The bulk of the high school ski season may be squarely in the rearview mirror, but the hardest test is yet to come.
Following a difficult season of minimal snowpack that wraps up months of dedicated training, local cross-country ski teams have set their sights on the final two weekends of racing, starting today with the Region III championships at the Government Peak trails near Palmer.
But amid the hubbub and eagerness lie challenges that still must be conquered before any competitor lines up at the starting line.
Last Friday at the Kenai Peninsula Borough ski races, Soldotna senior Sadie Fox had to cut her race off before the halfway mark of the seven-kilometer event, and the week has gone downhill for the SoHi boys as leading contender John-Mark Pothast has come down with the sickness.
The Homer varsity teams felt losses in both varsity races. Leading contenders Aspen Daigle and Ghen Sasakura missed the girls and boys races, respectively.
The culprit lies on a microscopic scale. With the second half of the school year in full swing, athletes in nearly every sport have been beleaguered by illness.
Soldotna coach Dan Harbison said Fox is working on a day-to-day schedule and could possibly miss this weekend’s races in order to get back to peak health.
“She’s trying to get back into the groove quickly,” Harbison said. “We have to see how she does, but she’s getting there.”
The good news is that there is no state qualifying format, meaning every school in the state is invited to send a boys and girls varsity squad to the state meet. Therefore, individual athletes are able to skip the region meet to focus on state.
After she pulled out midway through the borough race with an intermittent cough, Harbison said he had a talk with Fox about using a rebreather mask, which keeps the user from breathing in potentially damaging cold air, but also constricts air flow.
“We want to be a little more realistic on limitations,” Harbison said.
The Homer ski team hasn’t been exempt from sickness either. The top girl and boy on both Mariners varsity squads sat out the borough race as well with ailments.
“Our top girl athlete (Daigle) was out sick and didn’t race, but she was able to claw her way off the couch and support the team,” said Homer coach Alan Parks. “There’s a couple athletes that are sniffling, and we’re trying to keep everybody healthy.”
Today’s activities begin at 1 p.m. with the girls varsity five-kilometer classic race, with skiers starting at 20-second intervals. The varsity boys is also slated for five kilometers.
Saturday’s races are both mass starts, with the girls going 5K and the boys 7.5K in freestyle events.
Harbison said both of his varsity teams are targeting a top-three team result, although the challenge will be tough with possible absences due to illness.
“That’s kind of a bummer,” he said. “The upside is that my other two top skiers were suffering last week and are now starting to get over it.”
With Pothast possibly out of the race, the Stars will look to Levi Michael, Koby Vinson, Daniel Shuler and Addison Downing to lead the team.
Hannah Pothast has filled in suitably behind Fox, Harbison said, and will be joined by Olivia Hutchings, Kellie Arthur and Mieka Chythlook.
“Our boys can do really well if we have a great two days,” Harbison said. “They’re a pretty cohesive group and they could do something, we’ll see.”
The Kardinals were also missing a few top guns at last week’s borough meet, but it wasn’t due to illness.
Senior boys Travis Cooper and Jordan Theisen and senior girl Alex Bergholtz were missing due to a mentoring program that was held in Anchorage. Kenai coach Brad Nyquist said he was pleased to see that even with those three gone, the Kenai girls still displayed enough depth to win the team title and the Kenai boys were a close runner-up.
“We’re excited for both,” Nyquist said. “We’re skiing really strong right now, having fun, going out and doing their best, and the results are coming up.”
Cooper, Theisen and Bergholtz are expected to be back this weekend, which leaves Nyquist feeling pretty good about the Kards’ chances. Nyquist said he believes the possibility of winning both region team titles is very real.
“I like our chances to be on top,” he said. “But every team comes with their A-game and you never know what will happen.”
Kenai freshmen Addison Gibson and Riana Boonstra swept the top two spots at last week’s girls borough race, and will be joined by Bergholtz, Katie Cooper, Mikaela Salzetti (who is also battling illness) and Ithaca Bergholtz.
On the boys side, Cooper and Theisen will be joined by borough runner-up Karl Danielson, James Butler and Liam Floyd.
“I like our chances on top there too,” Nyquist said. “We’re as good as any team if we come with everybody. It’ll be pretty close between us, Colony, Grace (Christian) and Soldotna.”
The Homer Mariners nabbed a pair of sixth-place finishes in both borough varsity races. Sara Wolf led the way in the girls race for Homer, while freshman Jacob Davis topped the Homer boys with a sixth place of his own.
“I think our athletes are in good shape,” Parks said. “We have a young team with only two seniors, the rest are freshmen and sophomores, but they have a fantastic attitude and they’ve worked hard through a difficult year of no snow and dry-land training.”
Rachel Ellert did not finish far behind her teammate Wolf at the borough meet, chalking up an eighth-place finish to help the Mariners finish third in the team standings, only 32 seconds behind SoHi. With Daigle back in the mix this weekend, along with Mia Alexson and Audrey Russell, Parks said he believes his girls squad could grab a top-three finish.
Davis led the Homer boys at the borough meet, but, like the girls squad, they were without their top gun. Sasakura opted to miss the event due to illness, which relegated Homer to an unofficial finish of third in the team standings, as they were without a fourth scorer.
With Sasakura back in the lineup for the region races, a higher team placement is on the horizon for Homer.
“I think our varsity teams are prepared to ski their hearts out,” Parks said.