A look back at 2019 in sports:
The Kenai River Brown Bears saw a lot of change during the year in search of a first playoff berth since the 2013-14 season.
In early February, head coach Josh Petrich resigned for personal reasons after being on the job for almost two seasons. Assistant coach Dan Bogdan took over on an interim basis as the Bears finished up a 23-31-3-3 season and missed out on the playoffs again.
In early April, Kenai River named Kevin Murdock as the eighth head coach in team history, with Bogdan remaining as associate head coach.
Thus far this season, the results have been positive. The Bears are 22-8-1-3, lead the North American Hockey League Midwest Division, are fourth in the league in points and are the second-highest scoring team in the league. Fans have responded by flocking to the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The prep hockey scene saw new excitement with the creation of a Division II state tournament. Kenai Central, Soldotna and Homer all were slotted into Division II.
The Stars went 9-1 to win the Railbelt Conference and earn the No. 1 seed at the state tournament, but the Stars lost to Palmer 4-3 in overtime in the semifinals. In the state final, Homer, the No. 3 seed making a first appearance at a state hockey tournament, lost 6-5 in overtime to the Moose.
On the prep skiing scene, a 19-year streak of at least one peninsula team winning a Region III championship was broken when the Palmer girls and Colony boys took the victories.
The top girls skier from the peninsula in the two-day meet was Homer’s Autumn Daigle, who was fourth. The top boys skier from the area was Soldotna’s Bradley Walters, who was fifth.
2018 Kenai Central graduate Karl Danielson represented the area at U.S. Cross Country Junior Nationals at Kincaid Park in Anchorage and took fifth in the Under-20 classic sprints.
Another Kenai Central graduate, 2015 alumni Travis Cooper, represented the United States in some biathlon races on the World Cup.
The crown jewel of the adult skiing scene on the central Kenai Peninsula, the Tour of Tsalteshi, was held in min-February in snowy and rainy conditions that challenged skiers.
The 40-kilometer races were won by Anchorage’s Luke Rosier, a former cross-country ski coach at Seward High School, and Homer’s Emily Lints. The 20-kilometer races went to the husband and wife team of Kelli Boonstra and Todd Boonstra, a three-time Winter Olympian in cross-country skiing.
The Boonstras also would go on to sweep the Kachemak Ski Marathon in early March in the hills above Homer. The race took place in a blizzard.
Peninsula teams found success at all levels.
Soldotna, the area’s lone Class 4A team, hosted the Northern Lights Conference tournament and celebrated by advancing both the girls and boys teams to the conference final. Making it to the final put the Soldotna boys in their first state tournament since 2010, while the girls made it to state for the first time in five years. At state, the Stars girls and boys would both finish fifth.
At the Class 3A level, the Nikiski girls earned a state berth by finishing second in the Southcentral Conference by losing to Anchorage Christian Schools. The Bulldogs would again lose to the Lions in the Class 3A state final for a second-place finish.
Nikiski was led by Bethany Carstens, who this season is playing for Chicago State University and is believed to be the first peninsula basketball player on Division I scholarship since the early 1990s.
The Kenai girls also earned an at-large berth to the Class 3A state tourney, the first state berth for the program since 2002. The Kardinals would go on to finish fifth at the big dance.
At the Class 1A level, the Cook Inlet Academy girls used a stifling defensive effort to defeat Nikolaevsk 32-21 in the Peninsula Conference championship game. The Eagles went to state for the first time since 2014 and did not make the championship round.
The Nikolaevsk girls also went to state for the seventh time in eight years and finished tied for seventh.
The Nikolaevsk boys defeated Ninilchik 66-56 for the first Peninsula Conference title for head coach Steve Klaich. Klaich started at the school in the 1989-90 season.
That gave the Warriors a sixth-straight trip to state, where they did not make it to the championship round.
In late January, Dave Turner of Fairbanks won the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race for the first time. Turner overtook Cim Smyth, who has won the T200 four times, for the victory.
In September, the T200 Sled Dog Race Association Board of Directors announced the event would not be held in 2020. The board has hopes of the race returning in 2021.
The Kenai Central soccer program took a big hit due to graduation after winning the Division II state title in 2018, but that did not stop the Kardinals from defending their title in 2019.
With new head coach Shane Lopez, who had been an assistant with the team in 2018, the Kardinals defeated Juneau-Douglas 3-2 for the crown. The game went through two, 10-minute overtimes and a sudden-death overtime.
The Homer boys finished fourth at the state tournament. The previous week, the Homer boys had won the Peninsula conference championship for first time by defeating Kenai Central in the final. Kenai had been on a run of three straight NLC crowns.
The SoHi girls defended their Peninsula Conference title and finished second in the Division II state tournament after a 5-1 loss to juggernaut Juneau-Douglas in the championship game.
Also at the Division II girls state tournament, Homer was fourth and Kenai was fifth.
TRACK AND FIELD
The Kenai Central girls won the Division II state track and field title the week after winning the Region III title at the Division II level.
Jaycie Calvert had a huge meet for the Kards, winning at 3,200 and 1,600 meters. The 400 and 800 relays also captured first for Kenai, with Savanna Wilson, Kylie-Anne Raye, Chelsea Plagge and Hayley Maw running the 400, and Brooke Ashley replacing Wilson in the 800. Wilson would also add a state title in the 100 hurdles.
Also winning state titles from the peninsula were Kenai’s Maison Dunham in the 800, Kenai’s Jarett Wilson in the 300 hurdles, the Homer girls 3,200 relay, Homer’s Anna Brock in the shot put and Homer’s Laura Inama in the 300 hurdles.
In the Division I state meet, both the SoHi girls and boys were fifth. SoHi had four finish second at the meet — Aliann Schmidt in the high jump, Ituau Tuisaula in the shot put, Kaleb Swank in the high jump and Galen Brantley II in the shot put.
The previous week, Soldotna has swept the Region III titles at the Division I level. The girls had repeated as the region champs, while the boys had won their first title since 1994.
In a season that was derailed by injuries early on, the Peninsula Oilers and head coach Kyle Brown fought back to finish 15-29 in Alaska Baseball League play and earn the No. 4 seed in the Top of the World Playoffs.
The Oilers then showed what they could do when healthy by taking the top-seeded and eventual Top of the World Series champion Anchorage Bucs to three games in the best-of-three playoff series.
Paul Steffensen, a 2017 graduate of Kenai Central, played the season for the Oilers. In April, Steffensen became the first player from the American Legion Twins program to sign to play at a Division I school. Steffensen will play at Tennessee Tech.
The American Legion Twins made the state tournament for a 33rd straight year and went in as the No. 4 seed, but saw their season come to a close with a 4-3 loss to No. 2 seed Juneau. The Twins finished 22-13-1 overall.
On the prep scene in baseball, Homer, Kenai Central and Soldotna all came up short of a state berth at the Southcentral Conference tournament in late May.
Rain could not stop Homer from winning a third-straight Northern Lights Conference softball title.
The Mariners topped Kodiak 12-3 in six innings in a conference title game that was moved to the Soldotna Little League fields after rain swamped Steve Shearer Memorial Ballpark in Kenai.
Homer, which came into the tournament as the No. 2 seed behind Kodiak, also locked up a 19th state berth in 20 seasons at the conference tournament.
At the Division II state tournament, Homer would finish fourth.
Headed up by 2015 Kenai Central graduate Allie Ostrander, runners with Kenai Peninsula ties had all kinds of success in 2019.
In early June in Austin, Texas, Ostrander became the first female athlete to win three consecutive Division I track and field 3,000-meter steeplechase titles. In late June, Ostrander finished 13th against the world’s best in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Prefontaine Classic in Palo Alto, California.
That would be her last race for Boise State. A 13-time NCAA All-American, she turned pro after four years at Boise State with a degree in kinesiology and a 4.0 grade-point average, signing with Brooks Running.
In late July, Ostrander would take fourth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the USA Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, to qualify for the world track and field championships in Qatar.
In Doha, Qatar, in late September, Ostrander was less than a second from making the 3,000-meter steeplechase finals, setting a personal best in the event at 9 minutes, 30.85 seconds.
A fellow 2015 Kenai Central graduate, Jonah Theisen, earned a prestigious NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship for his running career at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota. Theisen’s career included a Division II 3,000-meter steeplechase title in 2016. In mid-March Jonah and his brother, Jonah, earned All-America honors in the distance medley at the NCAA Division II Indoor Track and Field Championships.
Dani McCormick, a 2015 graduate of Soldotna High School, also concluded a successful college running career at the University of Alaska Anchorage. In late May at the NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championships, McCormick earned two All-America honors in her final day of competition to leave UAA with eight All-America honors overall.
The biggest races on the Kenai Peninsula were marked by fire and rain.
The Mount Marathon Race saw smoke from the Swan Lake Fire cancel the junior race for the first time in the race’s history, but the air cleared enough for the peninsula to put on an impressive performance in the women’s and men’s races.
Seward’s Hannah Lafleur became the first local senior race champion since Cedar Bourgeois in 2010, and six women’s runners with peninsula ties finished in the top seven. Three of the top five men’s finishers came from the peninsula, but the race was won by Max King of Bend, Oregon.
In August, the Lost Lake Run in Seward and Res Pass Ultras were canceled by wildfire smoke, but the Kenai River Marathon in late September saw a totally different problem, with a cold, driving rain soaking those who chose the full marathon. Jason Parks of Soldotna and Stacey Buckelew of Homer won the marathon, while Marshall Genn of Anchorage and Kristen Buckwalter of Homer won the half marathon.
In mid-July at the Alaskaman extreme triathlon, the peninsula also did well with Soldotna’s Nicole Schmitt taking sixth out of 19 women and Kenai’s Eric Thomason taking eighth overall, and seventh among men.
In early December, Soldotna’s Megan Youngren put an exclamation point on the impressive year for peninsula runners by qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials for marathon by clocking 2 hours, 43 minutes, 52 seconds, at the California International Marathon in Sacramento, California. That put Youngren fourth on the all-time list of Alaska women’s marathon times. Anchorage’s Julianne Dickerson, raised in Kenai, ran 2:49:52 at CIM to take ninth on the Alaska all-time women’s list.
The Twin City Raceway-Circle Track Division at Motocross Division spent another thunderous summer entertaining fans.
The 2019 Sprint title went to John Mellish with 214 points, with Aaron McGahan in second at 193 and Geoff Clark in third at 191.
The A Stock champ was Clay Petersen with 399 points, while Mady Stichal was second with 392 points and Gracie Bass was third with 383 points.
Mike Braddock had the Late Model title with 59 points, while Al Ulman was second with 54 points and Jon Jenson was third with 51 points.
Ty Torkelson came out on top of the battle for the Legends crown with 254 points, while Bryan Barber was second with 241 points and David Kusmider was third with 224 points.
Brenda Robson was the top Powder Puff racer with 35 points, while Bridgette Attleson was second with 33 points and Mady Stichal was third with 32 points.
Beau Forrest, an Idaho golfer who grew up playing at Birch Ridge, won his first title as a pro by winning the Kenai Peninsula Open at Birch Ridge Golf Course in late August. Forrest won a tight battle with California golfer Aaron Dexheimer, who also grew up playing at Birch Ridge. Anchorage’s Halcyon Swisher won the women’s title, which doubled as the Women’s State Amateur for the first time. Nolan Rose captured the amateur title.
At the Donald R. Morgan Memorial Club Championship at Kenai Golf Course in mid-August, Kenai’s Charlie Kahakauwila won the seniors division, Homer’s Chris Morin won the men’s division and Soldotna’s Marianne Hyman won the women’s division.
Kahakauwila had the overall lowest total at the tournament for the first time, while Morin won the men’s division for the fifth time in six years. Hyman won her first major title at Kenai Golf Course.
In late October, Tsalteshi Trails hosted the first Alaska Cyclocross State Championships. Anchorage’s Will Ross won the men’s elite race, while Anchorage’s Kate Ginsbach took the women’s elite race.
In late June, Seward’s Chaz DiMarzio set a new race record of 1 day, 3 hours and 24 minutes in the Kenai 250, while Anchorage’s Corrie Smith lowered the women’s record to 1:12:32. The race features all of the Kenai Peninsula’s classic singletrack riding.
In early August at the Soggy Bottom Challenge at Resurrection Pass, shortened to 70 miles this year due to the Swan Lake Fire, Anchorage’s Jason Lamoreaux and Ana Jager took the wins.
The Soldotna football team defeated Lathrop 69-13 in mid-October to win their eighth-straight Division II championship. The Stars have now won 12 of the past 14 state championships in small- and medium-schools division, with Galen Brantley Jr. serving as the coach for 11 of those championships.
The focus of the postgame celebration was team manager Matthew Martinelli, who has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair but served as the inspiration for the team.
Brantley Jr.’s son, Galen Brantley III, was a senior on the team, so the head coach watched the unit grow up from its Pop Warner days. The senior class became the fifth in a row to win four state championships.
Soldotna finished 7-0 in the regular season, winning a 14th straight Northern Lights Conference title, and also scored an impressive, 42-7 victory over California powerhouse Christian High School in a game played just outside of San Diego.
In the Division II All-State Awards, Brantley III was Defensive Player of the Year, Jersey Truesdell was Offensive Player of the Year, Melvin Lloyd was Lineman of the Year and Wyatt Medcoff was Utility Player of the Year.
Nikiski returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, losing a first round Division III game at Barrow. The Bulldogs had won three of their last four games to make the field.
In early October, Homer senior Autumn Daigle won her second Division II state cross-country title at the Bartlett Trails, building on a title she won as a sophomore. The Mariners runner finished undefeated over the course of the season despite missing some training time due to the Swan Lake Fire.
Also at state, the Kenai Central girls came up just short in their defense of their Division II state title, finishing runner-up to Grace.
At the Region III meet a week earlier, Soldotna junior Erika Arthur won the first Division I title for the Soldotna girls since 2004, while Daigle won her first Division II region title. The Soldotna girls and boys qualified for state at Division I, while at Division II, the Seward and Kenai boys made state, and the Kenai, Homer and Seward girls made state.
The Homer volleyball team won their first state title since 1990, topping Kenai Central for the Class 3A state championship in Anchorage in mid-November.
The Mariners had to win three straight elimination games to take the title, including an if-necessary game against the Kardinals that finished 30-23. Kenai was back in the state tournament for the first time in 14 years. The state final also was a rematch of the previous week’s Southcentral Conference final, which Homer also won.
Nikiski also put up a strong defense of its 2018 Class 3A state title, finishing third at the tournament to give the peninsula all three of the top slots.
Soldotna also made state at the Class 4A level. The Stars locked up a state berth with a big win over Wasilla at the Northern Lights Conference tournament in Soldotna. The Stars went 1-2 at the state tournament.
Homer’s Madison Story and Seward’s Lydia Jacoby starred in the pool at the state swimming and diving meet in Anchorage in early November.
Story won the 200-yard individual medley to become the first Homer girl to win a state swim crown in 26 years. The last to win a state title was Story’s mother, formerly Corise Bittner. The win was the first state title for a Homer athlete in a swim event since 2011 and the first state title — in swimming or diving — for Homer since 2013.
Jacoby won the state 100 breaststroke title in 1 minute, 00.61 seconds, to lower her own state record in the event.
Also from the peninsula, Soldotna’s Ethan Evans was second in the boys 100 breaststroke and third in the 50 freestyle, while Seward’s Connor Spanos was third in the 100 butterfly.
At the Northern Lights Conference meet one week earlier, the Kenai boys had raced to the first region title in their history.
In late December, Soldotna freshman Trinity Donovan notched a victory in the 145-pound women’s final to cap an emotional year spent dealing with the loss of her stepfather Travis Stubblefield, who died in June 2018.
Donovan was joined by teammate Amanda Wylie as a state champion for Soldotna. Wylie took gold at 160 pounds.
Homer, fresh off a fifth straight Kachemak Conference title, got state titles from Mose Hayes at 152, Anthony Kalugin at 189, Sadie Blake at 125 and Rayanna Vigil at 189.
The season also marked the last for Seward head coach Ronn Hemstock, who left behind a quarter century of success.
The cheerleading program at Kenai Central continued to see success under coach Brianna Force.
In late October, the Kardinals were named the Grand Champion at the Rally in the Valley cheerleading competition. The competition is not sanctioned by the Alaska School Activities Association, but is the de facto state championship for football cheerleading.
The Kardinals also were first in varsity five-man stunt group competition, varsity game time routine and varsity solo routine. Cali Holmes, just a freshman, won the varsity solo routine for the Kards.