Tough course to greet Region III runners

In the land where mountains are often used as venues for running races, calling the Government Peak Recreation Area, site of Saturday’s Region III cross-country championships, hilly quickly loses meaning.

So let’s use time instead.

At the Palmer Invitational this season, Blake Bennett of Anchorage Christian Schools posted a boys five-kilometer time of 15 minutes, 56 seconds. Kenai Central’s Addison Gibson ran the girls race at 19:21.

A week later, the same runners competed at the Wasilla Invitational at Government Peak. Bennett was clocked at 17:06, while Gibson crossed at 21:01.

“It’s long, challenging hills,” Soldotna coach Ted McKenney said of the course. “The difference is we don’t ask kids to get a (personal record).

“For a lot of kids, the feel-good improvement is the PR each week, but at regions you’re not worried about time, you’re worried about place and how you match up with the competition.”

The Kardinals were the only peninsula team to attend the Wasilla Invitational this year, meaning the other peninsula schools haven’t run the course.

But McKenney pointed out that many runners are also skiers, so they have skied the course multiple times.

And it’s not like peninsula schools have trouble finding challenging hills on which to run.

“We’re really strong on the hills and have been training for the hills,” Homer coach Annie Ridgely said. “It shouldn’t bother us too much. The course is the same for everybody.”

Further spicing things up is rain in the forecast in late September in Palmer at a place that sits about 400 feet above sea level.

But after the wet season peninsula schools have had, showers aren’t exactly daunting.

“We are pros at running in the rain,” Seward assistant coach Theresa Bickling said. “I think we have been dry five days this season.”

Hills and weather aside, peninsula school head north with an ambitious agenda.

The Kenai girls are hunting a third-straight Region III/4A title and a sixth individual championship in seven years. The SoHi boys want a first state berth since 2008 and possibly a first region title since 2001. Amazingly, Kodiak has won all the region titles — 15 of them — since then.

The Homer girls could nab a fourth straight Region III/3A title and a fourth individual title in five years. The Mariners boys will fight for a third straight boys title.

Seward senior Ruby Lindquist also will vie for her second Region III/3A title, with the first having come as a sophomore.

The Kenai girls will rely on the same group that won the Class 4A state title two seasons ago and also delivered two straight region titles.

“Now that we have more of a veteran team, it makes it a little more special,” Kenai coach Maria Calvert said. “We’ve been there the last two years, and the seniors want to finish on a really high note.”

The group of five that has brought the success is seniors Addison Gibson, Riana Boonstra and Ithaca Bergholtz, and juniors Jaycie Calvert and Brooke Satathite.

With stern competition expected from Palmer, coach Calvert said junior Sarah Drury and senior Dareena Doyle also will be important.

“We have seven girls, and each knows they will have to give everything for us to be successful,” Calvert said.

The Kardinals also have the talent to build on the individual titles of Allie Ostrander from 2011 to 2014 and Boonstra in 2015. While coach Calvert said any of her top girls could emerge on top, Gibson has been the top runner this season, and her cross-country skiing background would appear to set her up well for this course.

Soldotna coach Ted McKenney said his girls will have a tough time qualifying as a team, but added Kellie Arthur, Erika Arthur and Cameron Blackwell have a chance of making the top 15 and qualifying as individuals.

On the boys side, the Stars have defeated every Region III/4A team this season, but Wasilla also has defeated Soldotna. McKenney said Colony can pull off good races, and of course the 15-year streak of Kodiak can’t be discounted.

As has been the case often in McKenney’s time at Soldotna, the Stars will have to overcome injury.

Senior Josh Shuler is running strong after coming back from a broken leg sustained in June, but Mekbeb Denbrock is fighting a sprained ankle.

The Stars have the depth to overcome injury.

“It’s really fun when they come around right now,” McKenney said. “They come around as a group of five, six or seven, and they’re all close.”

That group has Shuler, Koby Vinson, Sean Verg-in, Lance Chilton, Bradley Walters, Denbrock, John-Mark Pothast, Bechler Metcalf and Jack Harris.

The Kardinals don’t have the depth for a team qualification to state, but Calvert said Maison Dunham, Karl Danielson and Evan Stockton could go as individuals.

Dunham, just a freshman, has been the top Class 4A runner on the peninsula this season, but he will have to pass Wasilla’s Hunter Hayes and Colony’s Gavin Block to become the runner that breaks Kodiak’s 11-year string of individual champions.

At the Class 3A level, the Homer girls are poised for another title.

“I think everybody feels good about it,” Ridgely said. “That’s their goal.”

Homer will be led by Autumn Daigle, Alex Moseley, Brooke Miller, Sienna Carey and Shine Carey, with Harmony Davidson and Katie Davis providing insurance. Davis makes a return to the lineup after healing from a stress fracture and could have immediate impact.

The race for the individual title could come down to Daigle and Lindquist. Ridgely said Daigle has the ability to defeat Lindquist, but has yet to pull it off.

“We just encourage Ruby to run smart,” Bickling said. “Usually going out superhard, especially on a hilly new course, is not wise.”

Along with fellow senior Emma Moore, Lindquist should be able to guide Seward into the top four and earn a team state berth.

“I’ve coached Emma and Ruby since middle school, so it’s been neat seeing Emma improve so much over six years,” Bickling said.

In order to win another boys title, Homer will have to find a way to overcome Anchorage Christian Schools, which has had the upper hand this season.

“We’re trusting our training and that it’s all going to come together,” Ridgely said. “Runners four and five will be shouldering a lot of pressure for the team.

“What we need is everybody at their best.”

The top three are Jacob Davis, Luciano Fasulo and Jordan Beachy. Bill Rich and Denver Waclawski will then be counted on to pick up some points, with Clayton Beachy serving as the sixth runner.

Seward, meanwhile, will have senior Zen Petrosius guide a group of young and talented runners to a state berth.

The boys individual title looks to belong to Bennett.

“He’s a shining star,” Ridgely said. “He’s way out there in front and makes everybody faster.”

While the Nikiski girls will run Alysa Smith and Shaylyn Stroman in the open race, the Bulldogs will be able to put together a team in the boys race.

Seniors Henry Heft, Aaron McCollum and Gavin Wallis, and sophomores Joseph Yourkoski and Bryan McCollum will compete for the Bulldogs.

“These boys have been working hard and pushing each other as a team this year and have achieved some of the fastest times our group has seen for a while,” Nikiski coach Anna Widman wrote in an email. “They know the region course will be challenging but they are ever optimistic and enthusiastic!”

Peninsula squads Nikolaevsk and Port Graham are signed up to run at the Region II meet at Susitna Valley High School on Saturday.

Isabelle Hickman, cousins Elizabeth Fefelov and Justina Fefelov, and sisters Sophia Klaich and Kristin Klaich will run for the girls team. Brothers Michael Trail and Zachary Trail will run for the boys.

Nikolaevsk coach Steve Klaich wrote in an email that the runners are working hard and will make a serious run at returning to the state meet. Hickman, the Fefelovs and the Trails went to state last season.

For Port Graham, senior Suzanne LaBelle will run in the varsity race. LaBelle has been with the program since it was established in 2016.

“We are proud of the progress she’s made during her time with us, and we know Suzanne will go on to do bigger and better things in her future,” wrote Devin Michel Way, who coaches the Port Graham program with husband, Colby Way. “Our whole village is very proud!”

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