Being a champion in 2020 will not come without dealing with adversity.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough cross-country meet Saturday at Tsalteshi Trails just outside of Soldotna was no exception.
Jordan Strausbaugh led the Stars to the girls team title by taking the 5-kilometer race in 20 minutes, 48 seconds, while Maison Dunham paced Kenai to the boys team title by finishing 5K in 17:20.
“This year’s been tough,” Soldotna coach Krista Arthur said after the meet.
In addition to dealing with all the complications caused by the new coronavirus pandemic, the Stars had to endure the death of head coach Ted McKenney in late June. McKenney died at 64 due to an advanced, inoperable, aggressive brain cancer.
The longtime area cross-country coach is beloved on the team. Just how raw the emotion still is became apparent right after Strausbaugh won the varsity race.
McKenney’s daughter, Crystal Porte McKenney, walked up to Strausbaugh to congratulate her and both quickly teared up.
“She was really special to him,” McKenney said. “He liked her work ethic. I wanted her to know he would have been proud of her.”
Strausbaugh said Ted McKenney is the best coach she ever had.
“I always think about Ted every time I’m running a course he coached me on,” Strausbaugh, a junior, said. “I think of him cheering me on.
“Whenever he would cheer for me, I would run faster.”
Arthur stepped up to coach the team when she was the only one left following the death of McKenney and the retirement of assistant coach Kent Peterson.
“Of course, I was looking for people to help us,” Arthur said. “Ted was looking out for us. I found two great assistant coaches.”
The assistant coaches are former SoHi standout Aaron Swedberg and Daniel Serventi, who won a Division II state title for Grace Christian in 2013.
Arthur said McKenney’s death was hard for the whole team, but was even more difficult for the upperclassmen who had gotten to know him so well.
Of course, that wasn’t all the SoHi runners had to deal with. There was no track season last spring. Summer races were hard to find. Then the team missed the first few weeks of racing when the central peninsula was at high-risk level due to COVID-19 cases.
Such sporadic racing can lead to injuries. Strausbaugh, who won boroughs for the first time, said her victory was possible because sore shins have begun to feel better.
Strausbaugh took control of the race from the start. She enjoys running in the woods by herself. That’s what she ended up doing on a Tsalteshi course that was as flat as the hilly terrain allows.
“Hills have always been better for me, but lately I have not been doing as well on hills,” Strausbaugh said. “So I was happy there were not a lot of hills. It was very flat.”
Erika Arthur, a senior, took second at 21:33 as the Stars scored 22 points as a team to top the 49 of Kenai and 51 of Homer.
“I’m battling an injury,” Arthur said. “I’m not sure if it was smart to race, but I did it.”
Arthur said she’s feeling soreness in her quadriceps and iliotibial band. She said she hopes the injury feels better for Saturday’s region meet at Tsalteshi Trails.
She also gave credit to Strausbaugh for the victory.
“Jordan came to race,” Arthur said. “I’m so proud of her.”
Dunham, a senior, won the race for the fourth straight time, pulling of the rare sweep of borough titles for his high school career. Dunham also won middle school boroughs as an eighth grader.
Although he defeated Homer’s Seamus McDonough by 19 seconds for the title, Dunham’s dominance was in question in recent weeks.
He said he had a bad cold and has missed the last couple of races. Dunham said he was tested for COVID-19, but the test came up negative. He said it is the same cold that the football team has been dealing with, causing the Kardinals to cancel Saturday’s game with Soldotna High School.
“I had to take a week and a half off from running,” Dunham said.
His goal was to run 16:45 Saturday. He said he was on that pace for the first half of the race, but then began to fall off of it. The field was too far behind to catch up at that point.
Dunham said the four borough titles join a state track title in the 800 meters as a sophomore as career highlights.
“I’m really proud of it,” he said. “I was definitely hoping I could run this week so I could hang on to the title.”
The Kardinals scored 34 points to edge Soldotna by four for the team crown. Homer had 51 points.
McDonough, a sophomore, said he knew he could not catch Dunham. He bided his time and ended up being the best of the chase pack.
Even after finishing second, McDonough knows being a borough champion will be a tall order in future years.
“It’s definitely one of my goals, but there’s some fast Kenai freshmen,” McDonough said. “It will be a hard competition.”
Kenai coach Todd Boonstra was proud of the way his team overcame injury and illness at the meet. Jayna Boonstra, the team’s top girls runner, was out due to sickness. Jack Laker, a varsity boys runner, missed the meet with an ankle injury.
Coach Boonstra said many of the runners that competed set new personal bests.
“This has been a great group to work with,” he said. “They’ve got good attitudes and they all support each other. As soon as they finish their race, boom, they’re right out on the course to support their teammates.”
Seward did not compete at the race after possible transmission of COVID-19 occurred in Seward Elementary School. Al Plan, Seward athletic director, said all Seward sports were canceled Saturday out of what the school district said was an abundance of caution.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Cross-Country meet
Saturday at Tsalteshi Trails
Team scores: 1. Soldotna, 22; 2. Kenai Central, 49; 3. Homer, 51.
Individual 5-kilometer results
1. Jordan Strausbaugh, Sol, 20 minutes, 48 seconds; 2. Erika Arthur, Sol, 21:33; 3. Eryn Field, Hom, 21:48; 4. Katie Delker, Sol, 22:04; 5. Jordan Ruffner, Sol, 22:07; 6. Emilee Wilson, Ken, 22:12; 7. Summer Foster, Ken, 22:16; 8. Elena Badajos, Hom, 22:18; 9. Frida Renner, Hom, 22:30; 10. Sonia Montague, Sol, 22:32; 11. Emily Moss, Ken, 22:52; 12. Leah Fallon, Ken, 22:56; 13. Gabriella Tews, Ken, 23:09; 14. Kaidence Schaeffer, Sol, 23:22; 15. Adelyn McCorison, Hom, 23:42; 16. Kara Super, Hom, 23:43; 17. Lucy Dammeyer, Sol, 23:47; 18. Syliva Clemens, Hom, 24:22; 19. Jordan Barrowcliff, Hom, 24:38; 20. Lynnea Hack, Ken, 24:43; 21. Kaya Cox, Ken, 27:06.
Team scores: 1. Kenai Central, 34; 2. Soldotna, 38; 3. Homer, 51.
Individual 5-kilometer results
1. Maison Dunham, Ken, 17:20; 2. Seamus McDonough, Hom, 17:39; 3. Gregory Fallon, Ken, 17:42; 4. Joe Hamilton, Ken, 17:52; 5. Maleda Denbrock, Sol, 17:56; 6. Nathanael Johnson, Sol, 18:03; 7. Lance Seneff, Hom, 18:23; 8. Avery Willets, Sol, 18:31; 9. Quinn Cox, Sol, 18:43; 10. Jeren Nash, Sol, 18:48; 11. Tyler Hippchen, Ken, 18:55; 12. Austin Cline, Hom, 18:58; 13. Tytus Gilbert, Sol, 19:05; 14. Adams Veldstra, Hom, 19:06; 15. Ky Calvert, Ken, 19:11; 16. Damon Weisser, Hom, 19:21; 17. Garrett Briscoe, Hom, 19:31; 18. Sean Babitt, Sol, 19:47; 19. Nathan Haakenson, Ken, 20:18; 20. Jonah Mershon, Hom, 20:28; 21. Zane Tews, Ken, 22:08.