In the modern climate that creates the seasons in Alaska, it has become increasingly paramount for Nordic skiers to spice up their training routine in preparation for the winter racing season.
For cross-country ski teams on the peninsula, that includes a mix of dryland training both outdoors and indoors. It’s become common enough each fall that high school coaches have integrated dryland workouts into their November and December programs.
“By now, we kind of have the dry land thing dialed in,” said Homer head coach Alison O’Hara. “We try to keep it really fresh with something exciting and different to do.”
The prep ski season begins in earnest Dec. 14 with the annual Lynx Loppet meet that attracts many of the state’s top programs. Local teams could likely see one or two smaller events before then, but with the snow conditions, coaches aren’t counting on it.
Coaches like O’Hara have been resorting to alternative methods of working their athletes into prime shape for the race season. As Anchorage and Mat-Su Valley teams get the luxury of using Hatcher Pass for early season snow workouts, peninsula teams have no nearby venue to get on skis.
“The other day we went grass skiing, which was cool because it gets the body in proper alignment on hills,” O’Hara said.
O’Hara said the Mariners were able to get out for one day on snow before returning to the dryland workouts.
Soldotna has been fortunate enough to get six days of snow skiing out of the early season, according to head coach Isaac Erhardt, although he said the team has since been back indoors and out running after that.
“It was enough to get us out on skis,” Erhardt said about the early snowfall.
Kenai Central head coach Brad Nyquist said the Kardinals made use of the Kenai Golf Course following the snowfall Nov. 14 and were able to get “a couple of days” out of it.
“There was enough to ski around with the old stuff,” Nyquist said. “We went with fish-scale skis, just to get the kids in balance.”
Nyquist echoed the thoughts of his fellow coaches in that the recurring problem of snowless Novembers (and occasionally Decembers) is something ski teams must adapt to, lest they be left behind.
“It’s the expectation that the first few weeks at least are going to be dry land,” he said. “And if you get snow, it’s bonus time. We’ve just got to be patient, and keep things positive on the team.”
Peninsula teams will need any bit of time on skis they can get in order to keep up with the Anchorage and Interior teams. Last year, the West girls and West Valley boys reigned as state team champions. The closest girls peninsula team was 37 minutes behind the champions after three days of racing, while the closest boys team was still over 35 minutes behind the top team.
Local teams are expected to be contenders at the Region III meet, where in February the Palmer girls and Colony boys laid claim to the championship hardware, breaking a string of 19 straight years of at least one peninsula school winning.
The Region III meet is scheduled to be in Homer in February, but O’Hara said a final decision won’t be made until Monday, citing a schedule conflict that weekend with a basketball tournament.
The first unofficial race will the Turkey Skate on Tuesday, although Erhardt said that will likely turn into a scavenger hunt race on foot due to lack of skiable snow at Tsalteshi.
Kenai will also be hosting a “Black Stone Axe Ridge Warm Up Rally” on Dec. 7, according to Nyquist. The Saturday event which will feature ski lessons for all ages from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., followed by a community race at 1 p.m., and donations can be made to the Kenai booster club.
The SoHi boys and girls squads both fell short at the region meet last season, but not by much. The SoHi girls were just 1:45 behind team champions Palmer, while the Star boys were the runner-ups, just eight seconds behind champion Colony.
Erhardt predicted both his programs will be in the mix again this year.
“I think we have a number of strong guys and girls skiers, and both varsity teams are looking strong,” he said. “I’m really happy about that.”
Another reason Erhardt believes in his teams is depth, with 41 skiers currently on the roster.
The SoHi girls return all but one varsity skier from 2018-19, led by juniors Katie Delker and Erika Arthur. Arthur was 10th at the region meet last season while Delker was 11th. Rounding out the varsity team is Cameron Blackwell, Sonora Martin, Jordan Strausbaugh, Jordan Ruffner and Carson Dement.
The SoHi boys lost two varsity skiers to graduation, but the rest of the cast is deep. The Stars are led by returning veteran Bradley Walters, who finished fifth at regions last year, and Jack Harris, who was sixth.
Behind them, the boys feature Quintin Cox, Ryder Giesler and Foster Boze, while Erhardt added that a few JV skiers will make consistent appearance on varsity, including David Grinestaff and Swedish exchange student Jesper Strom.
The Kenai ski program locked down Region III finishes of fifth for the boys, and sixth for the girls a year ago.
This season, Nyquist is expecting a more experienced team to make strides.
“We were really young last year, very young,” he said. “This year we have those kids back, and I think we’ll be competitive. It’s hard to say exactly where we’re at right now, but we’re always hopeful as coaches that we’ll do what we can with the conditions.”
Maria Salzetti was the top Division II skier at the state meet last year, following up a sixth-place finish at the Region III meet, but Salzetti graduated, along with fellow senior Mickinzie Ticknor.
Nyquist said the girls stepping up this year include senior Anya Danielson, who returns after taking a year off, sophomores Summer Foster and Leah Fallon and freshmen Jayna Boonstra and Madison McDonald. Nyquist added that the team should get additional varsity contributions from sophomore Michaela Hall and Gabby Tews.
The Kenai boys feature a pair of senior leaders in Josh Foster and Tucker Mueller. Both have varsity experience with Kenai, as Foster was 21st last year at regions.
Foster and Mueller will be followed by sophomores Tyler Hippchen (20th at regions last year), Nathan Haakenson and Johann Carranza. The Kards will also look to freshman Matthew Grzybowski, freshman Ben Boersma and junior Sorin Sorensen for additional depth.
Following a fourth-place finish at the Region III meet last year, O’Hara is hoping the Homer girls can move up and contend for the region title.
“Soldotna is going to be our biggest competition this year,” she predicted. “Last year, I think our girls won everything (over the Stars), but Soldotna will give us a race this year.”
The Homer girls used the fourth-place region finish to fuel them to a ninth-place run at state, led by Autumn Daigle, who finished 31st in the girls skimeister standings. Daigle was also fourth at the region meet.
Daigle returns for her senior year, although O’Hara noted that she won’t be with the team until January due to prior commitments with the wrestling program. Daigle will be joined by teammates Zoe Stonorov and Brita Restad. Stonorov placed 13th at the region meet last year.
O’Hara said the rest of the varsity will likely be rounded out by Aiyana Cline and a crop of freshmen that includes Eryn Field and Leah Dunn.
The boys team graduated its only state participant last year, Andy Super in 77th, but O’Hara said the Mariners welcome an aspiring freshman in Garrett Briscoe, who could contend at regions.
Zach Cureton returns as head coach in Seward for a second year. The Seahawks graduated their top girls skier Sadie Lindquist, who placed 23rd at the region meet and 53rd at state last year.