Wolves senior Brandon King runs alongside the Glenn Highway during practice on Monday, Aug. 8. The team's top returner, King will have several Wolves teammates nipping at his heels this season.
STAR PHOTOs by matt tunseth
The Wolves head out for a training run. Coach Jacob Bera said this year's team is his largest in three seasons as head coach.
In one short year, Brandon King and Ben Smith have gone from young guns to elder statesmen on Eagle River's boys cross-country running team.
"We have a lot of incoming freshmen who are really good runners," said Smith.
King and Smith, both juniors, are Eagle River's top two returning runners this season. King was the lone Wolves runner to reach the state meet last season with an 11th place finish at the Cook Inlet Conference meet. Smith was second on the team in 26th.
But joining them this season are a talented trio of freshmen who helped Gruening Middle School claim a City Championship team title last fall.
"It's probably the strongest group I've had as far as potential," said coach Jacob Bera.
Alec Smith (Ben's younger brother) was second at the City meet, one spot ahead of Gruening teammate Ben Hall. They're both now Wolves, as is William Hail, who was eighth at the City Championships.
Having so many talented newcomers means the Eagle River boys could move closer to a top-four finish in the CIC and an automatic team berth at state this season.
"I think we are going to place a lot higher than normal," Ben Smith said.
King is the only runner with state experience on a team that finished seventh out of eight at the CIC meet. This year, the Wolves have their eye on a bigger prize: state.
"The hope is to make it as a team, but I definitely feel more than one (individual) can make it," he said.
With nearly 40 athletes out for the team this season, Bera said his program is in its best shape ever.
"I think kids are finding out it's a fun fall sport," he said.
Bera said some of his athletes spent time hitting the nearby middle school last fall in an effort to convince talented eighth-graders to continue in the sport as freshmen.
"We hit Gruening really hard last year," he said.
The tactic seems to have worked. In addition to the three top boys' runners, Bera also convinced freshman Nicole Boggs a rising soccer talent to come out for the team.
Bera said young runners like Boggs and sophomore returner Chris Bottini should help add depth to a squad that also includes senior Evy Hail.
"We've got some real strong girls coming in," he said.
Hail was Eagle River's top runner at the CIC meet last season, while Bottini was next across the finish line for the seventh-place Wolves in the meet.
Hail said having such a large team this year can only serve to make the team better overall.
"I think we're all really excited," she said. "I feel we're going to have a strong varsity team this year."
Eagle River will get a chance to show off its young talent on Saturday, Aug. 13 when the Wolves travel just up the road for class races at Chugiak. Racing begins at 10 a.m. with a freshman girls' race and concludes with a race for senior boys.
Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, August 10, 2011.