The stage is set for an unpredictable snow showdown this weekend at the Region III cross-country ski meet at Palmer’s Government Peak Recreation Area.
On one end of it, there is the unbroken streak of 19 straight team titles won by peninsula schools, dating back to 2000. Between the Soldotna, Kenai Central, Homer and Seward ski teams, every year since the turn of the century has seen at least a boys or girls team champion belonging to the peninsula, including the last three years on the boys side with Soldotna.
“I would love to snag a fourth,” said Soldotna head coach Isaac Erhardt. “There are some sicknesses going around the school so we’re praying we make it healthy, but our top four guys are healthy and skiing well so we stand a decent chance of a fourth year in a row.”
The girls team title has been won by Kenai in three of the past four years, but with the graduation of two stellar racers last spring in Addison Gibson and Riana Boonstra, the Kardinals will need to find some depth to stave off the likes of Homer and Palmer.
“We always want to challenge for it,” said Kenai head coach Brad Nyquist. “We have some individuals who will keep up with top skiers, but Homer’s looking really strong this year. They’ve been consistently ahead of us, but you never know what can happen on any given day.”
There is also the unpredictable nature of who might show up to steal the team or individual races. The combination of early low snowfall and inconsistent trail conditions plaguing this winter has shifted the original schedule around and thus no meet this season has brought together all Region III teams, leaving some doubt as to who can beat who.
Erhardt said this weekend will be the first true glance into what to expect at the state meet in two weeks.
“We just haven’t had a full race of teams yet,” Erhardt said. “There are still people we haven’t raced against yet in the region, so it’s hard to get a gauge on that.”
The races themselves will certainly separate the field. The varsity girls fields will run a 5K interval-start classic race Friday and a 5K mass-start skate race Saturday, while the varsity boys will race a 5K classic Friday and 7.5K skate event Saturday. All courses are full of hills, and the relentless climbing is predicted to weed out the pretenders from the contenders.
Homer head coach Alison O’Hara said her girls squad has struggled at times on hilly courses, but said she shared some important advice with the team prior to the weekend’s events.
“I said attack each hill like it’s its own individual race,” O’Hara said. “Attack it knowing when you crest over the top you get a small break. It’s just a mental thing. It’s going to hurt but it’s not going to be that long.”
O’Hara also explained how to prepare for hills by choosing the correct “gearing” by adjusting a skiers technique and tempo with poling on each side.
For central peninsula programs Kenai and Soldotna, the hills are also expected to play a big role in determining winners. Erhardt said the Stars have missed out on valuable training time on the biggest hills at Tsalteshi due to periods of low snow in December and January, and now the time to train is past.
“It’s been hard to train on big hills like Bear and Goat, but they’d been icy,” Erhardt said. “Usually we like doing intervals there, but instead we’ve been working more on technique work on the flatter courses.”
The Homer girls enter as a dark horse that could knock off some serious contenders. Last week at the Homer Invitational at the Lookout Mountain trails, the Mariners swept the girls team races for both days, led by two individual victories by junior Autumn Daigle.
O’Hara said Daigle, the 2017 Class 1-2-3A cross-country running champion, is strong enough to ski to the front, and in interval-start races has the engine to make a difference, but also warned of Palmer skier Katie Houser. Houser won both races at the Government Peak Recreational Invite in mid-January in a show of strength, but O’Hara said if Homer can win the classic day of racing and hold serve in the skate events, the team title could be theirs.
“Classic is their thing,” O’Hara said. “We dialed in the wax really well (at the Homer Invite). … I watched the Toko wax guide videos, so my social life has deteriorated.”
O’Hara added Katia Holmes, Zoe Stonorov and Brita Restad as expected scoring skiers for this weekend.
Kenai senior Maria Salzetti was second in the skate race that weekend, but the Palmer girls still won the team race both days.
Soldotna took second in the girls team race on the freestyle day, giving Erhardt confidence his Stars could make a run at it.
“They’ve been pretty energetic this week in practice, they’re chomping at the bit,” he said. “Last weekend in Homer, the (Homer) girls team beat us, but not by a landslide. If they can put it together, they can have a good race and the potential to get them.”
Four weeks ago at Government Peak, the SoHi boys won the team race each day, leaving the Stars as favorites this weekend. Jeremy Kupferschmid won the classic race that weekend, and Erhardt said Kupferschmid is strong enough in both styles to claim his first Region III Skimeister award.
However, Erhardt also expects a strong fight from Joseph Walling from Palmer and Luke Fritzel from Grace Christian, both of whom have beaten Kupferschmid this year.
Behind Kupferschmid, Erhardt said the Stars are looking strong with depth from Bradley Walters, Jack Harris and Lance Chilton.
Erhardt said the SoHi girls have two skiers that could make a top-five showing in the individual races, but the Stars will need big days from deeper down the lineup to contend for the team title. Leading the way is sophomore Erika Arthur and senior Hannah Delker, who will be joined by Katie Delker, Cameron Blackwell, Sonora Martin and the sixth skier Isabella Dammeyer.
Nyquist said his two seniors Maria Salzetti and Mickinzie Ticknor would like to break into the top 10 for the Region III meet, while freshmen Leah Fallon and Summer Foster could finish top 15 if a top 10 is out of their grasp.
For the Kenai boys, Nyquist tabbed Josh Foster as a capable top-10 placer, while Tyler Hipchen should ski strong as the second placer on the team. Nyquist also said Billy Morrow is likely to return from an injury to contest the classic race, but his leadership has been a boon for the Kards this year.