It’s been 19 straight years a peninsula team has won a region ski team championship, and local ski coaches want to keep it rolling.
They also know they need some snow to make that happen, so as Thanksgiving approaches, they’re taking a one-step-at-a-time approach.
“We’ve been on snow one day,” said Soldotna head coach Isaac Erhardt. “We’re trying to sniff out snow somewhere. Reports are there are that patches at Tsalteshi, and then the lakes are freezing up good.”
An early snowfall last Saturday night did not stick around long as warm temperatures invaded the central peninsula within a day, seriously threatening to cancel Wednesday’s scheduled season opening race at the Tsalteshi Trails.
“This week last year, we were skiing,” said Homer head coach Alison O’Hara. “It’s kind of a bummer but we’re hanging in there with the dry-land stuff. It keeps it interesting.”
Last February, peninsula programs did well in extending a remarkable streak of 19 consecutive seasons of winning at least one Region III team title, either on the boys or girls side. The Kenai Central girls won their third in four years while the Soldotna boys dominated their home trails at Tsalteshi to win their third straight region championship.
While a significant shakeup of graduation loss and incoming freshmen have mixed up the field, both programs believe they can defend their crowns.
“We’ll be competitive,” said Kenai head coach Brad Nyquist. “We’ve got a couple of girls that are going to come in strong.”
The Kardinals lost three-time Region III runner-up Addison Gibson and 2016 region champion Riana Boonstra to graduation, but Nyquist said Kenai welcomed a cast of younger skiers that could keep the good times rolling.
“It’s hard to say with what the other teams have,” he cautioned. “We haven’t even been on snow yet so I don’t want to condemn us or boast.”
Erhardt said his SoHi boys team, which lost a trio of studs in John-Mark Pothast, Koby Vinson and Josh Shuler, is also still in the mix with a pool of returning contenders, including last year’s fourth-place Region III finisher Jeremy Kupferschmid.
“Oh yeah, I think we’re in it,” Erhardt said. “Who knows how it’ll play out. I haven’t seen what the other teams have, so who knows.”
Erhardt said most teams won’t know who the contenders and pretenders are until after the popular Lynx Loppet meet comes to an end Dec. 7 and 8 in Anchorage. The meet typically draws teams from around the state.
“That’s when we’ll really start to see what our region looks like and what the state looks like,” he said. “That’s a good one, I can get a really good feel.”
The 2018 race season is scheduled to start Wednesday with a race at Tsalteshi Trails, but dry conditions may cancel that race unless a hefty snowfall hits before then.
The 2019 Region III championship meet is scheduled for Feb. 15 and 16 at the Government Peak ski trails in Palmer, and the ASAA state meet is Feb. 21 through 23 at Birch Hill Ski Area in Fairbanks for a second straight year.
Erhardt said 37 skiers out for the early weeks of the season is about 10 more than usual as the Stars have picked up a handful of novices trying the sport for a first time.
The defending Region III boys champions will need to reload after losing three top-10 contenders. Last year, Pothast finished second in the region and was the highest peninsula finisher at state in 10th.
Returning to bolster their squad is Jeremy Kupferschmid, who was fourth at the region meet last year but suffered a tough weekend at state with a 40th-place finish. Bradley Walters, Jack Harris and Joseph Dammeyer also return. Walters was eighth and Harris was ninth at the region meet last season, while Dammeyer racked up a pair of top-30 finishes in the weekend’s two races.
The SoHi girls lost senior Kellie Arthur to graduation — Arthur was eighth in the region last year and 36th at state — but Erhardt said he has had a number of girls ski-training throughout the summer in preparation for the winter. The SoHi girls finished third in the region team race last year, and Erhardt said he could realistically see his squad in the mix for a team title this season.
“I think our girls team is just getting stronger and stronger,” he said. “I’m really happy with them.”
Leading the charge is sophomore Erika Arthur, junior Cameron Blackwell, senior Hannah Delker and sophomore Sonora Martin. Martin finished ninth at the region meet and was 32nd at state last season.
While the Kardinals are sporting 40 members, the defending Region III champion Karl Danielson is gone to graduation.
However, Nyquist said a senior class led by Josh Foster and Billy Morrow are coming along well.
“(Foster had) been watching Karl for several years,” Nyquist said. “Having Karl’s leadership and mentorship really gave Josh some direction. He’s got a fire this year that I haven’t seen.”
Last spring, Danielson parlayed his region title into a 15th at state, and is now skiing for the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Foster finished 69th at state and Morrow was 79th, and both had a top-25 finish on one of the two days at the region meet.
Behind Foster and Morrow, Nyquist is optimistic about a group of incoming freshmen that could round into shape quickly.
“They’re an outstanding team to want to coach,” he said.
The Kenai girls are looking to senior veterans Maria Salzetti, Mickinzie Ticknor and Olivia Brewer to lead the way, according to Nyquist. Salzetti notched a pair of top-20 finishes in the two races at regions last year, then took 42nd overall at state.
“She’s got a little fire in her belly to do well,” Nyquist said. “She’s a state returner who wants to ski well.”
Ticknor had finishes of 20th and 33rd at the region meet last season, while Brewer returns to skiing after two years off due to injury.
From there, Nyquist said, the Kards have a lot of young kids, including a group of freshmen who received a tune-up with the state champion girls cross-country running team in the fall.
“We’re just refining and tuning up some of the raw edges and they’ll be good,” Nyquist said.
Nyquist said former peninsula star Kailey Mucha is back as an assistant, along with Mike Bergholtz.
Alison O’Hara takes over the head coaching spot for Cole Talbot, who spent just one year with the Mariners program. O’Hara is in her fifth year coaching with the Homer high school team, and prior to that was a coach at Homer Middle School.
O’Hara said the Mariners haven’t had any snow to ski on, even in the hills at over 1,000 feet above sea level, but the team is staying in shape with a collection of speed intervals and roller skiing on the Spit.
“It’s pretty cool to have that spit trail accessible to us,” she said. “We’ve been doing that combined with a lot of pole bounding on hills.”
O’Hara stressed that her girls team is looking strong after not losing a single state skier from last year’s fourth-place finishing Region III team.
“Totally,” she answered when asked if the girls can contend for a region title. “This is a year for them to do well. They’re looking really strong and we didn’t lose any high performance racers.”
Top returners include junior Autumn Daigle, who was seventh at regions and 26th at state, and senior Katia Holmes, sixth at regions and 28th at state. Also returning are sophomores Zoe Stonorov and Kara Super, and junior Brita Restad. Stonorov ended up 30th at state last year.
“It’s nice to have that friendly rivalry and competition,” O’Hara said. “They help to push each other.”
Unlike the girls, the Homer boys lost some speed with departed seniors, namely Jacob Davis, who was seventh at regions and 26th at state, Denver Waclawski, Josh Wisner and Ben Kettle.
O’Hara said the one senior leading the pack in 2018 is Andy Super, the only one of the 2017 Homer boys state squad that returns. Super finished 85th last year in the Skimeister standings. O’Hara added that freshman Leif Restad has looked really strong in preseason practices.
Additionally, O’Hara said sophomore Angelica Haakenson, a double amputee who competes with the team as a “sit skier,” is back racing this year and is expecting some improved competition. O’Hara said Haakenson, who lost both her legs in a car accident at age 11, is helping to gain attention to the variation of Nordic skiing that places competitors in a chair that holds them in a seated position on skis.
O’Hara said Haakenson is back this year and that talks have been increasing with ASAA in creating a sit-ski event at the state meet.
“She just keeps going with her awesome energy and drive,” O’Hara said. “Apparently, some folks in the Lower 48 in sit skiing are looking to us for ideas.”
Seward welcomes a new head coach in Zach Cureton, who teaches at the school and will take over the ski team from former coach Luke Rosier.
The Seward girls lost their top senior from the 2017 team in Ruby Lindquist, who is gone after leading the Seahawks with a fourth-place finish at the region meet last year and 23rd at state.