After nine Alaska high school track and field records were set at the season-ending state meet last May, much of the top talent has been flushed out, gone to graduation and in most cases out to collegiate programs.
So how do coaches reload their programs? There are eight short weeks to find out, starting this weekend with the Big “C” Relays in Anchorage.
On the distance stage, last years record-breaking performances by Kenai Central’s Allie Ostrander and Levi Thomet of Kodiak have left a residual fog of amazement over the track and field landscape in Alaska. Four of the nine state records set last spring were authored by the duo, and both had times in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter races that stood up among the best on a national level.
Ostrander and Thomet are gone, and the state-record Soldotna girls 3,200-meter relay and the West Valley boys 400-meter relay teams have essentially disbanded with the loss of crucial seniors.
“There’s no Allie Ostranders or Levi Thomets out there this year,” said Soldotna head coach Phil Leck. “It’s so wide open.”
The only record breakers back for second helpings this year will be ACS senior Tanner Ealum, who smashed the previous state bests in the girls 200- and 400-meter sprints, and Thunder Mountain senior Naomi Welling, who posted a new standard in the girls 300-meter hurdles.
With this being an Olympic year — the Rio de Janeiro games are only months away — the sport is naturally experiencing highs in interest and participation. That combined with another spring season of warmer temperatures and a winter snowpack nearly melted away has given prep teams a boost.
The Big C Relays this weekend at The Dome in Anchorage are expected to see well over 1,000 athletes and 40 track teams. Every year at the meet, a guest athlete makes an appearance, and this time it will be Michelle Carter, the national prep record-holder in the shot put, and a two-time Olympian.
Carter comes from a successful family of athletes. Her father, Michael, is the only person to win an Olympic medal and a Super Bowl ring in the same year (1984, silver in the shot put, and nose tackle with the 49ers) and sister D’Andra is a thrower at Texas Tech.
“We’re excited to get out of the gate and get some times down,” said Kenai Central coach Chris Hanson.
“We’re super excited to meet Michelle,” added Nikiski coach Jake Doth. “It’s a big shindig and it’s a great way to start the season off.”
With the recent Olympic standard qualifying discus throw by 2008 SoHi graduate Paige Blackburn, the interest level has increased particularly for the SoHi Stars. Just a few years removed from a team of 25 to 30 heads, the SoHi track team is overflowing with numbers, which is hovering around 90.
“I think the kids feed off that, like, holy cow there’s a kid in the Olympic trials,” Leck said.
An influx of athletes from the defunct Skyview High School bolstered roster numbers last year, and this year has shown to be even better.
The question remains. Who will rise up and take hold of the state scene this year?
There’s no doubt that Kenai’s stronghold for several years has been the distance core of Ostrander and the Theisen twins, Jonah and Jordan.
The three distance stars, along with fellow senior sprint specialist Kyla Whannell — who now competes at Division II Roberts Wesleyan College in New York — combined to rack up 10 of Kenai’s 19 individual finals finishes at the state meet.
“I still have Allie and the Theisens on my team, right?” Hanson quipped.
The bright side is that coach Hanson is seeing the effect of having athletes like that in the Kenai track and field program.
“Those three, along with Kyla, had great leadership, and you just can’t coach that,” Hanson said. “Our program was very fortunate to have those individuals go through the program at the same time.
“We had great leadership the past couple years, and we hope these kids learned from that and pass it on.”
At last year’s state meet, the Kenai girls took home the silver in the team standings, while the boys were third. The two scores combined for the most team points of all, edging out the Dimond Lynx by four points.
In the early weeks of this season, Hanson said the entire roster is nearing 60 athletes, which he hopes will go a long way in restocking the point hauls.
“We have 59 kids, so pick some of them,” he said when asked who will step up in the wake of Ostrander and the Theisen’s absence. “We have a lot of numbers.”
Taking over the reigns in the distance running camp is sophomore Ithaca Bergholtz, who finished last year as the second-fastest Kenai girls 3,200 runner after Ostrander, and freshman Brooke Satathite, a member of the 2015 state champion cross-country team. Friday at the Big C Relays, Bergholtz finished third in a field of 37 runners in the girls 3,200.
On the boys side, sophomore Braden Olsen returns as fastest distance runner in the wake of Jordan and Jonah Theisen graduating.
Sophomore Tekaiya Rich and junior Bethany Coghill are promising returners among girls sprinters, and freshman Haley Maw, who was the fastest middle-schooler last year in the 100- and 200-meter races, joins the mix.
Hanson said junior jumping specialist Josh Jackman is still recovering from various ailments from basketball season, but expects him to be back to full form by the end of the season. Jackman led the Kenai boys in five events last year as a sophomore — both hurdle events, the 100-meter dash, and the long and triple jumps. At the state meet last May, Jackman won gold in the long jump with a massive leap of 21 feet, 9 inches.
Joining Jackman among hurdlers is returning sophomore Matthew Torkelson and freshmen Jarett Wilson, who had the top middle-school performances in the 100-meter hurdles and high jump last season.
Senior high jumper Keenan Orth returns to better the eighth-place finish he notched at state last year. Senior Andrew Welborn, Kenai’s top rusher on the medium-schools runner-up football team, will make a first-time track appearance in the sprints as well.
Abby Beck, the Kenai school record holder in the girls discus and reigning region champion, will return for her junior campaign as the Kardinals top thrower, and Toby Randall leads the charge on the boys side. Saturday at the Big C, Randall uncorked a fourth-place discus throw among 28 throwers.
Among girls jumpers, junior Julianne Wilson returns in the and long and triple jumps. Wilson finished third Friday in the long jump at the Big C Relays with a leap of 14 feet, 10.5 inches.
Kenai Central will host its annual Kenai Invitational meet April 22 and 23.
In his fourth year at SoHi and second as head coach, Phil Leck has a big task on his hand — keep track of the 90 kids that have turned out thus far.
“They’re excited, and you come to the field at 3:30 and there’s 40 kids playing soccer too,” Leck said. “It’s good to see them active.”
Last year at the state meet, the SoHi girls finished in a tie for fifth in the team standings.
However, the girls state-record winning 3,200-meter relay squad — which featured a pair of seniors in Sadie Fox and Dani McCormick — and the boys 300-meter hurdles champion Tim Duke have made their exits.
“We lost some good kids, but we’ve got a lot of kids that have experience coming back,” Leck said.
Senior distance star Olivia Hutchings tallied state runner-up finishes last year in the girls 800 and 3,200 meter races, both events she was prevented from winning by Ostrander.
With the Boise State freshman out of the picture this year, Hutchings is free to take the distance crown for herself.
“One of the things I told Olivia was, if you look at her times in the 800 and 1,600 and 3,200, she would be state champion most years,” Leck said.
However, after a fall cross-country season that saw Hutchings miss out on the state meet due to a lingering injury, Leck said the senior will be easing back into the track scene.
“She’s a tough competitor and she sets her goals high,” he said.
The Stars could also get points from senior Daisy Nelson, who played a big role in the girls 3,200-meter relay team that smashed the state record last year. Nelson also made the state final in the 200 and 400-meter dashes, with a best finish of fourth in the 400.
“Daisy can show up to state and do some things in the sprints, and I know she can run 2:20 or faster in the 800,” Leck said. “She loves track and pours her heart in it. I expect a lot out of her as a senior.”
Nelson’s first showing of the year in the 400 meters already knocked down her PR. Nelson finished a close second to Eagle River’s Jordyn Bruce on Friday with a time of 58.95 seconds, chopping over a second off her previous best.
Joining the Stars this year is reigning shot put champion Sylvia Tuisaula, who claimed the 2015 girls state title competing for Wasilla. Tuisaula sustained an injury during the basketball season, but Leck said the senior thrower will go the path of Hutchings and ease her way into the season.
SoHi will also have sophomore Emily Pieh, who finished sixth in the girls discus throw Friday at the Big C Relays, at their disposal, and among the boys, sophomore Wendell Tuisaula.
Senior Lindsey Wong returns for the high and long jumping events, and will be joined by freshman Danica Schmidt, who will likely take on high and triple jumping.
Seniors Aaron Swedberg and Levi Michael will lead the charge in the boys distance core. Swedberg led SoHi in the boys 1,600 last year with a time of 4:45.38.
Sophomore Brenner Furlong returns as the top sprinter from last year. Furlong will race in the 100- and 400-meter dashes.
Leck also gave praise to the SoHi assistant coaches, which includes Galen Brantley Jr. as a throwing coach, Ted McKenney with the distance crew, Kristen McGlothen assisting with hurdles and sprints and Dan Gensel volunteering with the high jumpers.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough meet is scheduled May 14 at the revamped Soldotna track.
NIK ISKI BULLDOGS
In his third year as head coach of the Bulldogs, Jake Doth expressed an abundance of enthusiasm for his squad, which he says is focused on individual accomplishments.
“We don’t have the numbers to go out there and destroy in points, our mentality is different,” Doth said. “We have the humble attitude to better ourselves.”
With a turnout of about 25 athletes, Doth said he currently has no runners in the 400, 1,600 and 3,200-meter races, as well as the hurdle events. The Bulldogs are also fighting off the cold and flu bugs that have plagued sports teams this spring.
But with the star athletes at Nikiski, along with the help of assistant Phil Morin, Doth said the Bulldogs are on track to pick up some podium medals.
“I’ve got the best kids in the state,” Doth said.
One senior leading the charge is thrower Luke Johnson, who is a former Region III champion in both shot put and discus events.
“His name is synonymous with ‘stud,’” Doth said. “He’s a great athlete and a great young man.”
Friday at the Big “C” Relays, Johnson already had a new personal best with a throw of 46 feet, 1.75 inches, in the shot put, best among Class 1-2-3A athletes.
Luke’s sophomore brother, Ian, is quickly moving into his spotlight. Ian finished sixth among 28 throwers in the discus Saturday in Anchorage, and Doth said Ian has put up huge numbers in practice.
“Ian probably put on 25 pounds over the year, and I think he’s going to be a sleeper,” Doth said.
The Nikiski girls will see a nice addition in the throwing department with freshman Kelsey Clark joining the mix.
“You will not find a more competitive lady in the area, and she has a sense of humor that’ll make Mother Theresa laugh,” Doth said.
Senior Arianne Parrish will return for her final year in the long and triple jump, and is hoping to surpass 15 feet this year in the long jump. Parrish also returns as fastest Nikiski girl in the 100 meters, and fellow senior Brittany Perry could add points to the Bulldogs total in the long and triple jumps as well.
On the boys side, sophomore Aaron McCollum returns after leading the Nikiski boys in the long and triple jumps.
On the boys sprinting squad, junior Patrick Perry returns along with junior Matthew Minium, who led the Bulldogs in the 100-meter dash at 12.22 seconds last year.
Mariners coach Bill Steyer has just over 40 athletes on his roster, and some of those he just picked up last week after the girls basketball team finished their deep run into the state tournament.
“I’d say we’re more balanced this year between the girls and boys, so it’s kind of a broad range,” Steyer said about his squad. “We have some really experienced kids that are upperclassmen.”
Aurora Waclawski, who led the Mariners at the recent Class 3A state tournament by averaging 14.3 points per game, will make a quick turnaround and lead Homer in the middle distance races. Last year, as a junior, Waclawski notched the fastest girls times for Homer in the 200, 400 and 800 meter events.
Waclawski also played a role in Homer’s smashing relay success. Homer’s biggest points haul last year came from the girls relays, as three of four won the state title, while the other finished second. In all, 38 of Homer’s 80 points last year in the girls team scores came from the relays.
In the individual 400-meter state final last year, ACS star Tanner Ealum blazed her way to a state-record 54.86 seconds, but four of the next five finishers were Homer athletes. Aurora Waclawski, Ziza Shemet-Pitcher, Crystal Crane and Sarah Wolf all followed behind Ealum with times ranging from 61.29 to 64.98 seconds.
The consistency was enough to win the girls 1,600-meter relay state title for a third straight year. The 2015 squad won by almost five seconds over ACS, but with Crane gone to graduation, the Mariners could be facing a setback this year.
“I need a seven-second cushion over (Ealum) for the 1,600-meter relay (in the last leg),” Steyer said matter-of-factly. “We gotta do something to neutralize Tanner’s points.”
At the Big “C” Relays on Saturday, the Homer girls finished sixth out of 18 teams in the 1,600-meter relay with Cheyenne Gillette taking over for Crane.
With 43 currently on the roster, the Mariners will field depth once again.
Lauren Evarts returns for her junior campaign on the hurdles. Evarts rolled to a pair of third-place finishes at last year’s 1-2-3A state meet, and will add speed to a relay or two.
Last year’s Kenai Peninsula Borough 100 meters champ Jake Richter returns for his senior season, and is joined by sophomore Teddy Croft, who has shown considerable speed on the football turf as the Mariners quarterback. Last year, Croft finished seventh in the triple jump at state.
Steyer said Class 3A (basketball) Player of the Year Madison Akers is also trying out sprinting.
Junior Audrey Rosencrans and sophomore Alex Moseley will fill out the girls distance team, while junior Megan Pitzman will make her first track appearance in the girls 3,200 and 1,600 meter races. Pitzman led the Homer girls to their second straight cross-country 1-2-3A championships last fall.
Also coming in from the cross-country team are Jared Brant and Luciano Fasulo from the boys side.
Senior Ralph Mitchell is also back this year to lead the Homer boys throwing core, and sophomore Briea Gregory will join with freshman Anna Brock to lead the girls. Gregory had the top throws as a freshman last season for Homer.
Steyer added that two new assistant coaches have joined the team in Heather Reichenberg, the jumping coach, and Zach Kudla, the throwing and strength conditioning coach.
The Homer Invitational is expected to see 13 teams compete April 29 and 30.
One season ago, the Seward boys tallied a bronze medal in the Class 1-2-3A team standings at the state meet, thanks to sophomore Hunter Kratz and Ruby Lindquist in the distance races, the second-place boys 3,200-meter relay, the girls 1,600 and 3,200-meter relays, and Howie Hubbard in the boys discus and shot put throws. Hubbard was the state champ in the 1-2-3A shot put, but graduated out.
The Region III meet is scheduled May 20-21 at Colony High School.