Tristian Merchant has dispatched every runner he’s encountered this season while establishing himself as the fastest high school cross-country runner in Alaska history. So maybe it was just a matter of time before he upped the ante and took on a bicyclist.
Merchant, an Anchorage Christian senior, came close to catching the lead biker in Saturday’s Division II cross-country championships at Kincaid Park, where he broke the 15-minute mark for the third time in five races this season.
Merchant claimed his third straight state championship in a time of 14 minutes, 51 seconds. He finished 1:42 ahead of runner-up David Sliwinski of Grace Christian, and at one point he almost caught South High principal Luke Almon, the lead biker who rode ahead of runners to help keep the trail clear.
“On one of the downhills he braked, and he really shouldn’t have braked,” Merchant said while explaining his close encounter with Almon. “He was a really good biker, though. Best lead biker I’ve ever had.”
Merchant’s victory was as predictable as termination dust in October.
Last week at the Region III championships, his personal-best time of 14:41 is not just the fifth fastest time in the nation this season. It was the fastest 5K cross-country time in history by an Alaska high school runner, and it’s believed to be the second fastest 5K on Alaska soil, trailing only Marcus Dunbar’s 1995 record run of 14:39 in the Alaska Heart Run, which is a road race.
Less predictable was the girls race, where Kenai Central sophomore Jayna Boonstra came from behind to win her first state title.
Boonstra was in third place after 2 miles and didn’t take the lead until the final kilometer on her way to a seven-second win over Grace Christian’s Megan Nelson. Boonstra clocked 19:38 and Nelson was second in 19:46.
It was the first time this season Boonstra didn’t lead a race from start to finish. Kenai Peninsula schools were limited to inter-district races during the regular season, so Boonstra didn’t go up against runners from other parts of the state until Saturday.
She kind of liked the view from behind.
“It’s easier to have someone ahead of you. Someone to keep you going,” she said. “It was super-nice to be able to go get somebody.”
Boonstra said she caught Nelson with less than a kilometer to go, on a gradual downhill.
“I saw I was gaining on her. I just had to go,” she said.
Boonstra’s victory adds to an impressive family legacy. Her dad is Todd Boonstra, a Mount Marathon champion and a four-time Olympic skier, and her mom, Kelli Jo, was a national-class cross-country skier. Her older sister, Riana, was the 2015 state runner-up back when Kenai competed against Alaska’s biggest schools (now they’re in a division for medium-sized schools). Her younger sister, Tania, is a seventh-grader who wore Kardinal red as she cheered on her sister.
While Boonstra came from behind, Merchant shot into the lead in the first 100 or 200 meters of the boys race.
He blazed through the first 2 miles of the 3.1-mile race. He ran the first mile in 4:33 — 27 seconds faster than anyone else — and ran the first two miles in a head-spinning 9:01.
“That’s two seconds off my 2-mile (track) PR,” Merchant said. “I don’t think I should have done that.”
He said he didn’t feel good during the race, something he attributed to the fast start. He looked fine at the finish, where he lifted his head and raised a finger to the sky, a praise-the-Lord show of faith that has become his routine.
Merchant said he was hoping for a time in the low 15:00s and was happy to do even better than that. His sub-15:00 times have gained him notice among Division I college coaches, and he said he has narrowed his choices to five colleges: Washington, Liberty, Lipscomb, Northern Arizona and Oklahoma State.
Merchant was the undisputed star on a day when ASAA crowned no team champions — that part of the competition was eliminated as part of the association’s mitigation efforts to limit the number of people at the races.
Nonetheless, runners from powerhouse Grace Christian turned in a performance worthy of a championship team.
In the boys race, the Grizzlies put six runners in the top 10. In the girls race, they had two in the top 10 and five in the top 16.
1. Tristian Merchant, Anchorage Christian 14:51; 2. David Sliwinski, Grace Christian 16:33; 3. Ty Elliott, Grace Christian 16:40; 4. Ben Thatcher, Grace Christian 16:44; 5. Cole Fritzel, Grace Christian 16:46; 6. Max Pfeiffenberger, Seward 16:51; 7. Tobin Hobbs, Nome-Beltz 16:51; 8. Maison Dunham, Kenai Central 16:54; 9. Aiden Zingone, Grace Christian 17:18; 10. Preston Wethington, Grace Christian 17:19; 11. Gregory Fallon, Kenai Central 17:25; 12. Silas Demmert, Sitka 17:43; 13. Preston Merchant, Anchorage Christian 17:44; 14. Joe Hamilton, Kenai Central 17:54; 15. Kobi Weiland, Sitka 17:56; 16. Lance Seneff, Homer 18:05; 17. Jack Laker, Kenai Central 18:06; 18. Seamus McDonough, Homer 18:39; 19. Son Erikson, Nome-Beltz 18:41 20. Levi DeBoard, Seward 18:45; 21. Billy Bast, Monroe Catholic 18:49; 22. Stephen Felix, Monroe Catholic 19:10; 23. Annon Weiland, Sitka 19:12; 24. Cormac Kesey, Hutchison 19:31; 25. Bruce Otey, Monroe Catholic 19:48; 26. Phillip Wa Jones, Hutchison 19:56; 27. William Benes, Valdez 20:23; 28. Jason Buffington, Hutchison 20:27; 29. Sebiyam Werdin-Kennicott, Hutchison 20:51; 30. Seth Waln, Hutchison 20:51.
1. Jayna Boonstra, Kenai Central 19:38; 2. Megan Nelson, Grace Christian 19:46; 3. Debbie Brower, Anchorage Christian 19:51; 4. Mya Campbell, Redington 20:07; 5. Katie Bast, Monroe Catholic 20:11; 6. Annan Prussian, Sitka 20:28; 7. Jeannie Cook, Monroe Catholic 20:42; 8. Lauren White, Monroe Catholic 20:49; 9. Sophia Coverdell, Grace Christian 21:29 ;10. Hailey Ingalls, Seward 21:33; 11. Elise Metzger, Grace Christian 21:39; 12. Brennyn Edwards, Grace Christian 21:40; 13. Emilee Wilson, Kenai Central 21:42; 14. Maranatha Brueckner, Seward 21:42; 15. Lena Jagielski, Seward 21:44; 16. Reagan Lash, Grace Christian 22:13; 17. Eryn Field, Homer 22:27; 18. Miranda Wilkerson, Monroe Catholic 22:29; 19. Natalie Clemente, Hutchison 22:33; 20. Frida Renner, Homer 22:38; 21. Tawny Smith, Sitka 22:44; 22. Genevieve Trevithick, Grace Christian 22:45; 23. Claire Fry, Nome-Beltz 23:04; 24. Lindsey Bartaloba, Sitka 23:55; 25. Nadia Chernich, Monroe Catholic 24:07; 26. Elena Badajos, Homer 25:05; 27. Anika Palomer, Valdez 25:11; 28. Natalie Tobuk, Nome-Beltz 25:15; 29. Myah Winningham, Hutchison 27:13; 30. Reagan Boucher, Ben Eielson 31:45.
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