There’s always drama at the Region III cross-country meet, of course, but many times by this point in the season, many of the plotlines have been settled.
That’s not the case for this year’s meet, which will be held, along with the Region II meet, starting at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Palmer High School.
The cross-country season isn’t that long — the first meet this season was on Aug. 19 — and region teams normally see each other at the Tsalteshi Invitational, Bartlett State Preview and Palmer Invitational. So a pecking order quickly develops.
This year has been different. Thanks to wildfire smoke and travel restrictions, the Tsalteshi Invitional was canceled and no Kenai Peninsula teams were able to make it to the Bartlett State Preview.
The Palmer Invitational happened, but due to meet cancellations and forced indoor practices, even that meet isn’t a great barometer because Kenai Peninsula coaches simply haven’t had the time to sort out their top runners and make sure everybody is healthy.
“We’ve really only had one race where we saw most of the people we’ll be seeing at regions,” Kenai Central coach Bailey Beeson said. “We just had a weird, late start to the year, and that’s led to regions being a big unknown.”
The region meets include teams from off the peninsula that were able to get in more meets and outdoor practices. Soldotna coach Ted McKenney said that can raise doubts, but the coach added his team is ready to battle those doubts.
“We’d like to think that right now we’re working harder than they are,” McKenney said. “That helps us catch up and give them a little more confidence. Each week the times are a little faster, and they feel a little better about actually racing.”
Both the Stars girls and boys will look to return to state by finishing in the top three in the Division I meet. If the team misses out, an individual must be in the top 15 to qualify.
The girls returned to state last season for the first time since 2015. The boys are sitting on two straight state appearances.
Jordan Strausbaugh, who finished third in the region meet last season as a freshman, will lead the Stars. Junior Erika Arthur, sophomore Jordan Ruffner, junior Isabella Dammeyer, senior Ryann Cannava, junior Katie Delker and senior Cameron Blackwell also will toe the line.
Palmer and sophomore Katey Houser are the defending regions champs, but McKenney said Houser has been out.
“It’s wide open,” McKenney said, adding that Strausbaugh or Arthur also could pick off a region title on the right day.
The boys will be led by seniors Bradley Walters and Lance Chilton. SoHi also will start junior Anchor Musgrave, sophomore Maleda Denbrock, sophomore Quinn Cox, senior Jack Harris and sophomore Tytus Gilbert.
Again, McKenney said predictions are impossible because Soldotna has yet to run in a meet against powerhouse Kodiak.
“It’s really sketchy,” McKenney said. “We’re just training hard and hoping we’re training well.
“We try to learn how to run, learn how to run far and fast, then learn how to race. Being tough enough to race is a learning experience.”
Both the Homer girls and boys have been at every state meet since 2012. At the Division II portion of the Region III meet, teams must finish in the top four to make state. Those not on a state qualifier must finish in the top 15 to make it to state.
“We’re feeling pretty good,” Homer coach Bob Ostrom said. “Everybody is happy and working hard. They hit some good PRs this weekend.”
Senior Autumn Daigle has not lost a race all season. Daigle won the Division II state title as a sophomore, but will be looking for her first region crown.
“She’s got a pretty good chance,” Ostrom said. “We just have to keep her healthy.”
Junior Brooke Miller and freshman Eryn Field also will lead the effort to make state.
The Homer boys, thus far, have been finishing behind region teams Anchorage Christian Schools, Grace Christian, Kenai and Seward. But not by a lot.
“We just need to make sure everybody is running the right pace and doing the right thing,” Ostrom said. “Where we end up is totally up in the air.”
Juniors Eyoab Knapp and Clayton Beachy will lead the effort, while young runners like freshman Seamus McDonough and sophomore Devin Wise must come through.
“It could literally be one or two points,” Ostrom said of the boys race for state. “That’s a good race. I like to see that.”
The Division II Kenai girls and boys teams have been battling injuries and illness in the past week or so. The Kardinals girls are looking for a sixth straight trip to state, while the Kenai boys went last year for the first time since 2014.
Freshman Jayna Boonstra finished second at the Kenai Peninsula Borough meet Saturday to Daigle, though Boonstra was only in her second varsity race.
“It’s been really cool to watch her blossom and turn into the runner she is today,” Beeson said.
After that for the Kardinals, it’s all sophomores in Logan Satathite, Caitlin Crabb, Leah Fallon, Mikaela Hall, Gabriella Tews and Summer Foster.
Kenai junior Maison Dunham won boroughs but most likely will have to find more speed to top ACS junior Tristian Merchant, the defending region champ.
“He has a goal time he’d like to hit,” Beeson said. “It’s a high goal for him, but he can achieve it if he really sets his mind to it.”
Early in the week, injuries and illness meant Beeson didn’t yet know her boys lineup, but it also should include sophomores Joe Hamilton and Nathan Haakenson and freshman Ky Calvert.
“First and foremost, we want to keep everyone healthy,” Beeson said. “Hopefully, they can all get out there, run fast times, place well and advance to state.”
The Division II Seward girls and boys will look to return to state after missing out last season. Coach Shelly Walker is proud of her team for improving so much despite missing a couple of weeks of outdoor practice due to smoke. She thanked Marvin Tapsfield of 5th Ave Fitness for letting the team work out there.
The boys made a statement by finishing second in the borough meet last weekend, losing only to Soldotna. Junior Max Pfeiffenberger, junior Trey Ingalls, senior Bjorn Nilsson, junior Levi Deboard and junior Samuel Koster made it happen for the Seahawks.
This week, senior Jaden Van Dyke and junior Clay Petersen will be able to race, giving the team more depth.
At the start of the season, Walker was not sure if Seward could field a girls team. Freshmen Lena Jagielski and Aly Guernsey have both come through to join juniors Lucy Hankins, Hana Cooney and Maranatha Brueckner and form a team.
“It’s been such a positive year,” Walker said. “We’re just going to try and keep that momentum going through regions and see where we end up.”
At Division II Nikiski, coach Anna Widman is thrilled to be able to put together a full boys team. Senior Bryan McCollum, freshman Braydon Whiteside, senior Joseph Yourkoski, junior Yorik Bastuck and sophomore Rory Gilmartin all ran at boroughs. They will be joined by French exchange student Victor Westelynck.
Widman wrote in an email the team has made steady progress this season. The goal for Saturday is personal records and teamwork.
“This is the first time I have had a pack that can motivate each other,” Widman wrote. “I hope they can break out of their established finishing places within the team and surprise me this Saturday.”
Nikolaevsk will have four runners compete in the Region II race. That’s not enough to score as a team, so the runners must make the top 10 to make state. Toeing the line will be sophomore Justin Trail, freshman Josiah Brown, senior Isabelle Hickman and senior Sophia Klaich.