Most coaches would agree that the spring track and field season in Alaska is one of the most difficult to prepare for in the country.
Last spring proved to be a cruel mistress, as colder-than-normal temperatures kept Peninsula athletes from putting in good training hours outside, and it seemed to never let up. Even the state meet in Fairbanks in late May featured freezing temperatures and sleet.
This year, sunny skies in recent days have helped to slowly melt away the main snowpack, and have given hope and optimism to the local teams shooting for a state berth.
“It’s definitely looking very white,” said Nikiski coach Jake Doth with a laugh. “Our track is kind of in a bowl with colder air, so we’re making a concerted effort as a team to try to get some power and clear out some lanes.”
Longtime Skyview coach Rob Sparks added, “We see grass on the field this year, but the track is solid. It’s so hard it’s not much to shovel.”
Friday and Saturday presented the first opportunity to see exactly what everyone is dealing with. The seventh annual “Big C Relays” at the Dome in Anchorage is the biggest track meet of the year for Alaska teams, and as many as 37 teams and 1,100 athletes have competed at the event. A record 40 teams competed at this year’s meet.
“It’s definitely the red carpet of track events,” Doth said.
This year, Bridget Franek was invited to be the guest athlete at the meet. Franek competed in and finished 14th in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, England.
Homer coach Bill Steyer said he and his team had already met Franek at a high altitude training camp in eastern Oregon.
“I take some of my cross-country kids every year to that, and she’s awesome,” Steyer said.
The general consensus among coaches is that getting the opportunity to meet and talk to championship-winning athletes is an invaluable experience for the high school athletes.
“It’s great for these kids,” said Soldotna coach Phil Leck. “It’s cool seeing the people that compete at the highest level in the sport.”
The following is a in-depth look at each team:
The Kenai track team certainly holds a lot of promise this season, and the Kards will get to test out their talent on a brand-new track that has already seen some records fall.
Allie Ostrander certainly holds the biggest expectations in 2014 as one of the state’s elite talents.
The good news for the Kardinals is that Ostrander will be setting her sights on the state meet this year. Ostrander didn’t even make the trip up to Fairbanks last season due to her prior commitment to the Kenai soccer team, which held its region tournament on the same weekend as the state meet for track.
Unofficially, the 5-foot-1 junior holds the state record in both the girls 1,600- and 3,200-meter races. She set the shorter race record during halftime of Kenai’s season-opening football game last August on the new Kenai track, and originally set the longer one at the region meet in May at Nikiski.
Her time of 10 minutes, 25 seconds, in the 3,200 meters last year broke the previous Alaska record by a whopping 12 seconds and ranked 22nd in the nation among girls, and she’s already bettered that time with a remarkable 10:17 at the Big C Relays on Friday in Anchorage. That time currently ranks fifth in the nation.
Her mark of 4:53 (hand-timed) in the 1,600 meters broke the girls state record by two seconds, and it came during a point in the year typically considered the offseason, when athletes are not usually in fine-tuned condition.
Unfortunately, official state records can only be recorded at the state competition, so her times will carry an asterisk. For the time being, at least.
“She’s going to be very instrumental in our distance running core,” said Kenai coach Joe Trujillo.
Trujillo is taking over head coaching duties from Tim Sandahl, who has had a longtime presence in Kenai athletics. Trujillo himself holds an impressive coaching pedigree of almost 25 years on the Peninsula, and will be retiring his in-class teaching career after 35 years this spring.
“This year, she knows she can do it,” Trujillo said about Ostrander. “She’s going to go to both practices, soccer and track, but she’s decided to go to state track, and she has vowed to do that for herself. I would’ve been supportive either way, but of course I’m happy she decided to do it.”
Of course, Ostrander is not the only fleet-of-foot distance runner on the team. Junior twin brothers Jordan and Jonah Theisen lead a group of fast runners on the boys side.
Jonah’s time of 4:28 in the boys 1,600 meters last year at the region meet was the fifth fastest in the state in 2013, and Jordan’s time of 10:01 in the boys 3,200 was ninth quickest in the state last year.
Trujillo said Fox Michaud and Mac Lee will add to the distance team’s depth on the boys side, and that Michaud is also dabbling in the sprinting events.
The boys sprint team looks to have an early leader in freshman Josh Jackman, says Trujillo.
“His dad still holds the long jump and 200 meters records at Kenai,” Trujillo said. “I would not be surprised if his son changes that. We’ll have to change the first name in the record book.”
Kyla Whannell will maintain her presence in the sprinting events on the girls side, Beverly Schindler is expected to do the same in the hurdling events, and Kiana Harding will try to back up her third-place finish at state in the high jump. All three juniors will also return for the region championship-winning 400- and 800-meter relay teams.
Trujillo also mentioned that Harding will be one of six girls in the state to compete in the Big C Relays Pentathlon event, which combines five various track and field events to determine an all-around champion.
“Right now we have about 45 kids, which is a good balance, and we have great assistant coaches,” Trujillo said. “We’re tuning them up and finding a spot for them.”
The most promising event the Stars will return for is the girls 3,200-meter relay.
SoHi returns all four runners on that team — sophomore Daisy Nelson, junior Sadie Fox, junior Dani McCormick and sophomore Olivia Hutchings — a team that won the state championship last season, and set a season-high of 9:52.47 at the region meet last year.
All four are also adept distance runners on the individual level, which means a lot of valuable points for SoHi at the region and state meets.
“They’re excited to get out there and see where they stand,” said Soldotna coach Phil Leck. “Some kids have gotten better, so we’ll see this year.”
Leck will once again share coaching duties with Pat Nolden, and specializes in the sprint and middle distance events.
“We’re still trying to get outside, so it’s always different,” Leck said.
Soldotna is in the process of renovating its track and football field, which means the Stars track team will have to make do without a proper 400-meter oval.
“The track’s not ready to go yet,” Leck said. “So it’s between running on concrete and breaking your legs or staying inside.”
Leck thanked the Skyview team for allowing use of its track.
Along with the girls relay teams, Leck said seniors Makayla Wong and Kiana Hendricks in the throwing events should produce good results on the girls side, and freshman Preston Weeks is looking strong in the hurdling and middle distance events on the boys side.
Sophomore Drew Gibbs returns as a strong sprinter, and junior Steven Waggoner looks to be the fastest boys distance runner.
Even though the spring sports season marks the final one for Skyview, coach Rob Sparks said it doesn’t feel any different than the previous 20 years.
“We haven’t even mentioned it once at practice,” Sparks said. “There’s been those moments all year long in other sports, but it’s pretty much business as usual.”
The old Skyview track, once (and still) a shining jewel on the Kenai Peninsula, will still be used by the junior high that will move in to the current building, but the last track meet has already been held there.
The Skyview Invitational, which is always a highly anticipated event for Peninsula students, will now be held on the new Kenai Central track, and rebranded as the Kenai Invite. The meet is scheduled for April 25 and 26.
“Back in the day, it seemed that Homer and Palmer were the only ones that had tracks,” Sparks said. “Now everybody has a good one. It just shows the popularity that the sport has now.”
The Panthers return quite a group of athletes for the final time as well.
Leading the sprinters on the girls side is junior Kaylee Fisher, returning as the state champ in the 100 meters. Fisher had to beat her former Skyview teammate Sydney Roumagoux last year to win. Roumagoux has since graduated. Fisher also claimed second at state last year in the 200-meter dash.
Sparks said sophomore Jessie McNamara transferred over from Kenai this year, as did sophomore Hailee Landess from Soldotna. Both should be adding depth to the sprint relays, and McNamara could also surprise people in the hurdles.
“They’re going to complement last year’s group,” Sparks said.
Adding to the relays will be the duo of juniors Hayley Ramsell and Heather Tolliver, who both succeeded at the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes in 2013.
Seniors Casey Neill (four-year hurdler), Abby Cook (distance events) and Brittany Hollers (distance) all compose a core of veteran leaders on the team, Sparks said.
The boys side could see a bit of a rebuilding year, especially for the sprinters. Returning is senior Brandon Rice, a four-year athlete who excels in the sprint relays, and Tim Duke, a sprint specialist and a hurdler. Duke won the state title in the 110-meter hurdles and took second in the 300-meter hurdles in 2013.
Senior Micah Hilbish is returning to compete in the middle distance races. Hilbish won the state championship in both the 400 and 800 meters last year, and joining him on the boys 1,600-meter relay will be Duke, Charles Gibbons and Logan Hemphill, along with Daniel Shuler and Sky Schlung as backup.
Adam O’Guinn leads the boys squad in the throwing events, and recently took down the squat record at the local Strength and Speed Training competition at Nikiski High School with a 445-pound effort.
Jake Doth takes over head-coaching responsibilities from Dan Adair, who said he will still play a supporting role for the team.
Doth, a former jumper from Minnesota, said he expects the Bulldogs to contend on the 1-2-3A level.
“I think we’re going to be a sleeper team,” Doth said. “Schools in our conference will have to beware. It’s a younger team, we have only four seniors, but in the early part of the season we’re all optimistic.”
Doth said the Big C Relays are a huge welcoming sight for Nikiski, which hasn’t gotten any time outdoors yet.
“We’re still indoors. It’s a challenge,” he said. “You can’t stretch your legs with a 200-meter run, so we’re looking forward to it.
“I know the long distance runners are itching to get out there.”
Doth said senior Kerry Ross and sophomore Luke Johnson look to be the early leaders of the team. Ross placed fifth at state last year in the girls 100-meter dash, and Johnson was sixth in the boys shot put and was a part of the sixth-place boys 400-meter relay.
Doth noted that the Nikiski girls 400-meter relay will also look a lot different. The only returning member ofw that team is Ross, and joining her is Alexa Schmidt, Crystal Epperheimer and Ryen Dougherty.
The Mariners, like Kenai, are sporting a fresh track which opened last year, and will (hopefully) get to test it out with the Homer Invitational on April 18 and 19.
“I’m a bit nervous but it’s coming together,” said coach Bill Steyer. “We have some work to do, but this is the biggest team that I’ve coached here in Homer.”
Steyer said the Mariners have been out on the track for nearly two weeks enjoying the sunny weather and using the few good lanes that the snow has uncovered.
He added that the Homer boys squad has tripled in numbers from last year, while the girls have stayed about the same. Overall, it adds up to around 23.
“It’s definitely good numbers for us,” he said.
The Homer freshmen class has impressed Steyer in the early weeks. Lauren Evarts and Lily Johnson lead the incoming class in the sprinting and hurdling events, while sophomore Andy Cordoza adds depth.
Steyer said he hopes his girls team can live up to the expectations that were set after last year’s runner-up team finish in the Class 1-2-3A state meet. The highlight was the victory by the Homer girls in the 1,600-meter relay.
“That was great,” Steyer said. “There’s a lot of potential there.”
Tayla Cabana, Aziza Shemet-Pitcher, Cassidy Soistman and Aurora Waclawski were the four that won the big prize, and all but Soistman return this year. Waclawski also added runner-up finishes in the girls 400- and 800-meter runs last year at state.
Steyer said the Homer boys are facing a bit of a rebuilding year, but senior Pedro Ochoa should provide a lot of the highlights. Ochoa finished fourth in the boys 800-meter race at state last year.
“He should be good, he has the potential to do better this year,” Steyer said.
COOK INLET ACADEMY EAGLES
CIA will be missing only one big name that graduated after putting up worthy performances at state in 2013. Cara Davidson, who took fourth in the girls discus, is gone, and so are the point hauls that she would usually bring in.
Madison Orth finished second the girls 100-meter hurdles as a sophomore last year, and looks to be the primary points scorer for the Eagles in her junior year.
Seniors Tessa Adelmann and Miles Knotek are both graduated from last year’s team. Seward might feel the two losses early, since both heaped on a big pile of points for Seward at the state meet last year.