Tsalteshi Trails usually get a lot of use, but even Saturday will be a busy day for the sharply rolling trail system just outside of Soldotna as the Region 2 and Region 3 meets come to town.
Kenai Central is hosting the Region 3 meet and Nikolaevsk is hosting the Region 2 meet, adding even more color to the grounds where the autumn hues are just reaching their peak.
“When you put all that work into it, you might as well give the spectators a great day of racing,” Kenai Central head coach Maria Calvert said.
The Region 3 meet is first, with the girls junior varsity at 10 a.m. and the boys junior varsity at 10:45 a.m. The Division II varsity girls is at 11:30 a.m., the Division I varsity girls is at 12:10 a.m., the Division II varsity boys is at 12:50 a.m. and the Division I varsity boys is at 1:30 p.m.
The Region 2 meet follows, with the girls race at 2:30 p.m. and the boys race at 3:30 p.m.
Nikolaevsk head coach Steve Klaich, who started the Warriors program 10 years ago, said the Region 2 meet has been hosted by Susitna Valley for as long as he’s been around. But the Rams no longer have a cross-country team.
“We love the trail up there at Talkeetna,” Klaich said. “It’s a nice place to run, but being close to home is certainly an advantage.
“We really appreciate Kenai Central’s help in co-hosting the Region 2 and Region 3 meets.”
Kenai Central is not only hosting the Region 3 meet, but adding one of the major plotlines as well.
The Kardinals dropped down to Division II this season, making the Division II level at Region 3 even more ridiculously loaded.
After winning the Division I running title in 2015, the Kenai girls were second in 2016 and 2017.
The Kardinals joined a region with Division II powers Grace Christian, Homer, Seward and Anchorage Christian Schools.
Since a separate division was created for big- and small-schools in 1985, Grace had 11 girls state titles and 10 boys state titles, Seward has six girls and boys crowns, Homer has six girls titles and a boys title, and ACS has four boys titles and a girls title.
Only four teams qualify for state, so one of these proud programs will be left out.
“What a great opportunity to compete with all these premier programs,” Calvert said.
Senior Jaycie Calvert and the Kenai girls have not lost to Division II competition all season, but coach Calvert said that doesn’t mean much with so many good programs and runners gearing everything just to be ready for the next two weeks.
Senior Brooke Satathite has been coming on strong for Kenai recently, as has fellow senior Maria Salzetti. Kenai has then gotten a big boost from freshmen Logan Satathite, Logan Foster, Leah Fallon and Katie Stockton.
The boys also will have to be on their game to assure a state appearance.
“Ultimately, we want the guys to just continue running the way they’ve been running and improving, and let the chips fall where they may,” Calvert said.
The team is led by sophomore Mason Dunham, who just won his second straight borough title but faces a stiff challenge at regions from a group led by ACS sophomore Tristian Merchant.
Others trying to get the Kardinals to state will be freshman Joe Hamilton, junior Tucker Mueller, junior Evan Stockton, freshman Luke Cross, freshman Samuel Roberts and freshman Wyatt White.
Homer assistant coach Annie Ridgely also is looking forward to the intense competition offered by this region.
“I love it,” she said. “It makes us faster and makes us work harder. That’s the nature of competition.”
The Homer girls had a string of three straight state titles snapped last season, but still have four straight region titles in a row.
“Our girls have never really raced with a full varsity team,” Ridgely said. “That’s really exciting. We feel like we’re right in there with Grace and Kenai and we really feel like it’s going to be a fight and a battle.”
The girls are led by junior Autumn Daigle, the defending Division II state champ. Daigle gets a late start to the season because she fishes with her family. Though Daigle has not beaten Calvert this season, Ridgely said this is the time of the season Daigle gets faster and faster.
Others coming together to put the Mariners at full strength are freshman Fiona Hatton, senior Katia Holmes, sophomore Brooke Miller, freshman Kaylin Anderson, senior Seinna Carey and freshman Mariah McGuire.
Ridgely said her expectations were not as high for the boys at the beginning of the year as the girls, but that has changed.
“The boys team is coming together fabulously,” she said. “I see them gaining incredible momentum and I really anticipate something good happening.”
Senior Luciano Fasulo is the team captain while sophomore Eyoab Knapp is usually right behind him. Ridgely said Fasulo has the mental toughness of a state champion wrestler, so anything is possible, even keeping up with Merchant.
Senior Bill Rich, senior Corbin Mattingly and sophomore Clayton Beachy also have been solid runners. Then Homer has a pair of wild cards in senior Daniel Reutov, whose athleticism is apparent in soccer, and junior David Weiser, who ran a personal record last Saturday at the tough Nikiski course.
Seward will be looking for a return trip to state on the girls and boys sides, where the girls were third and the boys were fifth last season.
At Nikiski, first-year coach Dylan Hooper said he knows his squad is not yet ready to give the traditional powers a run for state berths. Yet the Bulldogs are making progress.
Hooper is hoping to put together enough boys varsity runners for a team.
“We’ll see if we’re healthy this week,” he said. “It’s not that we’ll be competing for top spots, but it’d be neat if we could compete with the smaller teams like Houston. It’d be the first time all season that we had enough runners for a team score.”
The team will be led by juniors Bryan McCollum and Joey Yourkowski. Seniors Justin Cox and Gabe Smith are coming off injury, while senior Malcolm Yerkes and freshman Rory Gilmartin have enough practices to make Saturday their first race of the season.
“We’ve got a few guys running some decent times,” Hooper said. “With some commitment and getting some mileage in next summer, hopefully we can come into next season and be ready to have competitive times.”
Sophomore Emily Hufford will run for Nikiski in the junior varsity race.
The Division I race as the Class 3A meet will only have one peninsula team in Soldotna, but the Stars promise to play a major factor.
“I think both teams have a great chance to get to state,” SoHi coach Ted McKenney said. “Whether the boys are first, second or third remains to be seen.”
The Stars girls were last to state in 2015, while the boys are looking to return for a second year in a row. McKenney said his runners are not favorites to win individual titles, but will play major factors in the team race.
The girls have been led by freshman Jordan Strausbaugh, while sophomore Erika Arthur or senior Tannis Lorring usually cross the line next. Freshman Ellie Burns and junior Cameron Blackwell make up the top five, while freshman Jordan Ruffner and senior Victoria Denison make up the rest of the team.
McKenney said Palmer is the favorite to win the girls meet, but the Stars are capable of getting second.
“I’m really happy with them and they’re a young team,” McKenney said. “The future should be good.”
The coach also likes his young team on the boys side. He said Colony, Wasilla or Soldotna could win the meet, with Colony being the favorite.
Sophomore Mekbeb Denbrock has been leading the group, with juniors Lance Chilton and Bradley Walters next. Junior Jack Harris then looms as a large figure if he can fully recover from a cold that slowed him at boroughs.
Filling out the rest of the team are sophomore Anchor Musgrave, freshman Nate Johnson and freshman Logan Shane.
The Stars also received a boost this week when Andy Liebner, a 2001 graduate of Soldotna, Division I state cross-country champion and cross-country ski coach at the last two Winter Olympics, came by to give a motivational talk.
“Everyone is trying to take it to the next level and a coach can only say so much so many times,” McKenney said. “To get to that next level requires motivation, whether it’s intrinsic or extrinsic, and Andy’s a good runner, good athlete and he’s been on state championship teams at SoHi.”
When the Region II meet kicks off, Nikolaevsk runners will have to finish in the top 10 to make state as individuals because the Warriors do not have enough girls or boys to qualify a team.
All the Region II teams don’t post times on athletic.net, but Klaich said Warriors freshman Justin Trail looks to be one of the race favorites. Trail won the borough middle school meet last season. This season, he won the junior varsity race at the Homer Invitational and the JV race at the Kenai Peninsula Borough meet.
Justin’s brother Michael, a senior, made state as a freshman and sophomore before finishing 11th at regions last year and just missing out. He is looking to get back this year.
The Warriors girls are the defending Region II champions, but do not have enough runners to field a team. Juniors Isabelle Hickman and Sophia Klaich will run for Nikolaevsk. Coach Klaich said, judging from available times, Hickman’s best time would put her at state, while Sophia Klaich will have to improve her performance.
Port Graham will enter Elias Moonin and Tyson Breedlove in the race.
“This will be the first regional meet for both runners this year,” Port Graham coach Colby Way wrote in an email. “We expect to enjoy the atmosphere of a larger meet and the quality trail system.
“Port Graham XC participating in the regional meet provides a great feeling for the entire community. Our runners have worked hard and we are looking forward to great competition and the hope of breaking some personal records.”