State cross-country preview: Kenai Peninsula squads hunt for more honors

After claiming three of four individual titles and three of four team titles at the Region III Cross-Country Championships, Kenai Peninsula schools head to the state meet at the Bartlett High School Trails in Anchorage on Saturday looking for more.

The teams in the best position to claim state glory are the Homer girls and boys, who swept Region III/1-2-3A titles last weekend. Region III teams have swept the Class 1-2-3A state titles every year since 2004.

While the Homer girls are looking to add to state titles in 1988, 1989, 1990 and 2014, the boys are in search of their first state crown.

Also on the line is the first state team title for a group of boys from Homer since 1989, when the Mariners boys basketball squad won state.

The Homer girls return six of the seven girls from last year’s title team — seniors Aurora Waclawski and Ziza Shemet Pitcher, juniors Megan Pitzman, Lauren Evarts and Haley Knott, and sophomore Alex Moseley.

Junior Audrey Rosencrans, who has been running second or third on the team, missed state last season with an injury. Homer coach Bill Steyer said Rosencrans was the No. 7 runner last year but put in a ton of work to get where she is today.

“I think they have a good chance of getting the state championship provided they race the way they’ve been racing,” Steyer said of his girls squad.

Pitzman should be the first runner across the line for Homer, but Steyer said Glennallen junior Briahna Gerlach is the favorite to win a third straight Class 1-2-3A title.

The Homer boys are undefeated against Grace Christian this year, but Steyer knows the Grizzlies will not give up a nine-year run atop Class 1-2-3A without a fight. The coach also said Sitka has been putting together some impressive times.

But if this young Homer squad can break through, the sky is the limit in future years. The team is made up of junior Jared Brant, sophomores Jordan Beachy, Charlie Menke, Jacob Davis and Denver Waclawski, and freshmen Luciano Fasulo and Dexter Lowe.

“It’s really exciting this year to have the boys be just as equally dominant as the girls have been the last couple years,” Steyer said.

In five years of coaching cross-country and six years coaching track, Steyer, with help from assistant Francesca Robinson, has helped fashion the Mariners into a program capable of sweeping state.

“There’s a lot of key people besides me that have made it possible,” Steyer said. “Seward has always been the model. They have a running culture with Mt. Marathon.

“Kids there identify as runners and that’s what we’re trying to develop in Homer. Homer can be a strong running community. They just need somebody to help and guide them.”

Seward has six Class 1-2-3A girls titles, six boys titles, eight individual girls titles and four individual boys titles.

The Seahawks got Region III wins from junior Hunter Kratz and sophomore Ruby Lindquist last weekend. Due to the strength of Gerlach, Kratz probably is the better bet to add to Seward’s long list of champions.

But to do it, he will have to unseat defending champ Kaleb Korta of Galena.

“I think Kaleb comes in as a stronger runner, but I really like watching Hunter run and it’d be cool to see him win,” Steyer said. “He’s a beautiful athlete and runner to watch. His running form is perfect.”

The Seahawks also will have full girls and boys teams at state, and due to coach Dan Marshall’s ability to get them to peak at this meet, the Seahawks can’t be counted out.

Joining Lindquist on the girls squad are senior Iris Anderson, junior Cassidy DeLand, sophomores EmmaLee Moore and Ashley Guersney, and freshman Sadie Lindquist.

Running with Kratz will be seniors Paxson Berry, Seth Brewi, Thomas Zweifel, Alex Estes and Jonathan Kingsland, and sophomore Case Estes.

The small-schools meet also includes seniors Greg Trail, Jonah Fefelov and Megan Hickman, and freshmen Chelsea Johnson and Michael Trail, from Nikolaevsk.

Warriors coach Steve Klaich wrote in an email the goals are to “compete with determination, run to the best of their ability, and for the three seniors, finish with class and a great run.”

On the Class 4A side, Kenai Central shows up with a shot at individual and team titles on the girls side despite having graduated three-time state champ Allie Ostrander after last season.

Sophomore Riana Boonstra overcame a midseason hamstring injury to win the Region III title last weekend. Kenai coach Maria Calvert said it appears Boonstra will duel with Molly Gellert of West and Morgan Lash of South for the title.

“She’s really turning it on,” Calvert said. “We’re looking for a strong race for her.”

After winning the Kenai Peninsula Borough meet in a downpour this season, Boonstra talked about how much she loves running in the rain. So she’s probably one of the few that is happy to see rain in the forecast for Saturday.

Calvert said fellow sophomore Addison Gibson also is a big fan of the rain.

“Good for them,” Calvert said. “It’s about being young and enjoying it, even in the rain.”

Joining Boonstra and Gibson will be sophomores Ithaca Bergholtz, Leah Johnson and Kasey Paxton, and freshmen Jaycie Calvert and Brooke Satathite.

Calvert showed she is feeling better after being slowed by some hip issues by finishing second at regions, while Bergholtz was fourth and Gibson was sixth.

The Kardinals will face some tough competition from Colony, West and West Valley, but the region meet showed what the youngsters are capable of. Kenai has never won a cross-country team title.

“It’s really hard to speculate about state,” Calvert said. “Any team on any day can get it done depending on circumstances. They’re all ready to give it their all and let the chips fall where they may.”

The Soldotna boys team managed to get a girls team and two boys to state despite some tough luck at regions.

On the girls side, top runner Olivia Hutchings, a senior, continued to be slowed by health issues. She was the sixth SoHi runner across the line, but the Stars were still able to claim third and a state berth.

“That night, I told them, ‘Hey, Olivia carried you guys a lot of meets. Now it’s your turn to carry her,’” SoHi coach Ted McKenney said. “It wasn’t outstanding, but they got it done.”

McKenney said he is not sure if Hutchings will compete at state. If not, the Stars will go with a six-person lineup of seniors Daisy Nelson, Hannah Pothast and Emily Werner, juniors Molly Erickson and Fiona Boze, and sophomore Kellie Arthur.

“We’ll just work at running in a tight pack and seeing how well we can place. There’s four excellent teams this year,” McKenney said of Kenai, Colony, West and West Valley. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen four such excellent teams going for the championship.”

McKenney also said the Class 4A boys, led so far by Ty Jordan of Chugiak, also are really fast this year. Nevertheless, senior Aaron Swedberg is shooting for the top 10.

“He’s going to have to have the race of his life to get there,” McKenney said. “Those 10 positions will be highly contested for. There’s uniform quality across the state.”

The coach also said that quality should give sophomore Josh Shuler a lesson in speed.

“It’s nice for him to make it,” McKenney said. “There was just a little window and he was able to squeeze in. He’ll get a real taste of what speed is all about now.”

The Stars had designs on taking their whole boys team to state, but couldn’t make it when No. 2 runner David Michael was held out of regions due to injury.

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