The 2024 state champion West Anchorage High School boys and girls teams. Photo courtesy Toby Erickson.

A group of West High boys who began their high school careers four years ago wearing facemasks and doing their best to stay a ski-pole’s length away from each other wrapped things up Saturday with smiles covering their faces after an impressive display of social distancing.

The race that got away from them last season was all-Eagles this season at the state cross-country ski championships at Kincaid Park.

West won Saturday’s 4×3-kilometer relay race by 49 seconds to put a stamp of dominance on the school’s second straight sweep of the boys and girls team titles.

Blake Hanley, Murphy Kimball, Hatcher Menkens and Cole Flowers — “my pandemic babies,” coach Joey Caterinichio said — led from start to finish to earn vindication in a race they lost last season by one second.

Left to Right: West High’s Piper Sears, Berit Meyers, Merridy Littell, Greta Bochenek. Photo courtesy Toby Erickson.

The West team of Greta Bochenek, Piper Sears, Merridy Littell and Berit Meyers won the girls relay by 52 seconds to cap their championship run.

The relay routs followed two days of insanely close individual races.

In Friday’s 7.5-kilometer mass-start classic race, Kimball edged South High’s Vebjorn Flagstad by one-tenth of a second in the boys race and Littell nipped teammate Sears by half of a second in the girls race to put West skiers atop both podiums. The top four girls were separated by 2.3 seconds, with Tania Boonstra of Soldotna placing third and Miyana Kam-Magruder of Service finishing fourth.

Photo Finish: Murphy Kimball edgied Vebjorn Flagstad in Friday’s 7.5km classic race by one-tenth of a second. Photo courtesy Tim Brabets.

In Thursday’s 5K interval-start freestyle race, Service skiers took both victories, with Oskar Flora beating Flagstad by 1.4 seconds and Olivia Soderstrom claiming a decisive 7.5-second win over South’s Mia Stiassny.

The coveted Skiemeister awards — given to the boy and girl with the fastest combined times from the two individual races — went to a pair of sophomores.

Though a slim, combined total of 1.5 seconds separated him from two individual championships, Flagstad reaped a sweet reward by cruising to  Skimeister honors. He fashioned a lead of nearly 30 seconds over runnerup Flowers, who placed third in both individual races.

South High’s Vebjorn Flagstad (left) and West High’s Murphy Kimball (right). Flagstad was named boys Skimeister. Photo courtesy Pete Pounds.

Soderstrom repeated as the girls Skimeister based on her freestyle victory and her sixth-place finish in the  classic race. She held an 8.5-second gap over runnerup Mia Stiassny, a South sophomore who placed second in the freestyle race and seventh in the classic race.

Soderstrom became the 11th girl in Alaska history to win more than one Skimeister title. She’s the eighth to win the award twice, joining the illustrious group of West Valley’s Mara Rabinowitz (1981-82), West’s Nina Kemppel (1985-86), West’s D’Anna Dorris (1987-88), West Valley’s Aelin Peterson (1991-92), Lathrop’s Kate Pearson (1996-97), Service’s Paige Brady (2002-03) and West’s Lydia Blanchet (2013, 2015).

Three-time winners include West Valley skiers Kendall Kramer (2018-20) and Hannah Boyer (2010-12). The only four-time Skimeister in state history is Service’s Tara Hamilton, whose titles from 1998 to 2001 deprived East’s Kikkan Randall from listing the award on a resume that includes an Olympic gold medal in 2018.

Service High’s Olivia Soderstrom (Bib #1) leads the pack at the start of Friday’s 7.5km classic mass start. Soderstrom was named girls Skimeister. Photo courtesy Pete Pounds.

Soderstrom’s win on Thursday helped Service to a 35-second lead over the West girls after the first day of action, which ended with West and Service tied for the boys lead.

The Eagles ran away from Service on Friday. The girls were about 2.5 minutes faster and the boys were 76 seconds faster, giving both West squads breathing room going into the relays.

The boys had plenty of motivation nonetheless. Last year’s one-second relay loss was fresh in their memories.

“Our goal was to win the relay,” Caterinichio said.

West High’s Blake Hanley at the start of Thursday’s 5km interval start skate race. Photo courtesy Pete Pounds.

Hanley started things off with a scramble leg that gave West a 10-second lead. Then came Kimball, an 17-year-old who two weeks earlier in Canada became the youngest skier in U.S. history to compete in a World Cup race. His sizzling time of 7:06 was the leg’s fastest by 24 seconds, and Menkens and Flowers followed with the fastest times in their legs.

When it was all over, the Eagles won in 30:17.0, well ahead of second-place Colony (31:06.1) and third-place Service (31:36.3).

In the girls relay, West was in third place, 21 seconds out of the lead, after Bochenek’s opening leg. Sears crushed it in the second leg to boost the Eagles to a huge lead that Littell and Meyers more than maintained. West won in 36:13.7, followed by Service in 37:06.2.

The West girls are on track to get four skiers back from this season’s team, while Service and South should return a wealth of young talent, including Service’s Soderstrom and Kam-Magruder, a freshman who was third in the Skimeister standings.

Piper Sears (Bib #4) leads competitors in the 7.5km classic race on Friday. Photo courtesy Pete Pounds.

The West boys will lose their entire relay team plus two other team members to graduation, Caterinichio said.

“I had them the first year of the pandemic, when they had to wear masks and stand 6 feet apart,” she said.

That was Caterinichio’s first year as West’s head coach. She joined the Eagles as an assistant coach seven years ago after working for several years at the national level, including three years as nordic manager for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and three years as president of the National Nordic Foundation. She took over as head coach in time to steer the Eagles through the pandemic.

“It was during that time that returning back from the national scene and jumping back into grass roots-coaching was so important for high school sports,” Caterinichio said. “We’re low on coaches. Our kids needed coaches more than ever since the pandemic. Seeing these kids through to the end and winning back-to-back championships was amazing, and all due to their hard work. I couldn’t ask for a better group of athletes to work with.”

In the Division II category for smaller schools, Emily Moss and Gregory Fallon of Kenai Central had the fastest times in both races. Moss placed 18th and 24th overall in the freestyle and classic races, and Fallon was 20th and 29th overall.

Thursday’s 5K freestyle

Top 10 girls

1) Olivia Soderstrom, Service, 14:49.7; 2) Mia Stiassny, South, 14:57.2; 3) Miyana Kam-Magruder, Service, 15:02.6; 4) Piper Sears, West, 15:08.0; 5) Merridy Littell, West, 15:17.4; 6) Tania Boonstra, Soldotna, 15:35.9; 7) Berit Meyers, West, 15:48.9; 8) Alise Elliott, South, 15:52.2; 9) Haley Finch, Service, 15:52.8; 10) Elliot Sensabaugh, Colony, 15:57.2.

Top 10 boys

1) Oskar Flora, Service, 12:35.7; 2) Vebjorn Flagstad, South, 12:37.1; 3) Cole Flowers, West, 12:41.3; 4) Weston Sensabaugh, Colony, 12:54.2; 5) Elias Oswald, Service, 12:55.7; 6) Hatcher Menkens, West, 13:01.9; 7) Wells Wappett, Lathrop, 13:03.1; 8) Oliver Wright, West, 13:03.7; 9) Jack Leveque, Service, 13:13.4; 10) Blake Hanley, West, 13:15.4.


Friday’s 7.5 classic

Top 10 girls

1) Merridy Littell, West, 23:41.6; 2) Piper Sears, West, 23:42.1; 3) Tania Boonstra, Soldotna, 23:43.6; 4) Miyana Kam-Magruder, Service, 23:43.9; 5) Elliot Sensabaugh, Colony, 23:47.3; 6) Olivia Soderstrom, Service, 23:47.6; 7) Mia Stiassny, South, 23:48.6; 8) Alise Elliott, South, 24:08.1; 9) Maya Tirpak, South, 24:48.6; 10) Berit Meyers, West, 24:51.8.

Top 10 boys

1) Murphy Kimball, West, 19:34.8; 2) Vebjorn Flagstad, South, 19:34.9; 3) Cole Flowers, West, 20:00.2; 4) Coby Marvin, Colony, 20:05.3; 5) Blake Hanley, West, 20:13.4; 6) Oskar Flora, Service, 20:13.5; 7) Logan Cuddy, Service, 20:15.3; 8) Miles Numme-Worrell, East, 20:15.6; 9) Jack Leveque, Service, 20:30.5; 10) Gabriel Black, Colony, 20:30.6.


Saturday’s 4x3K relay 

Top 5 girls 

1) West 36:13.7; 2) Service 37:06.2; 3) Soldotna 38:18.0; 4) South 38:20.6; 5) Colony 39:26.2.

Top 5 boys

1) West 30:17.0; 2) Colony 31:06.1; 3) Service 31:36.3; 4) South 32:08.8; 5) West Valley 32:41.6.


Skimeister standings

Top 5 girls

1) Olivia Soderstrom, Service; 2) Mia Stiassny, South; 3) Miyana Kam-Magruder, Service, 4) Piper Sears, West; 5) Merridy Littell, West.

Top 5 boys

1) Vebjorn Flagstad, South; 2) Cole Flowers, West; 3) Oskar Flora, Service; 4) Murphy Kimball, West; 5) Coby Marvin, Colony.

Full Results here.

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