Last week’s Region III nordic skiing championships featured the fastest skiers from the Kenai Peninsula as they won a team title for a 19th straight year, a streak dating back to 2000.
This week at the state meet, the challenges will be taken to a whole new level.
First, there is the competition. The state’s best ski teams come from the biggest schools like West and South Anchorage. The peninsula has had many skiers crack the top-10 and a few nearly win an individual state title — known as the Skimeister — but no peninsula skier has ever stood atop the podium.
Second, there is the course. The state meet convenes for three days, starting today, at the Birch Hill ski area in Fairbanks, a challenging venue that features a number of daunting uphill climbs that can break down even the most seasoned racers.
And third, there is the weather forecast, which is expected to see the Fairbanks area get hit by as much as four to eight inches of snow and some freezing rain, with wind gusts up to 40 mph. The National Weather Service has even issued a winter weather advisory in effect until noon on Friday.
In all, it will likely weed out the best of the best.
“I think it makes it sort of exciting,” said Homer ski coach Cole Talbot. “The Fairbanks courses are already tough, and you add that in there, it makes for a day where the kids that are aerobically fit come through.”
The Kenai Central and Soldotna teams rode the Alaska Railroad up to Fairbanks this week, a trip of about 350 miles from Anchorage. SoHi ski coach Isaac Erhardt said the wax technicians on the team (i.e. the coaches) will have their hands full for Friday’s classic races.
“It’ll make classic skiing interesting if it’s windy and blowing crap into the tracks,” Erhardt said. “We’ll see how that turns out.”
The meet kicks off today with interval-start freestyle races, with the boys skiing 7.5 kilometers and the girls going 5K. Friday’s race will be mass start classic events, with the boys racing 10K and the girls 7.5K, and Saturday wraps up the meet with the popular relays, which feature a classic-classic-skate-skate technique pattern with girls racing 3K each leg and boys racing 5K each leg.
Among the top skiers from the peninsula, Karl Danielson leads the Kenai boys into state as the renewed Region III champion. Danielson racked up first and second place finishes last weekend to capture his second straight region crown, and after Saturday’s race said he is targeting a top-10 result at state. Danielson was 23rd at state last year.
The Kenai girls won the region team crown by placing two in the top three. While Colony’s Annika Hanestad raced off with the individual championship, her second in a row, seniors Addison Gibson and Riana Boonstra snatched up second and third, respectively, to propel the Kardinals to the girls team title. In Friday’s race, Maria Salzetti gave the Kardinals added depth by placing 11th. Last year, Kenai took seventh in the girls team race at state, led by Boonstra’s high finish of 19th.
Gibson missed the state meet in 2017, and said after Saturday’s region meet that she is searching for a top-10 finish this weekend. Gibson placed 10th as a freshman and 19th her sophomore year.
Fresh off the boys Region III team championship on home snow, Erhardt said Soldotna is on top of its game entering the weekend.
“They’ve put in a lot of hard work over the season, and the region results showed that,” he said.
Erhardt said his boys team is targeting a top five team finish, but that may rely on each skier putting in a perfect weekend of races.
“There are a couple of schools that are going to be close with us,” Erhardt said. “Us and Dimond were close at the Lynx Loppett, but we haven’t seen them since early December.”
Soldotna thrives on depth. Last week at the Region III meet, SoHi placed five in the top 10 to win the boys team title. John-Mark Pothast was second overall, starting with a victory in Friday’s 5K skate race, and teammates Jeremy Kupferschmid took fourth, Josh Shuler took sixth, Bradley Walters was eighth and Jack Harris was ninth.
Right now, Erhardt said his top three bullets are Pothast, Kupferschmid and Shuler, and the fourth member of Saturday’s relay will come down to who skis better today and Friday.
While a top 20 individual spot at state is a realistic goal for Pothast, Erhardt believes the SoHi senior is capable of a top 10 if the cards fall the right way. While he didn’t ski last year, Pothast took home a 13th-place result at state two years ago.
“I know he’d love to get back up there again,” Erhardt said. “He’d love to stand on that stage.”
A dominant freestyle racer, Erhardt said Pothast has improved on his classic form this year, and Friday’s classic race in Fairbanks may be a determining factor in whether or not he could be a top-10 finisher.
The Stars finished eighth in the boys team race last year at state, capped with a fifth-place finish in the relay on the final day. Erhardt said that final-day relay was a perfect way to finish the season on a high note, and he hopes that momentum returns this time around.
“I want us back in that slot,” he said.
The SoHi girls return one year after finishing 14th in the team standings, but one week after racking up a bronze at the Region III meet. Erhardt said he believes his girls are capable of breaking into the top-10 at state.
“The girls team is still primarily very young, except for (senior) Kellie Arthur,” he said. “They’re improving through the years and I’m interested to see how they stack up.”
Arthur finished eighth last weekend at the region meet, followed behind by teammate Sonora Martin in ninth. Behind that duo, the Stars feature Cameron Blackwell, Hannah and Katie Delker and Isabella Dammeyer, as well as Erika Arthur. All five SoHi skiers racked up top-25 finishes on either one or both races last weekend.
Homer enters the state meet weekend on the heels of several top-10 region performances. The Mariners girls placed fourth last weekend, led by the sixth-place result of Katia Holmes, which included a fourth-place finish in Saturday’s classic event. Autumn Daigle trailed Holmes in seventh in the final skimeister standings, putting two Homer girls in the region skimeister fight.
“We have a pretty solid girls team,” Talbot said. “Last year at regions, every school brought their best teams, and it was the first time we got to ski against Colony’s and Kenai’s best team. We felt really good about that result because it was tough competition.”
In addition to Holmes and Daigle, Talbot listed Zoe Stonorov, Kate Bering and Brita Restad as racers who will add depth to the varsity squad.
On the boys side, Homer also saw familiar faces near the front at regions. The Mariners placed fifth in the overall team standings, led by Jacob Davis’ seventh-place finish in the final standings and Denver Waclawski’s 10th. Davis had a top finish of sixth in Saturday’s 7.5K classic race.
“In general, our goals were based on splits,” Talbot said. “They were saying we don’t know what splits mean against this field.
“They know who they’re racing against based on Kenai and Soldotna kids, but here, it’ll be more based on how your body feels. That was the general consensus after last week. At a race like this where you don’t know where you stack up, it’s about feeling your body and staying in control.”
Seward head coach Luke Rosier said in a text that he is bringing three girls and three boys skiers to state, not enough to score in the team standings.
Seward was led by Ruby Lindquist at last week’s region meet, and Lindquist is again expected to lead the Seahawks. Lindquist took fourth in the final region skimeister standings, including a high of third in Friday’s 5K skate race.
Rosier said Lindquist is gunning for a top-10 finish this weekend after a 17th last year, and after a fall late in last week’s race cost her positions, the Seward senior will be looking to maximize her potential.
“Ruby is feeling confident after good skate results at regions,” Rosier said. “Ready to show up in classic after falling and giving up a few spots a few hundred meters from the finish at regions.”