Since the year 2000, a peninsula team has won a region Nordic ski title each and every year, whether it be boys or girls.
To put it into startling perspective, the current class of 2018 seniors were toddlers, not yet walking.
It’s a streak of 18 straight years that a region team champion from the peninsula has been crowned, most of those going to either Kenai Central or Soldotna.
It’s made for some crowded shelf space in the ski rooms at local schools.
“We’ve run out of room on the walls with some of the trophies,” quipped Soldotna head coach Isaac Erhardt. “We’ve got region titles on the ceiling of the wax shack, we’re always looking at those and every year, we’d like to keep those numbers consistent.”
In 2015, Kenai swept the team titles, making for a proud Kardinals head coach Brad Nyquist, who said he would like to reach that level again.
“It’s one of those things, you always keep working on your kids to get better all the time,” Nyquist explained. “Some of the kids, their own determination and drive outside the season helps, but we have a strong ski community down here, and talented people in the communities help develop a lot of these kids.”
Last year, SoHi won a second straight boys title, led by a second-place finish by Koby Vinson in the individual race. The Stars went on to place eighth at the state meet the next week.
Erhardt said a three-peat is definitely possible come Feb. 16 and 17, 2018, when Region III teams converge on the Tsalteshi Trails in Soldotna.
“We’ll have to see what the other teams produce, but I think we have a good shot,” he said. “I’d love to see that again.”
The state meet is scheduled to head north this year to the Birch Hill trails in Fairbanks from Feb. 22 to 24.
The racing season unofficially gets under way Tuesday with a set of races at Tsalteshi between Soldotna, Kenai Central and perhaps Nikiski, Homer and Seward, although Erhardt cautions that snow conditions will decide if it goes off.
“That’s always a nice way to shake things out and see how teams stack up,” he said.
The first official race of the winter for local teams will be held in the Mat-Su Valley at the Government Peak trails Dec. 1 and 2, and the popular Lynx Loppet meet — which attracts ski teams from the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna valleys and Fairbanks — is scheduled a week later, Dec. 8 and 9 at Anchorage’s Kincaid Park.
Erhardt said SoHi’s ski room is currently 35 strong, about 10 more than last year, giving the second-year head coach optimism heading into the season.
Leading the Stars is a strong contingent of returning region placers. Last year at the region meet, current senior Koby Vinson finished fourth and second in the two races to place second overall, while Addison Downing and Jeremy Kupferschmid both racked up top-10 finishes on each day. Josh Shuler also picked up a top-10 finish in the skate race.
All but Downing, a senior last year, return for another shot at the region title. Vinson, Shuler and emerging varsity skier Ben Wilson are all seniors, and they will also be joined by senior John-Mark Pothast, who returns after a year off from skiing. Pothast racked up top-five region finishes as a sophomore two years ago.
The senior-laden varsity squad will also receive star power from junior Kupferschmid, as well as sophomores Jack Harris and Bradley Walters.
On the girls side, senior Kellie Arthur returns to improve on a pair of top-10 results at the Region III meet last season. Arthur paced SoHi last year with a fifth and an eighth in the two races.
Erhardt said Cameron Blackwell will join Arthur as the leading ladies for SoHi, with freshmen Erika Arthur and Sonora Martin joining in to provide depth. Hannah Delker will also get varsity experience.
“I’m not going to rule out our girls team for doing something good,” Erhardt said. “They have some potential.”
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Like the SoHi boys team, the Kenai girls contingent is getting a boost of star power back this year.
Senior Addison Gibson returns after missing the region and state meets last year to join fellow senior Riana Boonstra in pursuit of a championship. Gibson, a notoriously fast skier, enjoyed a stellar cross-country running season this fall with Kenai, racking up several individual victories along the way, including her hometown Tsalteshi Invite in August.
“She came in off a summer of really focused ski training,” said Nyquist. “Skiing is her passion. … She’s done some work up at Hatcher Pass, she just wants to go where the snow is. She’s such a positive contribution to the team this year.”
Kenai Central saw its two-year run of region titles end in February with a Colony girls team victory, but with Gibson back, the Kards stand as strong threats to recapture the region crown.
Boonstra finished second among region competitors last winter, while teammate Katie Cooper raced to finishes of fourth and ninth between the two days. The Kardinals ended up taking home seventh as a team the following week at the state meet.
Cooper, however, graduated in the spring, meaning Gibson and Boonstra will need extra support from the rest of the varsity lineup.
With about 32 on the team this year, they should get it. Seniors Doreena Doyle and Ithaca Bergholtz should bring some speed, although Nyquist said Bergholtz could be limited to classic events this winter due to lingering injuries from running season. The rest of the lineup includes juniors Maria Salzetti, Mickinzie Ticknor and “Charlie” Morton, as well as sophomore Anya Danielson.
Kenai Central’s Karl Danielson returns to defend his individual Region III crown, his first of his prep career. Danielson’s region title helped carry the Kenai boys to a third-place finish at the meet, and Nyquist said he believes his boys team is primed to win a region crown with Danielson leading the charge, which they haven’t done since 2015.
“He’s as strong as he was last year,” Nyquist said about Danielson. “He’s focused a lot on his technique, and when you reach a certain point, you only get so strong. In short periods of time in a high school career, you reach that physical part, but the mental part, that’s a strength of his.
“He has the mental part to persevere and keep driving. He’s coachable and he’s always seeking additional information on how to ski.”
The Kenai boys are dealing with the losses of seniors Eric Kempf and Patrick Michels, both of whom graduated. The team returns juniors Trevor Debnam and Billy Morrow, sophomores Josh Foster and Hunter Beck (who came in last year not having skied before) and sophomore Tristan Summers, who was right on the edge of varsity last year.
Nyquist is joined this winter by assistant coaches Chris and Mike Bergholtz.
The Mariners are getting a new head coach this year as Alan Parks departs after three seasons with the team, and Anchorage native Cole Talbot takes over this year for Homer.
Talbot is a 2008 Service High graduate that owns top-10 state finishes as a racer himself, including a fourth-place overall finish at the 2008 state meet, and was part of two state championship teams with the Cougars.
Talbot skied for the University of Vermont after high school, then spent time as an assistant coach with his old team in Anchorage.
Talbot spent last year as an assistant coach in Homer. In an interview with the Homer News, Talbot said the Mariners are focusing on core strength training and endurance work.
“For me, the biggest thing right now is building a really solid team right now in terms of building their support,” he said.
Last year, Katie Holms finished sixth in the girls classic race at the Region III meet to lead Homer, while Katie Davis and Autumn Daigle added depth. Daigle is fresh off a Division II cross-country running championship this fall, and Davis, a junior, is one of the top returners.
Current senior Jacob Davis led the Homer boys last year with top finishes at the region and state meets. Davis finished eighth in the classic event at the Region III meet, and returns this year to lead Homer.
The Nikiski ski team sees the departure of Anna Widman from the head coaching position and athletic director Dylan Hooper taking on the role.
Hooper said in a text that the team is small with just five skiers, but the optimism is high.
“We are having fun and they are excited to be learning a lifelong activity,” he wrote.
Three boys and two girls make up the Bulldogs ski team, which has been practicing on the soccer field adjacent to the school for two weeks now.
Luke Rosier returns for a third year as head coach of the Seahawks.
Seward senior Ruby Lindquist reigned as Seward’s fastest female skier last season, and as a senior this year, enjoyed a strong cross-country running campaign that was capped with a second-place finish in the Division II girls state meet.
Lindquist notched a third-place finish in the freestyle race at the Region III meet a year ago.