The 2011 Juneau-Douglas cross-country season kicks off this Saturday in the Capital City Invitational Meet at Savikko Park, featuring teams from around Southeast.
And the Crimson Bears will have a new look.
This is the first season JDHS will be without the guidance of longtime cross-country coach Guy Thibodeau, who retired last season after 35 years.
“We are both fortunate to have been mentored by Guy,” co-coach Merry Ellefson said, referring to herself and fellow co-coach Tristan Knutsan-Lombardo. “Not only as a coach but as a competitor, and as a really caring human. I think that’s a culture that really transfers to the team.”
The Crimson Bears return plenty of depth and experience this season on both the boys’ and girls’ sides, but also will look to some newcomers to fill holes left by graduated seniors.
On the boys’ side, the Bears offer a blend of experience and youth, returning four varsity runners from last year’s squad that finished fourth overall in the state championship meet.
Led by senior co-captains David Francis and Jesse Miller, who both finished in the top 20 at last year’s state meet, JDHS looks primed for another conference title. Junior Tal Norvell, another returnee, figures to fit in as the Bears’ No. 3 runner, and senior co-captain Ian Andrews gives JDHS a solid nucleus to build around.
“We’ve got a really strong core of returning varsity runners, and then we’ve got another five or six that will be working to fill those last three spots on the roster,” Knutson-Lombardo said. “We’re going to be very strong on the boys’ side this year, and pretty competitive up north.”
“I feel like we have at least four guys that we know ... are just really solid,” Francis added. “Then we have a lot of depth fighting for the last three places.”
Gone are graduated seniors Sage Thibodeau, Andre Bunton and Zack Bursell, who is now running for the University of Portland. Stepping in are some fresh faces.
“We face the challenge of having to step up and fill those shoes that were left,” Andrews said. “It’s important that we support our fifth, sixth and seventh runners to fill up the last slots on varsity to have a solid middle of our team.”
Juniors Martin Woodby and Kit Cummins, sophomore Luc Browning and freshmen Riley Moser, Grant Ainsworth and Johnny Elliot all have shown promise and are expected to contend for the final three spots. Seniors Max Lyons and Eric Bookless also figure to fit into the mix.
On the girls’ side, the Bears display a great deal of experience, returning they’re top four runners from last season’s team that finished 10th in the state. Senior co-captains Sid Browning and Karissa Jackson, two seasoned veterans, look to lead the way for JDHS, while classmates Martina Miller and Sarah McDermott, junior Lily Pothier and sophomore Mali Tamone all offer varsity experience coming into this season.
JDHS, however, has been bitten by the injury bug of late.
“We don’t have a very big team,” Browning said. “I think we only have like 10 runners right now with all of the injuries, so it’ll be interesting to see where everybody’s at this weekend. We don’t really know who our top five are right now. It’s been more about how everyone’s feeling day to day.”
“Lily, is coming back from fighting bronchitis and is back in shape now,” she continued. “Mali, who is one of our stronger runners, is injured with an Achilles tendon problem, but will probably join us later in the season. Martina and Sarah are both returning varsity runners from last year, and Eliza Walker is showing some promise.”
Jackson, who has battled injuries the past two seasons, said she’s completely healthy — aside from a tweaked ankle — and is feeling strong.
“Right now our main goal is to keep everybody healthy and get everybody healthy who is not,” she said. “We’re just working on trying to get stronger as a team and get enough girls to compete at a high level.”
Browning and Miller, the Bear’s top two runners last season, finished 28th and 31st at the state meet, respectively.
Ellefson praised the leadership of the team’s five senior co-captains.
“They’re leaders in every way,” she said. They’ve committed four hard years and are ready to lead.”
On the boys’ side, Miller said he has embraced his new leadership role, crediting past seniors with being terrific role models.
“It felt pretty natural, stepping into Andre and Zack’s shoes (as a captain),” he said. “I was really close to them and I feel like they rubbed off on me, helping me (get) ready to take over.”
But cross-country is more than just about running to the five captains. The strong sense of family, team camaraderie and fun, supportive atmosphere have helped make it a close-knit group.
“Over the season, everyone gets really close and forms some of the best high school memories through cross-country,” Browning said. “After a race, everyone has done the same hard thing and we all know what everyone is feeling. It really brings us closer.”
“We tend to get a lot of quirky people distance running,” Francis added. “So we all get along. If you suffer together, it brings you closer.”
Knutson-Lombardo said support from teammates is the most critical part of running as a unit.
“Everyone in cross-country is going to the same workouts, running the same races, trying to get better at the same thing, and so there’s nothing easier than being able to support your teammates,” he said. “I think that sense of community and compassion for each other is just the core value that we try to pass on.”
“The more compassionate we are, the more competitive we can be,” Ellefson added. “For me, it’s always like, how can we use running as a vehicle to become better community and team members, to raise our individual expectations and to do it in a really playful way? One of the best things about cross-country, for me and the teams that I’ve experienced over the decade, is that they play just as hard as they work.”
JDHS will have a chance to prove itself against the rest of the field in Southeast on Saturday in the Capital City Invitational.
“We’re hoping for everyone to get out there and demonstrate where they’re at, both psychologically and physically,” Ellefson said. “It’s really important for us to see what the runners’ goals are for not just this weekend, but the entire season, and how do we use this meet to strategize and support them throughout the entire season.”
“Our goal is to definitely be first in Southeast, and improve our statewide ranking,” Francis added.
Miller, however, set the bar a bit higher.
“Let’s shoot for a state title,” he said, addressing his fellow captains. “It’s our last year. I mean why not give it all we have left?”