Phil Leck. “I think it’s between us and Colony.”

Leck said the Knights will likely be getting a load of points in the jumping events, especially since Colony senior Chase Stephens and junior Madeline Ko will be competing on their home track. Stephens currently holds the best leaps in the region in the girls long and triple jumps, and is second in the high jump. Ko, meanwhile, is ranked second, third and fourth in the three jumping events. Also, Ko enters the weekend with the fastest 300-meter hurdles time in the region and Stephens has the top time in the 100 hurdles.

However, SoHi will be bringing the power in other events, led by the speed of senior Daisy Nelson. The sprinting ace swept the girls 100, 200 and 400 meter races at last week’s Kenai Peninsula Borough championships, and added a fourth victory as a part of the girls 400-meter sprint relay. Her 100 time is currently second-best in the state in 2016, while her 200 and 400 marks are both third-best.

Nelson’s times in the 100 and 400 races this season are also school records.

“It’s the same old Daisy, I hope,” coach Leck said. “She was fighting a little sickness last week, so we’re hoping to get some of her energy back. I think she’d like to walk out of there with four region championships, that’s the goal.”

The Soldotna boys also picked up a team championship at last week’s borough meet, fueled by victories in all four relays.

The SoHi 3,200-meter relay team, consisting of Aaron Swedberg, Levi Michael, Koby Vinson and Emmanuel Van Hout, earlier in the year ran to a state-leading time of 8:18.01 at the Anchorage Invite in early May. Leck said he hopes to see the squad repeat this weekend with a win, but isn’t overlooking other teams.

“They broke our school record with that time, but Kodiak could challenge,” Leck said. “My hunch is they will show up with their fast guys.”

Swedberg broke the school record in the 800 meters with a 2:00.15, and this year ran a 52.63 in the 400, but with the state’s top 10 in the event all having eclipsed the 52-second barrier, Leck said the two races will be tough to compete in.

“Those two (races) have the deepest fields this year,” he said. “That 800 is so competitive this year, so many good runners.”

Leck also said that the state-leading girls 400-meter relay — a team of Hallie Landess, Tovia Bremond-Hilton, Brittany Taylor and Nelson — that ran a time of 51.86 seconds at the Anchorage Invite, will not feature the same lineup.

However, the state-leading girls 1,600-meter relay team, which posted a state-leading time of 4:15.33 at the Anchorage Invite, will be together this weekend. The group consists of Taylor, Olivia Hutchings, Emily Werner and Nelson, with a possible alternate being senior Lindsey Wong. Wong tied with freshman teammate Danica Schmidt for the win in the girls high jump at boroughs last weekend.

“We’ll run all four relays, but that’s the one we have the best chance of winning,” Leck said. “We’re putting our eggs in that basket.”

In the throws, junior Annie Quinn and senior Sylvia Tuisaula enter the meet ranked in the top four in the shot put and top six in the discus. On the boys side, senior Dalton Best is looking to cap a stellar senior campaign with a region title to go along with state crowns in football and wrestling. Best is currently ranked second in the discus and third in the shot put among region throwers.

“We need a big weekend out of him,” Leck said about the steely Best. “He’s a tough competitor, he hates to lose, but he just doesn’t wear it on his sleeve.”

With a few school records of their own set this year, the Kenai track team is also spitting out gold-medal winning athletes.

In the relay races at the borough meet last weekend, the Kenai girls won three of the four, only losing to Soldotna in the 400-meter sprint relay.

The Kenai girls 800-meter relay currently leads the region with a top time of 1:51.19. Last weekend at boroughs, the Kardinals ran just a few tenths shy of that top time, and Melia Harding, Tekaiya Rich, Julieanne Wilson and Bethany Coghill all will join forces again today and Saturday.

“I think coach (Doug) Remp has them trained well, that core group was on some good relays last year,” said Kenai coach Chris Hanson.

Also, the Kenai girls 400-meter sprint relay is ranked second in the region to SoHi by eight-tenths of a second.

Rich and Coghill both ran with two standout Kenai sprinters in 2015, Kyla Whannell and Kiana Harding, both of whom Hanson said helped inspire this year’s group. Whannell has since gone on to run for Roberts Wesleyan College, a Division II school in Rochester, New York.

“We had Kyla back in town, she came to practice last night and was working with the relays,” Hanson said. “Those two really boosted our (relay) teams.”

On the boys side, Josh Jackman pulled off a perfect score last week, sweeping the victories in the 100 and 400 meter races and the long and triple jumps.

Last year as a sophomore, Jackman set a school record in the boys long jump at 21 feet, 9 inches, but lingering injuries from basketball season have continued to crop up in the track season, limiting the junior long jumper. Still, a leap of 21 feet, 8 1-2 inches at last week’s borough championships — just a half inch shy of his school record — has left Jackman with the potential to score big this weekend.

“Josh is competing very well right now,” Hanson said. “He’s been pretty competitive with (Colony junior Brandon) Nicholson.”

Both Nicholson and Jackman are ranked high in the long and triple jumps. Jackman leads Nicholson in the long jump and Nicholson leads Jackman in the triple. At the Kenai Invite in April, Nicholson pointed to Jackman as one of his chief opponents that he will have to beat come region and state time.

“I think they have a good rivalry going there,” Hanson said. “They bring out the best of each other.”

Another big performance from the Kardinals last week came from junior Julianne Wilson, who swept the girls long and triple jumps at the borough meet. Wilson’s feat of 16 feet, 9 inches in the long jump crushed the previous Kenai girls school record by a whopping 15 inches.

At the Colony Invite in early May, Wilson set a new school best of 33 feet, 2 inches, in the triple jump. Coach Hanson credited Wilson’s fitness in other sports and jumping coach Jesse Settlemyer’s fastidious approach to helping the Kenai junior reach her peak.

“Julieanne’s great, she came into the season in great shape,” Hanson said. “She was ready to compete from the get go.

“Some kids take until mid season to get into form. She came in in great shape.”

Another Kenai contender on the rise is freshman Jarett Wilson, who is ranked in the top five in the region in both boys hurdle events, and finished runner-up in both races last week.

“I knew he was a good hurdler and jumper coming out of middle school,” Hanson said. “He’s really excelled this year, and I would like to see him get to state.

“Basically, our goal is to get as many kids to state as possible.”

Last week at the borough championships, senior Luke Johnson was the lone Nikiski competitor that walked away with a gold medal, winning the boys shot put with a heave just over 46 feet. However, Johnson has thrown farther than that this spring, reaching 49 feet, 3 inches, at the Colony Invite in early May.

The toss was still shy of state kingpin Kordell Pillans of Kodiak, who has crept just over 55 feet this year. If Johnson can maximize his efforts this weekend, another gold may be in the works. Currently, Johnson holds a region title in both shot put (his sophomore year) and discus (junior).

On the girls side, senior Arianne Parrish racked up a pair of runner-up performances for Nikiski in the girls long and triple jumps. Parrish is the defending region champion in the girls long jump.

Homer junior Lauren Evarts took home wins last week at boroughs in the girls hurdling races — the 100-meter version by over a full second — and enters this weekend with the second-fastest time in the region in the 100-meter hurdles and the third-fastest in the 300-meter event.

The Homer girls team took second in the team race at the Class 1-2-3A state meet last year on the strength of several good relay teams, but at the borough meet last weekend, only one Homer girls relay team partook in the action. The 800-meter relay finished second with Angie Cardoza, Sarah Wolf, Evarts and Kaylee Veldstra teaming up.

On the boys side, senior Jake Richter showed up with two silver medal finishes in the boys 100 and 200 sprints.

even after finishing third at the region meet a week prior. If the Mariners can win the events they are favored in, a region crown could be in the mix.

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