Any day now, the leaves will begin to turn various shades of yellow and red and fall to the ground, where they will be trampled and crushed by hundreds of pairs of running shoes.
It happens every year at this time, when the high school cross-country running season begins for a quick seven-week stretch that will culminate with the state meet Oct. 4 at the Bartlett High School trails in Anchorage. The top four varsity teams in Region III qualify to state, along with any individual in the top 15 not already a part of the four qualified teams.
The first event of the season for most area teams is tomorrow’s class races at Nikiski High School, in which the four grade levels are squared off against each other. Kenai, Soldotna and Homer will be competing with the host Bulldogs.
The first opportunity for local teams to size up their statewide competition will be Saturday at the 25th annual Tsalteshi Invite on the trails behind Skyview Middle School, a race that typically sees well over 200 total runners.
Here is a closer look at each team:
It’s no secret by now that the state’s fastest girls runner is Allie Ostrander, who is preparing for her senior season at Kenai Central.
When Ostrander showed up as a skinny, petite freshman three years ago, few doubted that she could challenge the fleetest of foot in the state. But not many imagined the kind of crushing dominance that she has leveled the field with since 2011. Ostrander has won every race she has finished, with the exception being the state finale her freshman year, when she collapsed midway through.
Ostrander’s mother, Teri, returns for her third year as head coach of the Kards, and said that while her daughter is training hard to claim a third consecutive Class 4A state championship, her focus is also locking in on collegiate options.
“I think she’s looking further forward than state,” Ostrander said. “She wants to run in college and potentially beyond that. She’s got a lot on her plate picking schools and figuring out where she wants to get an education and where she wants to run.
“But she still loves the team and the camaraderie.”
The Kenai girls, led by Ostrander, will feature six incoming freshman, which has the coach excited at the prospect of a future team of champions.
“We’re definitely building, but it’s nice we have a really young team,” Ostrander said.
A few of the names that could potentially earn their way onto the varsity squad are Ashley Gibson, Riana Boonstra and Ithaca Bergholtz. Boonstra is the daughter of four-time Mt. Marathon champion Todd Boonstra.
Courtney Stroh and foreign exchange student Anna Bakken graduated and are gone from the roster, but a core group of varsity athletes return. Included on the list is Alex Bergholtz, Lindsey Floyd and McKenzie Lindman.
“Allie and Alex (Bergholtz) both have run varsity the last few years together, and they need to help these younger girls develop and bring them along, and show good leadership,” coach Ostrander said. “Sometimes it’s hard to help somebody step up and maybe take your own spot, but I think that’s the kind of leadership we have on both teams. They want whatever is best for the team.”
The Kenai boys finished in a tie for third at last year’s Class 4A state meet, but the challenge this year is to return a full team to the meet after three core runners graduated.
Nate Mole, Mac Lee and Fox Michaud are gone, and Quincy Fuller moved, but Jordan and Jonah Theisen return with Travis Cooper and James Butler. The Theisen brothers both finished in the top four in last year’s state finale, which already puts them high on the list of state favorites.
The only problem is getting past Kodiak’s Levi Thomet, who has been a menace on the trails for the past two seasons. Thomet cruised to the Class 4A boys championship last year, then added more accolades in May with state track and field titles in the boys 800, 1,600 and 3,200 that were very nearly state records.
Ostrander said almost all of last year’s JV boys team is back, which will help to add depth and additional entries to the varsity team.
“It’ll be really great to take both (teams) to state,” Ostrander said. “I think we still have a tough region again, but it’s not out of the question.
“People have to work hard and step up and close gaps that they didn’t think they could.”
Dan Harbison has relinquished the reigns of the cross-country team to former and former Skyview and Cook Inlet Academy coach Ted McKenney, who will get help from another Skyview stalwart, Kent Peterson. Harbison will be focusing his coaching efforts solely on the SoHi ski team.
McKenney has good reason to be excited for the upcoming season. Returning among the SoHi girls team that claimed runner-up honors at the 2013 state meet are all four runners that placed in the top 28 that day, comprised of seniors Dani McCormick and Sadie Fox and juniors Olivia Hutchings and Daisy Nelson. Hutchings led the Stars with a fourth-place finish and McCormick followed close behind with an eighth-place effort.
Hutchings, McCormick, Fox and Nelson also teamed up in the spring to win the Class 4A girls 3,200-meter relay at the state track and field meet, and nearly broke the 10-year-old record along the way, coming up short by less than a second. With no graduates lost and a full varsity squad returning, the SoHi girls must be one of the favorites to claim the state crown.
“We’re both excited to be here, and we have a great team coming in,” said assistant coach Kent Peterson.
Peterson said he is pleased with both the boys squad as well. Levi Michael, Aaron Swedberg and Addison Downing will be joined by former Skyview athletes Daniel Shuler and Brennar Musgrave.
Peterson added that he and McKenney were very happy to see the Tsalteshi Invite — formerly the Skyview Invite — stay on the schedule. With most of the state’s cross-country teams convening on one race, it marks one of the most competitive events of the season each and every year.
“That was kind of a priority,” Peterson said. “We definitely wanted to keep that going.”
Bill Steyer returns as coach for a fourth year, and his optimism is sitting at its highest level.
With close to 25 runners on the team, the Mariners girls team is hoping to improve on a second-place finish in last fall’s Class 1-2-3A meet. Homer missed the top step on the podium by seven points to Grace Christian. All five Homer girls that placed in the top 16 at the state meet return for another run at it this year.
“We have some lofty goals,” Steyer said. “We wanna do super well, and not be state runner-up. The ultimate goal would be state champs.”
Among the leading varsity members are Molly Mitchell, Megan Pitzman, Aurora Waclawski, Lauren Evarts, Aziza Shemet-Pitcher and Audrey Rosencrans. Steyer added that freshman Alex Mosley might be someone who could surprise folks, saying that “she’ll be turning heads.”
Shemet-Pitcher and Waclawski were a part of the winning Class 1-2-3A girls 1,600-meter relay team at the state track and field meet in May, and also helped the Homer girls finish in the top two in two other relays. Waclawski also won the Class 1-2-3A girls 800 meters in the spring.
“That track strength has definitely carried over,” Steyer said. “All those girls did high-altitude running camps in Oregon this summer, and you have to be fit to do that, otherwise there’s no point really in doing it.”
With around 25 athletes on the current roster, Steyer is counting on personal best performances from his girls squad.
It’s the Homer boys team that also has Steyer anxious to see run.
“We have some really exciting freshman talent there,” he said. “We have a couple runners new to high school competition, but there’s a lot of potential.”
Even with the loss of seniors Pedro Ochoa — who placed fifth in the Class 1-2-3A state meet last year — and Josh Vantrease, the Mariners have a shot at a state placing again.
Senior Brandon Beachy returns, along with three sophomores — Jared Brant, John Farmiento and Jamie Rios.
“The goals for our boys are to qualify for state as a team,” Steyer said. “I would like to see them do it, the potential is there.”
Even with new members, the freshman talent sport familiar names. Denver Waclawski (Aurora’s brother) and Jordan Beachy (Brandon’s brother) join the squad, along with Jacob Davis.
“I’m just really excited about the numbers,” Steyer said. “I love the team enthusiasm, it’s exciting to see things starting to come together after quite a few years of low numbers.”
Steyer is joined by assistant coach Sandra Hudson, who is back after a year off.
Anna Widman is back for a fifth year as head coach in Nikiski, and she brings with her an expanding resume of her own accomplishments.
Widman won the women’s event in the Run For the River 10-miler in June, and finished 25th in this year’s grueling Mt. Marathon women’s race, an event she has been trying to enter for five years.
“I think it will,” Widman responded after being asked whether her own experience helps the team. “I definitely try to use it as a motivator for the students on my team, and I tell them how to train and what strategy to use and what helps.”
With four freshman on a team of seven, the youthful enthusiasm is there, Widman said.
Among the first-year runners are Henery Heft, Gavin Wallis, Aaron McCollum and Tirza Young. Kazuya Okomoto and Autumn Walters make up the junior class, and senior Kyle Cooper brings the experience level up just a notch.
Widman said for the time being, she will be fielding only a JV team, but as the season goes along, the possibility remains of the faster runners earning a spot in the varsity races.
“The main goal is get some of our freshman runners down into the varsity times bracket,” Widman said. “I would like to build a strong foundation. If they work hard enough, maybe we’ll get a couple region placers.”
Widman added that she and the team are anticipating Monday’s class races.
“It’s always a great event, next to the high school here,” she said. “It’s a very hilly, difficult course, so it really challenges the runners.”
In his 23rd year as head coach of the Seward cross-country team, Dan Marshall has only grown to appreciate his time spent grooming some of the state’s best runners, past and present.
“I think this is one of the most rewarding experiences a Seward kid can have,” Marshall said. “The ultimate goal is they finish and look back and think it’s one of the best things they could have done in their high school years.
“On top of that, I think of what happens after they’re done? So many people are just done after high school, but a lot of 30- and 40-something-year-olds still run.”
Marshall said the thought struck him while immersing himself in this year’s Mt. Marathon race on July 4. Shortly after the top women finishers crossed the line, a group photo was taken in the finishing area of all Seward residents, including such names as Aubrey Smith, Allison Barnwell, Denali Foldager and Sarah Glaser.
“They were all Seward women,” Marshall said. “Some are mothers, all runners and I’ve coached them all. I just didn’t realize how much running has affected their lives.”
With that in mind, Marshall is prepared to return both the boys and girls squads to the Class 1-2-3A state meet. The Seahawks opened their season Saturday with the Bartlett Invitational in Anchorage, on the same course that will host the state meet, and Hunter Kratz led the Seward boys with a seventh-place finish in 17 minutes, 26.1 seconds, on the five-kilometer course.
Last year, the Seward boys finished fourth in the team standings with Matthew Moore leading the way in fourth place. The girls team finished eighth with Alice Pfeiffenberger leading the pack in 18th.
Moore graduated, but Michael Marshall is a senior that should be able to compete up front. Marshall has been busy this summer with time spent in Portland, Oregon, but he had time to return to Seward to run his final Mt. Marathon boys junior race, which he won.
On the girls side, Josephine Braun joins Pfeiffenberger as a pair of seniors that should shake out as the top two on the team.
“It’s been a really good preseason,” Marshall said. “I have 38 kids out this year.”
With a school population of around 170, it represents a good chunk. Hopefully, though, Marshall doesn’t make the same coaching mistake he made last year.
Early in the 2013 high school running season, coach Marshall had his team run what he has coined, the “Tour de Lowell Point” race. He separates the team into pairs, with one kid on a bicycle and one on foot, and the winning team is the one that gets both athletes across the finish line first, no matter how they divvy up the biking and running duties.
As an 11-mile course, however, the race last year turned out to be a little too taxing.
“I let it get away from me,” Marshall admitted. “They ran this practice as hard as they could run, and it was from that point on that we saw this downward decline in our season.”
The mistake caused the boys team to peak earlier than he was hoping for.
“We kind of had to recoup and recover, but we did run well at state,” he said. “There were PR’s across the board.”
Marshall said he may decide to reschedule it for a different week this year, or perhaps skip it all together.