As host of the Region III track and field championships this weekend, the Soldotna Stars are looking to make Justin Maile Field their own playground Friday and Saturday.
Kenai Central, Nikiski, Homer and Seward all harbor potential individual championship contenders, but none have the sort of scoring depth that the Stars have to contend for team titles.
However, SoHi head track coach Phil Leck isn’t counting his chickens just yet.
“We have the three (Mat-Su) Valley schools coming down, and all three present different challenges,” Leck said. “Wasilla has some horses, Colony’s got good depth, Palmer has some good kids, and then there’s Kodiak coming over, who’ve got all their bases covered.”
Soldotna hosted the Region III Preview meet in late April as a perfect window into the athletes to keep an eye on. The Soldotna boys walked away with the team title that weekend, edging out second-place Anchorage Christian by eight points (93-85), while the SoHi girls finished second by 22 points (88-66) to team champion Grace Christian.
Leck is expecting a four-way “dogfight” in the girls team race and a three-way battle in the boys.
At the borough meet last weekend, held in Homer between peninsula programs, SoHi swept its way to dominant team titles, winning half (17 of 34) of all boys and girls events.
But with Kodiak and the Valley schools in town for the weekend, Leck isn’t forecasting another romp.
“It’ll be a totally different track meet this weekend,” Leck said. “Last weekend we just kind of ran away with all them. Not this weekend.”
The meet will feature finals for the 3,200 meters, triple jump and shot put on Friday, with all other finals on Saturday beginning at noon.
Each event champion receives an automatic bid to the Class 3A and 4A state meets next weekend in Palmer, and the next 12 best times distances also make it in. Each relay champion automatically qualifies with the next four best also making it to state.
Smaller programs at Cook Inlet Academy and Ninilchik will be traveling to Susitna-Valley High School near Talkeetna for the Region II championship meet. The CIA Eagles will compete with three athletes while Ninilchik will bring six.
The secret to SoHi’s team success this season comes from a deep field of boys sprinters, throwers and jumpers.
The SoHi boys swept all four relays last week at the borough meet, and the two shortest relays are particularly deadly. The 400-meter relay sits just fractions of a second behind the best time in the region this year by Wasilla, and the 800-meter relay squad is less than a second behind the region leaders.
The depth of the sprint relay program was put on display at the borough meet when SoHi ran to a top-five sweep in the 100-meter dash, led by junior Ben Booth. Booth is the top 100-meter sprinter in the region this year with a top time of 11.37 seconds, which he shares with Kodiak senior Micah Bartel. Booth mentioned at the Kenai Invitational two weeks ago that he would have to contend with Bartel.
“We’re deep,” Leck said. “We have kids that deserve to be on that relay just as much as anyone else.”
The SoHi throwing crew is also deep, led by seniors Cody Nye and Levi Benner, and juniors Galen Brantley III, Melvin Lloyd and Aaron Faletoi. At the borough meet, SoHi swept the top four in the shot put and the top three in the discus, with Nye coming out the winner in both events.
Leck credited the coaching of Galen Brantley Jr. for the success of the throwers, and said the team will need to score big points this weekend to escape with a team title.
“Our throwers have got to hit,” he said. “We rely on those guys and the advantage we have. We’re counting on them.”
Among other athletes to keep an eye on — sophomore Trenton O’Reagan, who has the best boys long jump in the region this year; senior Bryan Whitaker, who holds the best triple jump in the region; junior Bradley Walters in the distance races; senior Kaleb Swank, who is is tied for the best high jump in the region with Colony senior Julian McPhail; and junior Tyler Morrison, who Leck said is a contender.
The SoHi girls, Leck said, will be counting on getting points from several of their strongholds, including the throwing crew, hurdlers and relays.
Junior Ituau Tuisaula has been a steady linchpin for the SoHi girls this year, racking up four wins in the shot put and is looking to defend her Region III shot crown from 2018.
The distance team could also pick up points from sophomore Erika Arthur, who is fifth in the 3,200 this year among region runners.
“She’s a big chess piece to whether we win the region title,” Leck said.
The SoHi hurdlers are led by junior Holleigh Jaime, who sits second in the girls 300-meter hurdles and third in the 100 hurdles. Kodiak junior Hallee Blair leads the times in both events and Leck said she will be the biggest obstacle for Jaime this weekend.
Leck said senior Sophie Thomas will also be returning this weekend after hurting her ankle in a hurdles run several weeks ago. Thomas currently holds the fifth-fastest 100 hurdles time in the region, but that mark came in the Big C Relays in early April.
“We definitely need to make some money in the hurdles,” he said.
The Stars also hold the fastest times in the region in both the 800- and 1,600-meter girls relays, with senior mid-distance runner Brittany Taylor leading the charge in both. Taylor recently signed to run college track at UAA, and Leck said she is looking for a strong finish to the season to end her high school career on a high note. Taylor’s biggest nemesis this weekend will likely be Wasilla senior Allison VanPelt, the only girl in Region III to post a faster 400 time than Taylor this year.
In the jumping events, SoHi junior Kylie Ness is looking for a breakthrough in the girls long and triple jumps, while the Schmidt sisters, Danica and Aliann, could pick up a win in the high jump. Danica Schmidt currently sits second in the region with a leap of 4 feet, 11 inches, just one behind Homer’s Marina Carroll.
The Kenai Kardinals will be looking to get a host of points from their boys distance squad and their girls sprint and hurdling crews.
Senior Hayley Maw currently leads the time sheets in the region this year in the girls 100 dash and is third-quickest in the 200, both with PRs. Maw’s 200 time of 26.64 seconds is only .11 seconds behind the closest 4A competitor, Wasilla senior Olivia Davies.
In the girls hurdles, junior Savanna Wilson enters the weekend second-fastest in the 100 hurdles and fourth-fastest in the 300 hurdles. Wilson’s PR of 16.36 seconds in the 100 event is only .18 seconds behind the top time of Kodiak’s Hallee Blair.
Maw and Wilson are also part of the fastest girls 400-meter relay in the region this year, partnering with Kylie-Anne Raye and Chelsea Plagge at the borough championships last weekend en route to the win. That relay and the girls 3,200-meter relay are both favorites to pull in points for the Kardinals.
Plagge is also a contender to watch for in the girls triple jump. The Kenai junior currently sits second with a leap of 33 feet, 1.5 inches, but will have to find almost 2 feet more to compete with Davies of Wasilla, who holds a top leap of 34 feet, 11.25 inches.
On the boys side, Kenai sophomore Maison Dunham has come on strong at the end of the season to lead the Kardinals distance team. Dunham demolished his career best in the boys 1,600 two weeks ago at the Kenai Invite to post the second-best time. Dunham also sits second this year in the 800, and will likely have to beat Grace speedster Tristian Merchant for maximum points.
Kenai could also get big points from senior Jarett Wilson in the hurdles. Wilson has Region III finishes of second in both the 110- and 300-meter hurdles in the past, and is ranked third in the 110 this year and second in the 300.
Nikiski may not be a huge threat for a team title, but the Bulldogs flaunt plenty of muscle, particularly in the throwing events where junior Kaitlyn Johnson reigns. Johnson currently holds the fifth-best region throw in the discus this year, and is third among 3A throwers.
Meanwhile, senior teammate Bethany Carstens could pull in some points for Nikiski in the girls high jump, where she holds the fourth-best time with three other jumpers in the region at 4 feet, 8 inches.
The Nikiski boys could get points from junior Bryan McCollum and senior Garrett Ellis in the jumps, particularly the long jump.
In recent years, Homer has often been the biggest threat to win the region crown in the 3A category, and could do it again this year with help from a variety of places.
Mariners sophomore Laura Inama currently sits fourth in the girls 200 and seventh in the 100, while junior Marina Carroll is the top high-jumper in Region III this year at 5-feet even.
Senior Anna Brock also has the potential to rack up the points in the girls throwing events. Brock shares the lead in the discus with Seward senior Coral Petrosius, and is sixth-best in the shot put.
Seward’s biggest boys scorer is junior Connor Spanos, second in the 400 and has earned a few victories in the event this year competing for one of the smaller schools.