The Kenai Central girls and boys cross-country teams were the only Class 4A teams from the Kenai Peninsula to qualify for state last season.
Kenai Central coach D'Anna Gibson said her goal is to get the Kardinals back to state again this year.
"It's been a really fun year so far," said Gibson, entering her third year at the helm. "It's only three weeks in, but we've got a really fun bunch to work with."
The top four Class 4A teams in the region make state. The Kenai boys tied Palmer for third, while the Kenai girls took fourth.
The Kenai girls put senior Bailey Beeson and junior Hope Steffensen in the top eight, and both return for this season. On the boys side, senior Travis Semmens and sophomore Fox Michaud both finished in the top 15 and both return this season.
The only other returning Class 4A state qualifier from the Peninsula is Soldotna senior Bree Mucha, who finished fourth at regions.
Peninsula coaches said it is too early to say which teams are favored in the region this year.
In Class 1-2-3A, Seward qualified both its boys and girls teams for state and finished second to Grace at the big event.
Seward coach Dan Marshall, entering his 20th season at the helm, says that his team has some rebuilding to do. He thinks the Grizzlies are the favorites to once again win the region and state.
"That's what they do," Marshall said of Grace. "They don't play football, they don't swim. They run. They've got a great feeder program, great coaches and great parental support.
"That equals all of the good stuff."
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula's cross-country teams. Cook Inlet Academy and Ninilchik will not have teams this year.
Bill Steyer takes over a Homer program that has increased its numbers to 22 athletes this season.
"I think we've got a nice, young, up-and-coming team," Steyer said.
The Homer girls do not return any runners from their varsity team.
Steyer said sophomore Cassidy Soistman will probably be the fastest runner, while freshman Pam Jantzi will be the second fastest.
"We're going to see nice things from them as the year goes on," Steyer said of Soistman and Jantzi. "We'll see some nice things from the other girls too, but those two have more miles on them."
Also running varsity for the girls will be senior Alaine Miller, junior Valerie Mastolier and sophomore Mattea Peters.
The Homer boys return senior Dan Adickes and junior Connor McCarron to the varsity.
Stepping up to varsity this year will be sophomores Josh VanTrease, Jake Worsfold, Pedro Ochoa and John Walsworth. Steyer also said foreign exchange student
Lennart Von Schlichting shows a lot of promise as a runner.
Kenai Central Kardinals
In addition to Beeson and Steffensen, the Kardinals also return seniors Noelle Schmitter-Schrier and Taylor Ostrander to the varsity.
Juniors Leah Sandahl and Carolyn Kiefer also saw varsity time last year.
Throw in freshman Allie Ostrander, already a three-time Mount Marathon junior champion, and the Kards are well-stocked to return to state.
On the boys side, Michaud showed he is in good form by winning the freshman-sophomore boys race at the Nikiski Class Races to open the season.
"He did summer training with me," Gibson said. "He does other stuff too that's above and beyond that. He's good."
Also returning to varsity are seniors Alex Springer, Andrew Mole and Evan Atchley, and sophomore Nate Mole.
Gibson said freshmen twins Jordan and Jonah Theisen have been right behind Michaud in practice. The coach also said freshman Travis Cooper is a varsity-caliber runner, but will have a hard time cracking Kenai's deep team.
Anna Widman, in her third year directing the Bulldogs, has six runners out for the team.
"I'd love to recruit other kids once school starts Tuesday," she said. "That's a big goal - to build the program."
The boys team will be led by juniors Ty Shoemaker and Daniel Ribbons, who are both in their second year of cross-country. Junior Caleb Alkire and freshman Brendon Colton are in their first year of cross-country.
The girls team is made up of juniors Rucia-Lea Colton and Annaleah Earnst.
"They're all really excited and motivated and I think we'll have a great season," Widman said.
The third-year program has nine athletes out this year.
"We're thrilled," coach Steve Klaich said. "It's great to see kids running. We've also got a really good junior high program. That's helping to build for the future with a lot of enthusiasm, as well."
The Nikolaevsk boys won the Region II title last year, but won't be able to defend that title this year because there are only four boys runners. It takes five to make a team.
"We've got some individuals we're hoping will qualify for state," Klaich said.
The boys team is made up of juniors Blake Klaich, Frank Holub and Eric Mametieff, and sophomore Anthony Yakunin.
For the first time ever, the Warriors will have a girls team. The team is made up of sophomores Nianiella Dorvall, Kikilia Kojin and Hina Kulikov and freshmen Kilina Klaich and Maria Kulikov.
"I'm really interested to see how they will do," Klaich said. "My guess is they've got a shot at doing well."
Marshall's ever-popular program is down a bit in numbers at 35, but that's still good in a school of 165 that also offers football, swimming and volleyball in the fall.
"If we keep it at 30, I'm pretty happy," he said.
Marshall has had success through the years building his runners up slowly. The girls and boys didn't field a varsity team at the Bartlett Relays, and the girls most likely won't field a varsity team until after the Skyview Invitational.
"There's a means to my madness," he said. "These early races are just that. I know a lot of kids and coaches take tremendous pride in racing those early races hard.
"Sometimes when teams come in, in good shape you can do that. With young kids, just coming into condition, I'd rather under-train than over-train."
The boys varsity squad returns senior Jacob Marshall, junior Miles Knotek and sophomore Matt Moore.
Knotek won the Mount Marathon junior race this summer.
"He did the work he needed to this summer," Marshall said of Knotek. "I think his humility will probably be one of the qualities that keep him in the race, because there's some really tough runners in 1-2-3A."
Marshall does not know which boys will fill out the squad, but said he can count on good leadership from captains Jacob Marshall and Logan Clemens.
The girls return sophomore Isabel Barnwell, junior Laura Dyer and senior Maggie Herbert. Senior captain Meg Berry also will be elevated to varsity this year.
Beyond that, Marshall does not know who will wrap up the remaining varsity slots.
Ted McKenney starts his second year as head coach with 25 athletes.
The boys team returns five varsity runners from last year, with sophomore Micah Hilbish heading up the group. Other returners are senior Bud Sparks, juniors Garren
Lucas and Sam Janorschke, and sophomore Matt Bullerdick. McKenney also said freshman Brenner Musgrave will compete on varsity.
"It's going to be a big dogfight in the regionals," McKenney said. "We'll see what happens."
As an example of how good Region III is, McKenney said Sparks would have made state if he was running in Anchorage last year. It takes a top-15 finish to get to state, and Sparks finished 17th.
The girls team will be led by Hannah Hutchison, who was 16th at regions last season. Senior Chelsea Winter also returns for the Panthers.
"For the girls team, it's going to be a building year," McKenney said. "We'll have a good time. We have some individuals that will get some good results."
Dan Harbison, who has been the head coach for about a decade, says he will probably get 20 runners this season.
"We're looking at a transitional span of about two years here," he said. "We've got a lot of good runners coming up within the next two years. If they continue to come out and run we should be able to build back up to a good team."
Mucha, who has never finished worse than 11th at state, is the only girls varsity returner. Harbison said freshmen Danielle McCormick and Sadie Fox, and sophomore Juliet Bramante should step up and help the varsity.
The boys varsity squad returns juniors Dillon Jensen and Daniel Lewis, and sophomore Colton Diehl.
Harbison said sophomore Jory Hubbard leads a group of promising young runners that will fill out the varsity.
"It's a good group that I have," Harbison said. "It should be a fun season."