Peninsula track and field teams have proven this season that they shine brightest when the pressure is on.
At last week’s Region III championship held at Soldotna’s Justin Maile Field, the Stars swept their way to team titles in both the boys and girls divisions, showcasing a deep program by scoring points in every single event, a total of 34 between boys and girls competition.
On the Class 3A level, Kenai Central was also able to make a big impression in its first year at the 3A division, winning the Region III girls team championship and finishing second in the boys race.
Even the smaller schools in Nikiski and Homer, while unable to finish with a team crown, were able to walk away with championship hardware on the individual level. The Homer Mariners picked up three event victories in girls competition, while Nikiski secured one individual title.
The importance of winning? It clinches an automatic berth to the season-ending state championship meet, which is today and Saturday at Palmer’s Machetanz Field. Today, field events start at 9 a.m., while the 3,200-meter finals start at 11 a.m. and the running preliminaries start at 12:50 p.m. Saturday, field events start at 9 a.m., while the running finals start at 10:30 a.m.
The champion of each event from every region earns a spot at state, while the next 12 fastest or strongest athletes get into the field as well. In the relay events, the winning relay team from each region qualifies to state with the next four fastest squads also punching their tickets.
At the 3A meet, Kenai could very well secure some team championship hardware. Taking a glance at last year’s 4A state results, when Kenai still competed at that level, the Kardinals finished 12th in the girls team race and 15th in the boys.
Nothing too eye-catching, but when sorting out the current 4A teams, the Kardinals scored the most points among 3A schools, potentially pitting them as favorites for championship hardware this weekend.
Among 3A competition, Kenai could potentially win several individual events, starting in the sprints. Senior Hayley Maw currently holds the second-fastest 3A girls time in the 100-meter dash, and is fourth in the 200.
Another Kenai senior, Jaycie Calvert, could add to her state championship collection in the distance events. Calvert already holds a state crown in Division II cross-country, and currently ranks first among 3A runners in both the girls 1,600 and 3,200 meters.
Junior Savannah Wilson currently sits as the fastest 3A girls hurdler at 100 meters.
Kenai was able to win three of four relays last week at the region meet, and among 3A rankings currently hold the best times in the 400- and 800-meter relays.
In the triple jump, Chelsea Plagge could also contend for the gold, one week after setting the Kenai school record in the triple at 34 feet, 4.75 inches. Plagge’s closest 3A competition sits more than a foot behind that mark.
In the boys team race, Kenai’s best chances of scoring huge points lie in a few events. Senior Jarett Wilson is one of those who could pick up a win in the hurdles. Wilson currently holds the fastest 3A time in the 110 hurdles and fourth-fastest in the 300 hurdles.
Then there’s senior Kaden McKibben in the boys high jump and triple jump. McKibben won the Region III high jump title last week, and both his high and triple jump marks are close enough to a podium spot to contend among 3A jumpers.
While sophomore Maison Dunham has scored points for Kenai this year in the boys distance events, and could do so again at state, the chances of claiming a state title lie in how long he can stay with Grace sophomore Tristian Merchant, the fastest 3A distance ace. Merchant’s top times in both the 1,600 and 3,200 events this year are far ahead of Dunham’s best.
Lastly, there’s Andrew Carver, a potential contender in the shot put and discus. Carver ranks third in the shot put, but will face a formidable challenge in Grace senior James Coulombe, whose best throw this year is over 5 feet farther than Carver’s.
Nikiski got its lone Region III championship with junior thrower Kaitlyn Johnson, who set a PR and school record in the girls discus last week. Johnson currently holds the top 3A discus throw this year, and even ranks among the best in the state at fourth overall. Johnson’s heave of 118 feet, 1 inch, last week is just over 3 feet ahead of her nearest 3A competitor, Coral Petrosius of Seward.
The Nikiski girls 800-meter relay, which finished second last week at the region meet and currently ranks second among 3A schools, is just over one second behind Kenai, meaning the Bulldogs have a shot of pulling off the state title with a little improvement.
The Homer girls also hold potential in a handful of events, including three of the four relays. Last year, the Mariners finished second in the 3A state team race, losing out to Sitka by 20 points (107-87).
On the individual level, the Mariners might see state championships out of sophomore Laura Inama at hurdles, who posted the top 3A time in the 300 hurdles in the state last week.
One Homer senior looking to go out on a high note is Anna Brock, ranked second in the girls shot put with a season best of 36 feet, 7 inches, just 5 inches behind the top 3A thrower Jenna Markel of Grace. Brock swept the shot put and discus throws at state last year, and could also contend with Johnson for the girls discus, as she ranks 3 feet, 4 inches, behind Johnson’s top throw.
Homer also features junior Marina Carroll, an adept high jumper who holds a top leap at 5 feet flat, which is only 2.25 inches behind the top leap in the state from Su Valley sophomore Maya Mossanen.
Back at the 4A level, the Soldotna girls put up the strongest fight against rival teams at the Class 4A state meet in 2018, finishing fourth in the state last year.
However, the Stars still had trouble keeping up with the eventual team champions South Anchorage, which won with 88 points. SoHi finished with 53 points in the girls team standings.
Last week at the Region III meet, SoHi head coach Phil Leck praised the depth of his team, and also the team effort on display throughout the competition that helped rack up both team titles, but against the biggest programs in the state, the Stars will need to shine their brightest.
“When you score points in every event, they really start to add up,” Leck said last week. “The kids are peaking, they’re (reaching personal bests), they’ve set goals for themselves.”
The SoHi boys won their first region team championship last week, and it was speculated by team coaches Leck and Galen Brantley Jr. that the achievement was the first in 25 years for the Stars.
While the SoHi boys may not be a contender for a state team title, there are a few to watch for in search of individual gold.
SoHi junior Ben Booth is a potential podium placer in the boys sprints, currently standing with the fifth-fastest 200 in the state at 22.89 seconds, set last week in a blazing 200 final at the region meet.
The throwing program is also thriving with state contenders, including senior Cody Nye and junior Galen Brantley III, who have traded off 1-2 finishes the past two weeks. Nye won both the shot and discus throws at the borough meet in Homer two weeks ago, while Brantley III won both shot and discus titles at the region meet at SoHi last week.
Nye, however, holds the better shot put throw this year with a 48-foot, 11.5-inch toss that is third-best in the state. Brantley III is only a half-inch behind Nye’s best throw. Brantley III does have the better discus toss at 134 feet, 1 inch, which is tied for sixth-best in the state.
The Stars also flaunt fast relays, including the Soldotna boys 400-meter sprint relay, sixth-fastest in the state, and the SoHi boys 800-meter relay, seventh-fastest in the state.
SoHi’s Kaleb Swank is another athlete to keep an eye on, as the senior high jumper enters tied for third in the state and could be in contention for a podium finish. Swank’s top leap of 6 feet even is just 2 inches shy of the second-best man, but West Valley’s Terrell Johnson may be too far to beat for gold at 6 foot, 6 inches.
Leck has also praised the results of junior Tyler Morrison this year, who holds top 10 rankings in all three jumping events.
In the triple jump, SoHi stands a shot at gold in senior Bryan Whitaker, whose Region III winning jump of 42 feet, 7.5 inches, last week put him second in the state, only behind the 44 foot, 11.75 inches, leap of Bartlett senior Rian King.
In the 4A girls battle, SoHi sports several state title contenders, including senior Brittany Taylor, who enters the weekend eighth in the state in the 400 and is looking to cap her prep career on a high note before heading off to run at the University of Alaska Anchorage next season.
The Stars also could get points from junior Holleigh Jaime, sixth among 4A girls hurdlers at 100 meters and fourth among 300-meter hurdlers. Jaime’s teammate, senior Sophie Thomas, is back after recovering from injury and could contend in the 100 hurdles.
Among SoHi’s top girls relays, the 3,200-meter relay is a contender. Last week at regions, the team of Erika Arthur, Aliann Schmidt, Tanis Lorring and Ellie Burns ran the third-fastest time in the state this year at 10:11.62, just over 11 seconds behind the best team in the state from Eagle River.
Among throwers, junior Ituau Tuisaula is likely to haul in the points for SoHi. Tuisaula racked up a double gold last week at the region meet, and currently holds the second-best shot put throw in the state, only 6.25 inches behind Dimond star Alissa Pili. Tuisaula also ranks fourth among 4A throwers in the girls discus.