The towering snow piles are quickly melting away and the spring sun is radiating down on high school track and field teams around the Kenai Peninsula.
So what does that mean for competitors around Alaska? Time to get in as much training as possible in a short season that ends May 25 for most. The peninsula schedule offers an almost weekly load of opportunities to set a new PR.
The track season truly gets roaring next weekend with the statewide Big C Relays at The Dome in Anchorage, and from there, local teams will get chances to tune up at the Colony Invitational April 19 and 20, the Region Preview meet at Soldotna High School April 27, the Kenai Invitational May 4, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Championships at Homer May 10 and 11 and the Region III Championships at Soldotna May 17 and 18. The Division I and II state championships will be held at Palmer High for a third consecutive year, May 24 and 25.
Among the biggest changes this year, Kenai is making its debut at the Division II level following a large realignment change after school population numbers dropped most KCHS sports programs into a smaller classification.
With the kind of depth that landed Kenai a runner-up result among the big schools at the Region III championships last spring, the Kardinal girls appear to be headed to a strong region performance at the smaller schools level this season, but head coach Jesse Settlemyer isn’t calling anything yet.
“At this point, we’re just focusing on the kids themselves,” Settlemyer said. “We’re just trying to improve collectively and they’re setting goals for themselves.”
Settlemyer pointed to rival schools that have historically brought deep programs to the region and state championships and contended for team hardware. Teams like Homer, Grace Christian and Anchorage Christian Schools.
“It’s hard to crunch the numbers right now,” he said.
Other peninsula teams are making use of the Big C Relays as an earlier test of where they sit competitively. Soldotna head coach Phil Leck is anticipating a return to The Dome after missing out on the previous two years — officials had to cancel the Big C in 2017 after the inflatable roof collapsed due to excess snowfall, and the Stars did not make the trip in 2018.
“For most of our kids, it’ll be the first time running it,” Leck said. “We have some seniors who were good enough to go as freshmen but 95 percent of our team has never run there.”
Soldotna won the Region III girls team championship last May, while Kenai Central finished solidly in second by a scoring margin of 150-116, to accentuate the strength of the girls peninsula programs.
The following is a detailed look at each peninsula program:
The reigning Region III girls team champions return with eyes on repeating, but it’ll take a deep pool to contend for another region title. After winning the region crown last May, the Stars finished fourth at state, behind girls team champions South Anchorage.
Leck said the team is brimming with 85 athletes on the roster, with more trickling in from the basketball teams that recently wrapped up state runs.
“It’s been pretty normal, pretty typical spring sports in Alaska,” he said.
With good roster numbers come good depth, but Leck also knows the Stars lost some top-end talent to graduation as well, namely two-time boys state 400-meter champion Brenner Furlong for the boys, and girls state discus champ Emily Pieh, who dethroned Dimond throwing superstar Alissa Pili last spring at the state meet.
Leck said he hopes to make up for that with some of the other returning talent, as well as a “decent sophomore group,” along with a few junior speedsters.
For one, senior Sophie Thomas is back for a run at the girls hurdles. Leck said Thomas was the top girls points scorer for the team last year, and was a regular podium finisher in both the 100- and 300-meter hurdle races. Thomas was a state finalist in both events.
Also back for more glory is senior sprinter Brittany Taylor, who won the girls 400 meter Region III crown and finished second in the event at state in 2018.
“Her goals are high,” Leck said about Taylor. “She’s looking at signing to run in college, so she wants to have a good senior season.”
Plus, the Stars still return a loaded throwing crew, headlined by juniors Ituau Tuisaula, Bailey Leach and Rachel Spence. Tuisaula had the best shot put throw in the region in 2018.
“Sure we graduated the state champion, but Ituau could walk out of here being the second-best thrower from our school behind Paige Blackburn,” Leck said, referencing the 2008 SoHi grad that won four state titles in shot put and discus. “She could challenge Alissa (Pili) for a state title.”
On the boys side, SoHi boasts juniors Galen Brantley III, Aaron Faletoi and Melvin Lloyd as dangerous throwers. Leck said Faletoi is focusing solely on the shot put but has football strength to back it up, while Brantley and Lloyd are double threats in both shot and discus. Seniors Cody Nye and Levi Benner both add depth to the throwing team.
In the hurdling events, Thomas will be backed by juniors Holleigh Jaime and Kylie Ness. Jaime was a top-four hurdler in the region last year and Ness, while just focusing on the 100 hurdles, will be a contender. Leck said Ness is also making runs in some relays and the girls long jump.
On the boys side, junior Wyatt Medcoff will add depth as a 300 hurdler.
In the boys sprints, junior Ben Booth and sophomore Eli Cravens will be competitive among Region III racers.
Leck said the SoHi distance team has added more names this year. Leading the way for the boys is a trio of cross-country contenders in senior Bradley Walters, Jack Harris and Mekbeb Denbrock, while the girls return sophomore Erika Arthur, last year’s Region III runner-up in the 3,200 meters, and senior Tanis Loring.
In the jumping pit, SoHi features senior sisters Aliann and Danica Schmidt. Both are known for their length on the basketball court, but Leck said they make for natural high jumpers. Last year, Aliann took second in the high jump at the Region III meet and Danica took third. The Schmidts will be joined by Kylie Ness and Mikayla Leadens.
The boys jumping crew includes Tyler Morrison for the long and triple jumps, Zach Hanson for the long and Brian Whitaker for the triple.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
A move down into the Division II field may pay big dividends for the Kardinals track team this season. A runner-up finish at the 2018 Region III meet against the bigger schools may make Kenai the instant favorites to contend for a Division II team title.
If anything, Settlemyer said this year feels better competing at the Division II level.
“We feel like we’re a Division II school now, we’re where we belong and the kids will get a solid level playing field against other schools,” Settlemyer said. “We’re hoping for some team success, and hopefully we can qualify more kids to region and state.”
The Kardinals get to host their annual meet, the Kenai Invite, on May 4, and will also have two more meets across town at Soldotna with the Region Preview and the Region III Championships.
Starting with the lady sprinters, Kenai returns senior Hayley Maw, the girls school record holder in the 100-meter dash at 12.71 seconds. Maw racked up a pair of third-place finishes in the 100 and 200 at last year’s region meet and took fourth in the 100 at state. Maw is joined by sophomore Kylie-Anne Raye and junior Chelsea Plagge in the sprints.
Kenai’s girls distance crew includes a pair of heavyweight contenders in seniors Jaycie Calvert and Brooke Satathite, both of whom carry state championship pedigrees in cross-country, with two state team titles to their names. Calvert won the Div. II cross-country state title last fall, and in the spring won both the 1,600- and 3,200-meter titles at the Region III meet. Settlemyer said junior Lydia Marlowe also returns with experience and could contend for points.
The girls hurdle corps will be led by junior Savanna Wilson, who Settlemyer expects to continue the good vibes from last year in the 100 and 300 hurdles. Wilson finished third at regions in the 100 hurdles, and fourth at state in the same event.
Plagge returns for more in the girls jumping events. Settlemyer said Plagge had a breakout long jump campaign in 2018, a year she finished fifth in the long jump at the Region III meet.
“I think she’s going to be in the mix,” Settlemyer said. “She has a combination of speed and power, it reminds me of our school record-holder from a couple years ago Julie-Anne Wilson.”
Settlemyer added that Kylie Anne-Raye will join Plagge and try out for the triple jump.
In the throwing events, Settlemyer said sophomore Grace Morrow leads the charge on the girls side. Morrow led the Kenai girls in 2018 as a freshman with the Kardinals’ top throws of the year.
On the boys side, Settlemyer tabbed seniors Elias Machen-Gray and Jarett Wilson as two of the top sprint specialists on the team, and said both could come in handy for the relays.
Wilson returns as one of the top hurdlers in the region, with finishes of second and third in the boys 300 and 110 hurdles, respectively, in 2018. Wilson finished sixth at state in the 110 hurdles last spring.
“I definitely think he’s in the mix for a region championship,” Settlemyer said. “And for a state championship. It’s not hyperbole to be looking that far down the line and thinking he won’t be in that final heat.”
Settlemyer said the boys distance crew features a large incoming crowd of young freshmen and sophomores, but will definitely be led by sophomore Maison Dunham, who finished last season with the second-fastest time of the year in the 3,200, and the only boy faster than him graduated. Dunham is joined by potential distance runners in freshmen Samuel Roberts and Nathan Haakenson and juniors Josh Foster and Tucker Mueller.
Among the top throwers, Settlemyer said junior Ben Grossl is currently healing from a shoulder injury, but senior Billy Morrow returns to lead the group.
The Kenai boys jumping circuit will likely be led by senior Kaden McKibben.
The Bulldogs are getting a new head coaching presence in Eli Porter, who has worked extensively with the Nikiski wrestling team for several years.
Porter has experience coaching track and cross-country running at the middle school in the state of Washington prior to making the move to Alaska, and said he is anticipating an exciting season for the Bulldogs.
“To get a chance to be outside and be with these kids, you can’t be more excited about it,” Porter said. “I’ve got a pretty good gig.”
With a team of about 25 athletes, Porter said he expects some challenges in contending for a team title at regions, where the Bulldogs picked up finishes of fourth for the boys and sixth for the girls in 2018, but said what he wants to see most is athletes hitting their goals.
“It’s not always about competing against others, but it’s competing against yourself,” he said. “I’d like to see this team learn to have some fun under duress, and hopefully build a team that enjoys hard work and the grit of sport, and not being afraid and still performing.”
Nikiski boys finished fifth among 20 teams at the Div. II state meet last year, but lost a handful of senior stars on the sprint teams. The boys won the 400 and 800-meter relays at state, but lost Jack Sullenger and Aaron McCollum to graduation and lost current senior Jace Kornstad to soccer.
Still, Porter said the points can be made up in other ways.
“I have a hunch we have some good jumpers,” he said.
The girls team will likely see big points days from Destiny Martin in the sprints, senior Bethany Carstens in the high jump and junior Kaitlyn Johnson in the discus.
“I have high hopes and expectations for (Johnson),” Porter said. “She’s amazing, she’s definitely dedicated and obviously powerful. And of course she’s in the Johnson line.”
Johnson picked up two podium finishes in the 2018 Region III meet, with a third in the shot put and a runner-up in the discus. Carstens, meanwhile, was second in the girls high jump at regions.
Porter said Martin will also contest the long jump. Martin finished fifth in the long jump at the Region III meet last year.
On the boys side, Porter tabbed senior Justin Harris as a returning whiz in the sprints. Harris took fourth last year at the Region III meet in the 100 dash. Porter also said junior Bryan McCollum could show some flash in the 400.
At the end of Kachemak Bay, the Mariners are getting ready for another stab at the Region III and Division II state hardware. The Mariner girls lay claim to the Region III team title last May among Division II schools, then finished second at the Division II state meet, behind only team champions Sitka by a score of 107-87. The Homer boys finished fourth at state last year.
Head coach Bob Ostrom, back for his second year at the helm, said warm and sunny skies have quickly melted what little snow the track received this winter, so the Mariners have had plenty of time to prepare.
“We’ve been coming along the last week,” Ostrom said. “We’re already outside working on relays and handoffs and in the jumping pit.”
Homer already got a meet under its belt in 2019 with the Pro/Whit Invite Friday and Saturday at the Dome in Anchorage.
Ostrom said his girls team is once again eyeing the team championships at the Region III meet this year.
The Mariners are not hosting their traditional Homer Invitational this year, but will be hosting the Kenai Peninsula Borough Championships May 11.
Among the leading points scorers returning to Homer is sophomore sprint ace Laura Inama, who tallied a pair of second-place finishes at last year’s region meet and a pair of fourth-place finishes at the Division II state meet in the 100 and 200 sprints. Inama also finished fourth this weekend at the Pro/Whit meet in the 200.
In the distance crew, sophomore Brooke Miller and junior Autumn Daigle lead the way. Ostrom said Miller is working on the 800 and 1,600 events and Daigle is returning to the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 races.
Daigle has a cross-country running title already under her belt, and in 2018, she ran to finishes of third and fifth in the 3,200 at the region and state meets, respectively. Ostrom said Daigle is looking fast already due to her extensive Nordic skiing training this winter.
Miller, meanwhile, racked up finishes of third and fourth in the 800 and 1,600 races at the region meet last year, then capped the year with a runner-up finish in the 800 at the state meet.
The distance duo ran well at the Pro/Whit meet this weekend, with Daigle leading Miller across the line in sixth and seventh, respectively, in the girls 800. Daigle also finished second out of 21 in the girls 3,200.
In the hurdles, Ostrom said sophomore Anna Godfrey would be a contender this year, but is healing from a broken foot.
Ostrom hopes to make up for that in the girls throwing, where senior Anna Brock returns to defend her Division II state shot and discus championships.
“She’s back and already throwing close to PRs,” Ostrom said of Brock. “She changed her style a little bit and she worked hard all winter lifting weights.”
Prior to her state title double in 2018, Brock also claimed the Region III crowns in both shot and discus.
Brock swept the victories in the shot and discus at the Pro/Whit Invite this weekend.
In the jumping pit, Ostrom said junior Marina Carroll and Inama will combine to form a formidable duo. In 2018, Carroll finished second at state in the high jump and third in the triple, while Inama took second in the long jump.
At the Pro/Whit meet this weekend, Carroll won the high jump and finished third in the triple, while Inama took second in the long jump.
On the boys side, Homer suffered big hits with graduation, plus seniors Luciano Fasulo and Bill Rich not returning. Fasulo was the 800 state champ, but Ostrom said he’s hoping to get big seasons from a few up-and-coming runners.
Ostrom said senior Corbin Mattingly is making the jump from the cross-country team and will be joined by potential 400-meter relay members Eli King, Silas McGhee, senior Evan Welty and senior Hunter Patton.
Patton will return to take on the hurdles, Ostrom said. Patton was second last year in the 110 hurdles at regions, and third at state. This weekend at the Pro/Whit meet, Patton was ninth in the 110 hurdles.
“He’s gearing up and ready to go,” Ostrom said. “It takes a lot of flexibility and he’s one of the most flexible people I’ve seen … he floats above those hurdles.”
Ostrom said his throwing crew could use some help, but senior Kaelen Molodih will lead the way, along with junior Josh Manwiller.
In the jumping pit, the Mariners junior Eli King and Silas McGhee as the top athletes.
The Seahawks welcome a familiar face to the head coaching spot with 2001 Seward grad Solomon D’ Amico, who takes over the track team in 2019.
With 22 athletes on the current roster — 11 boys and 11 girls — D’ Amico said he is looking to mold a team of potential individual stars.
“One of our goals is to help kids understand what their bodies are capable of,” he said. “One of our goals is to teach the kids how to listen to their bodies and rest when needed.”
After spending time outside the state, D’ Amico said he returned to Seward and took up opportunities to volunteer coach starting in 2010, including stints with the boys basketball team and swim teams, and has considerable coaching experience with the club and USA Swimming programs in Seward.
In the sport of track and field, D’ Amico has coached the Seahawks in the past, giving time to the throwing crew, sprint and hurdles teams. Under his guidance, 2013 grad Tessa Adelmann won two of her four state Class 3A throwing titles.
D’ Amico said several members of the current senior class have made the transition to Seward this spring much easier.
“It’s an honor just to be able to work with these kids,” D’ Amico said. “So that makes it more palatable.”
Seward will skip the Big C Relays in favor of targeting the Colony Invite as the team’s first competition of the year. Seward also will host its own meet April 23.
Among returning names that could provide a scoring punch for Seward are senior Beau Freiberg and junior Connor Spanos. Both were part of the state championship 1,600-meter relay team that won a state title in 2017, but Spanos is back after a year off from track. D’ Amico said both runners have good speed and experience that will help fill out one or two relay squads.
Senior Chris Kingsland also returns as a sprinter and will provide depth for the boys team.
On the girls side, senior Coral Petrosius returns as one of the more experienced members of the team and will challenge for points in the sprints and throwing events. Petrosius uncorked the sixth-farthest throw among Region III opponents in the discus last spring at the state meet, and also finished tied for fifth-best high jump in 2018.
D’ Amico said Petrosius is joined by senior Sadie Lindquist — who is looking like a threat in the middle distance races — and freshman Lydia Jacoby, who could get experience in the girls sprint events.
COOK INLET ACADEMY
The Eagles don’t have much in the way of quantity, but first-year head coach Lacy West believes they make up for that with quality.
“So far so great,” West said. “I think the kids are really coachable. In two days we’ve gone from zero to one hundred.”
CIA features three athletes — senior Brianna Hammond, sophomore Isaac Johnson and freshman Grizzly Beard — and West said each of them are eyeing big seasons to post PRs.
West herself is a former track athlete, having grown up in Girdwood before her family made the move to Florida, where she competed in the pole vault for East Bay High School in Gibsonton. West said she had a Division III athletic opportunity but turned it down in favor of a Division I academic ride at the University of South Florida.
West said working with the three athletes at CIA is an experience she is hoping to make worthwhile.
“I looked up to my coaches a lot,” West said. “So to get to make a difference for other kids is pretty remarkable.”
West said Hammond is a sprinter and competes in the 100 and 200 dashes, where she hopes to be a contender.
“Now’s her one last big chance to shine,” West said.
Johnson is a potential distance contender, West said, but was also a finalist in the Region II championships last year in the boys 100, 200 and 400 races.
Beard is also a possible distance runner, West said, but will also focus on the discus and long jump events.