This summer, despite working long hours commercial fishing with her family, Homer senior Autumn Daigle would take a boat to areas where she could get in running workouts.
“She’d run Jakolof (Bay) Road, some 5 miles up, then 5 miles back down,” Homer coach Bob Ostrom said.
Saturday at the state cross-country meet at the Bartlett High School Trails, Daigle is looking for all that extra work to pay off.
Daigle won the Division II cross-country state championship as a sophomore, but then watched last season as 2019 Kenai Central graduate Jaycie Calvert captured every single Division II race en route to taking Daigle’s status as the state champion.
This year, despite losing practice time and a few meets due to wildfires, Daigle has won every race she entered.
Ostrom said all of Daigle’s work on the hills was crucial because Homer had to turn to stairs in the school for “hill” workouts when smoke forced runners inside early in the season.
Once the season gets rolling, Ostrom said it’s hard to do a lot of hill workouts.
“They’re already racing every weekend,” Ostrom said. “Hills are hard and take a lot out of the kids.”
Bartlett has some hills and Ostrom would like to see them be the difference for Daigle.
“There’s going to be a few girls that challenge her early in the race,” Ostrom said. “I think she’ll be able to pull away from them, but she’ll just do her best and see where she ends up.”
Daigle is the best title hope from the Kenai Peninsula on a day that will see a bunch of area runners toe the starting line.
The Soldotna girls and boys, Kenai Central girls and boys, Seward girls and boys, and Homer girls all qualified for state. In addition, Nikolaevsk qualified three athletes for the newest wrinkle at the state meet.
Instead of a Division I (big schools) race and racing the Division II (medium size) and III (small school) athletes at the same time, the state meet will now have a separate race for each division.
The Division III boys are at 10 a.m., Division III girls at 10:45 a.m., Division II boys at noon, Division I boys at 12:45 p.m., Division II girls at 1:30 p.m. and Division I girls at 2:15 p.m.
“We’re excited,” Nikolaevsk coach Steve Klaich said. “It’s a great opportunity to see how Nikolaevsk runners stack up against against other small-school runners in the state.”
Klaich expects sophomore Justin Trail, making his second appearance at state, to be in the thick of the title chase. Based on reported times from across the state, Klaich said it looks like 10 or 12 runners, including Trail, should be in a front pack racing for glory.
“I think it’s going to be a phenomenal race Saturday,” Klaich said.
Senior Isabelle Hickman will make her fourth appearance at state. Klaich said Hickman isn’t with the top runners, but it would be great if she closed her career with a personal best.
Senior Sophia Klaich will run at state for the second time. Coach Klaich said his daughter has been dealing with ankle issues, so making state is a plus for her.
Soldotna, the peninsula’s lone Division I team, will try and build on a successful region meet at state. Coach Ted McKenney said 42 of his 46 runners had a personal record at regions.
The most notable came from junior Erika Arthur, who improved her best time by over a minute in winning the Region III title. Sophomore Jordan Strausbaugh was third, and McKenney is looking forward to what the duo does at state, though the heavy favorite is West Valley senior Kendall Kramer.
“Jordan is a competitor, so Erika better be careful at state,” McKenney said, adding it would be great if both runners could get in the top 15 and earn medals.
Joining the pair will be sophomores Jordan Ruffner and Ellie Burns, junior Katie Delker and seniors Ryann Cannava and Cameron Blackwell. Soldotna was second in the region last weekend, but McKenney said he’d love to see the girls finish first among region teams this weekend.
Senior Bradley Walters will lead the boys. Walters had a PR of 17 minutes, 4 seconds, last weekend, and McKenney would love to see Walters drop below 17 minutes in what should be a sizzling boys race.
Also running for the Stars will be senior Lance Chilton, juniors Anchor Musgrave, Zach Burns and Kaden Matson, and sophomores Maleda Denbrock and Quinn Cox. The Stars were third at regions, and McKenney said a goal is to move up and beat Colony, which took second.
The Kenai Central girls enter as the defending Division II state champions. The Kards were 15 points behind champion Grace Christian at the region meet.
“Not everyone was running at their very best due to injuries,” Kenai coach Bailey Beeson said. “They have the potential to be one of the top teams in the state. It’s definitely doable and they’re hungry for it.”
The lineup will be freshman Jayna Boonstra and sophomores Logan Satathite, Caitlin Crabb, Leah Fallon, Mikaela Hall and Gabriella Tews. Sophomore Summer Foster’s status was not known early in the week due to an injury.
Beeson said the boys also have the potential to be one of the state’s top teams, but have battled injuries as well.
Junior Maison Dunham leads the pack. Beeson said Dunham could be in a strange position — far behind the incredible running of defending state champ and ACS junior Tristian Merchant, but ahead of everybody else.
“He’s kind of in no man’s land,” Beeson said. “Hopefully he can push himself enough to get a personal record.”
Sophomores Luke Cross and Joe Hamilton, plus freshman Ky Calvert will run for Kenai. Senior Tucker Mueller and sophomores Nathan Haakenson and Tyler Hippchen are question marks due to injury.
Homer’s Daigle will be joined by junior Brooke Miller, sophomores Maddox Berg, Kara Super and Gracie Gummer, and freshmen Eryn Field and Leah Dunn.
Like the other coaches, Ostrom is thrilled with what his runners were able to accomplish despite the shortened season.
“I just wish we had a couple more weeks of season and more time for the freshmen and young kids to get faster,” Ostrom said. “They missed out on a lot this year.”
Seward first-year head coach Shelly Walker also brought the program a long way despite the shortened season. The Seahawks girls and boys missed out on state last year, but both return to the big show this year.
“It was a phenomenal, incredible success,” Walker said. “I’m so proud of them.”
Walker said she had coached the runners in middle school, but none were around when she assisted Dan Marshall at the high school level.
“They had no reason to trust me, but they tried everything I asked them to do,” Walker said. “They could have given up during the smoky two weeks of indoor practice.”
Walker wasn’t even sure the girls would have a team at the beginning of the season, but they qualified for state in a tough region.
“They showed up and really ran their guts out,” Walker said.
The five runners are freshman Lena Jagielski, junior Hana Cooney, freshman Aly Guernsey, junior Lucy Hankins and junior Maranatha Brueckner.
The boys are a tight group that finished second in the Kenai Peninsula Borough and were just three points out of second at the region meet. That raises the possibility of a high finish at state.
“They really worked as a team,” Walker said. “I don’t think I could single anybody out. Every one had a personal best or a season best at that race.”
The boys team is made up of junior Max Pfeiffenberger, senior Bjorn Nilsson, junior Trey Ingalls, senior Jaden Van Dyke, junior Levi Deboard, junior Samuel Koster and junior Clayton Petersen.