A year ago, Kodiak’s Hallee Blair was in the middle of the high school volleyball season, setting teammates on offense and digging up balls on defense.
What a difference a year makes.
Blair has morphed into a long-distance runner and, as a senior, will make her first appearance at the Division I cross country state championships Saturday at Bartlett High School in Anchorage.
Blair will not be the only runner with a Kodiak singlet on as, for the first time since 2011, the entire girls team qualified for the state meet.
“I walked into the season open-minded and here to train for track,” Blair said. “Then we qualified for state as a team — it is probably the best outcome ever.”
A state champion and school-record hurdler, Blair decided to mix things up her senior season. She gave up volleyball — a sport she had played since middle school — for cross country — a sport she had never done.
It wasn’t an easy decision, and one she didn’t take lightly. However, having aspirations of hurdling in college, Blair — a two-year starter on the volleyball team — knew changing fall sports was the right choice. Telling the volleyball coaches of her decision was difficult.
“It was a hard conversation,” said Blair, the 2018 300-meter hurdle state champion.
Second-year cross country coach Ashley Mortenson, also the track coach, was thrilled to add Blair to her lineup of talented runners.
“Hallee is an incredible athlete who just works so hard … her mental toughness plays into cross country perfectly,” the coach said.
Last spring, Blair ran with the distance runners during track practice. The longer runs were designed to improve her time in the 300 hurdles, which dropped to a school-best 45.96 seconds — her 15.76 in the 100 hurdles is also a school record.
This fall was Blair’s first foray into grueling practices, like doing 8.5-mile runs and running up and down mountains.
Blair has conquered everything Mortenson has thrown her way. The senior finished 18th — Kodiak’s fourth runner — at last week’s Region III Championships with a personal-best 5-kilometer time of 21 minutes, 4.5 seconds.
“It was part expected and part a delightful surprise,” Mortenson said.
Blair concurred with her coach.
“This really took me by surprise. I was definitely not a distance runner,” she said. “Now, a three-mile run is doable, but before I couldn’t even run a mile.”
The Kodiak girls team qualified for the state meet for the first time since 2011 by placing third at the regional meet. Joining Blair will be seniors Katie Parnell and Carly Glover, junior Malina Fagan, sophomores Naomi Griffin and Fracnie Eufemio and freshman Elizabeth Parnell.
Out of the seven girls, Fagan is the only one who has run at the state cross country meet. She finished 43rd in last year’s meet.
Sending an entire team to state is a significant milestone for the girls program that is trending in the right direction.
“Bringing multiple freshmen and sophomores to state so they can see the excitement and experience the density of the race is really valuable as we build the program forward,” Mortenson said.
Leading the pack of Kodiak girls will be Elizabeth Parnell, who was the runner-up finisher at the Region III Championships with a time of 20:04.31. Mortenson would like to see her young runner finish the season under 20 minutes.
“It is equally as hard as someone like Hallee to figure out a 5K as it is for a middle schooler who is used to running a 3K,” Mortenson said. “She (Elizabeth) is still learning the distance, still learning how early to expend her energy in order to not run out at the finish … I could see her dropping even more time this week on Bartlett’s course, even with the thicker competition and the harder terrain.”
For the second consecutive season, Kodiak’s boys will be one of 10 Division I teams competing on the Bartlett course.
Last year, the Bears placed ninth. With a year of experience, they are hoping to improve their place on Saturday.
“It’s a challenging year on the guys’ side,” Mortenson said. “We are hoping that fifth would be a strong, very respectable finish for us this year.”
Kodiak will be paced by senior Braxton Gruner and juniors Connor Marbrey and Colt Hubert. Marbrey won last week’s regional meet, while Gruner was second and Hubert fourth.
Hubert was the surprise finisher out of the group, chopping nearly a minute off his personal-best time last week.
“I think it is coach Ashley’s practices,” Hubert said. “She really knows how to train us to be the fastest that we can.”
With Gruner graduating early and Marbrey’s Coast Guard family moving after the season, Hubert will be Kodiak’s top runner for the track season and next year’s cross country season. Mortenson said she has been waiting for Hubert to breakout.
“I think he is getting so much more confident in knowing what paces he can push for,” she said.
Hubert said competing with Gruner and Marbrey in practice has helped him gauge his tempo.
“It is very helpful having very fast, very skilled runners on the team,” he said.
Seniors Riley Birbilas and Jerrod Bolton, junior Jackson Roberts and sophomore David Castro round out Kodiak’s varsity lineup.
Marbrey, Gruner, Hubert, Birbilas and Bolton all ran at state a year ago.
“There is no question that the team’s energy towards state is so much more comfortable and a lot more confidence,” Mortenson said.