The first runner to cross the finish line in the first race of Saturday’s Region V Cross Country Championships was not from Juneau, but she summed up what has coursed through the blood of the Thunder Mountain High School Falcons and Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears all season.
“I just love to run,” Thorne Bays Taylee Nyquest said, standing breathless inside the finish gate after posting the day’s fastest time of 19 minutes 26 seconds with her 2A/3A competitors still out on the Sandy Beach course. “I like to see how far my legs can take me, it is so exciting.”
The most exciting Region V Championships in many years according to coaches in attendance as the Thunder Mountain girls took the long-standing Region V title from cross town rival Juneau-Douglas by one point, 32-33.
TMHS sophomore Maddie Hall and freshman Naomi Welling followed JDHS senior Lillian Pothier off the starting line in the 4A girls race and the three battled for 20 minutes into the finish.
Hall won the Falcons’ first-ever individual cross-country championship in 20:02.
“It feels amazing,” Hall said. “I am really proud of our team and it just feels amazing.” Welling followed in 21:15 and Pothier in 21:20. Those three knew the race was still far from over for their teammates and the three embraced at the finish for a few moments before heading to the cheer section.
“We all respect each other,” Pothier said. “I don’t know them on a personal level outside of cross country races at all but I really respect their efforts and I know that they respect mine, so we have a positive relationship. Our girls going to state are really driven and excited, we are happy to be representing JDHS. Obviously we are really disappointed that we didn’t win the team title but we all know that everyone out there ran as hard as they could. All things considered, illnesses and injuries, our team pulled together and had a great race.”
“It meant a lot,” Welling said of the three embracing. “Just the fact that rivals can get together and be good sports and have that special connection, I think that is really cool.”
Said Hall of the impromptu hugging, “That is what I like about cross country. Yes we are competitive, but we can still be close and good sports.”
Like deer in the headlights, each runner from JDHS and TMHS bolted straight forward with the finish line in sight.
JDHS junior Eliza Walker (21:28) and freshman Katline Barrows (21:48) finished fourth and fifth ahead of Ketchikan’s Alexis Crellin (22:15) and Eimy Anzueto (23:12).
Inside the course, however, the Falcons had trailed by one point going into the final lap. Pothier was closing on the two leaders. The Falcons had to maintain first and second position and one of their next three runners had to pass a Crimson Bears harrier.
A push at the finish was needed and Falcons senior Marella Gungob garnered eighth (23:24). Crimson Bears freshman Maddy Handley (23:34) nipped Falcons senior Katie Jones (23:35) for ninth and tenth.
“She knew she had to have that finish,” JDHS coach Merry Ellefson said. “The girls have all been working hard and they put out a good effort. We don’t see the Falcons win as a bummer at all. It speaks of the programs and an exciting meet, the most exciting I have ever been in, and it has been close all year. It was just fun.”
JDHS co-coach Tristan Knutson-Lombardo said, “It would be a lie to say we didn’t care if we won, but Thunder Mountain ran really well and we had a lot of girls on our team run really well and it was exciting to be out there on the course.”
Falcons senior Emilyanne Lohrey (23:57) out lasted JDHS’ Sinead Scholl (23:57) for 11th and 12th and the crucial last point.
“I feel it is such a team sport,” Lohrey said. “We all had to finish where we were or we wouldn’t go to state. I really liked the hills, my coach is amazing and has taught me how to use the hills to my advantage.”
The top ten individual runners go to state along with the remaining seven members of the top team.
“You are only as strong of a team as your fifth runner,” Falcons coach Scott May said. “And this was the case in point. You just never know. It is an individual sport, yet it is a team sport and when the kids come together and support each other anything can happen... and did happen in this case.”
TMHS junior Estie Dawson (14th, 24:18), JDHS sophomore Alicia Norton (16th, 24:49), TMHS senior Ashlynn Kay (25:08) and JDHS sophomore Leah Liebelt (17th, 25:42) rounded out the local scoring.
The Falcons Kay started in the inaugural TMHS season four years ago and Jones, who joined a year later, has been the only girl at the state venue.
“We beat Juneau,” an elated Jones said. “I thought I had lost it for the team and I was crying, and then they turned to tears of joy. It is so great for us. I am so overjoyed that I have a group of girls coming with me.”
Stated Kay, "We have all worked really hard and to be a senior it is really great to go to state. Definitely my freshman year I didn't think this would happen but it has been getting closer each season."
The 4A boys race featured a break out pace that quickly thinned the pack and propelled JDHS to the state tournament.
JDHS senior Tal Norvell, sophomore Riley Moser, TMHS junior Khalil English and Ketchikan’s Chris Llanos blistered the first mile in 5:05.
At their heels were a pack of Crimson Bears, Falcons and Kings.
Norvell slowed the pace little and easily cruised across the finish in 16:55 for his first Region V Championship.
“I feel glad to be done,” Norvell said at the finish line. “It was a hard race but I was able to work through it and I am really glad it is over. I am really proud of everyone’s efforts today. I really compliment the course officials, they did a really great job of marking the course and we were able to blaze along the path. I just visualized the state runners that would be in front of me, that helped me to keep pushing on, and I could feel Riley and Khalil right behind me. That kept more pressure on me to keep going harder. It was a great effort by them.”
Moser (17:20) out-kicked English (17:52) for second place.
“I was thinking wow this is pretty fast,” English said. “But I tried to stay with them anyway. I really wanted to win regions, I had the idea that I wanted to do this for my team and get them all to come with me to state.”
This will be English’s second year heading to the state venue, he missed the mark freshman year by one position, and he is taking three Falcons with him.
Seniors James Steeves (18:33) and Ben Travers (18:37) and junior Nicolas Wright (18:39) took the last three positions in the top ten.
“It was a tough race,” TMHS coach May said. “They dropped their times from last year, and it was a tougher course. You can’t ask for more than that. They all pushed really hard. And the girls race, it doesn’t get more exciting than that. The kids knew the scores as the race unfolded, and that made it even more exciting. They knew what they needed to do.”
Ketchikan’s Chris Llanos finished fourth (18:03), JDHS sophomore Johnny Elliott (18:03) and senior Martin Woodby (18:06) were fifth and sixth, and Ketchikan’s Jacob Guenther (18:27) joined his Kings teammate for a state trip with seventh (18:27).
“This has been a great event,” Ketchikan coach Dan Ortiz said. “And well done by the Juneau organization. The results speak for themselves. We knew the girls would be close all year long and congratulations to the Thunder Mountain girls. Wow, what a finish. When it comes down to the sixth runner on your team you can’t have a closer race than that.”
JDHS freshman Brian Holst (11th, 18:40) and Corbin Mitchell (12th, 18:46), TMHS senior Nick Bursell (13th, 19:04), sophomore Michael Lohrey (17th, 19:39), and freshman Luc Padden (18th, 19:45) and JDHS freshman Ryan Moritz (21st, 20:27) rounded out the local runners.
The 2A/3A boys race was won by Craig’s William Brand (17:42).
“It felt good,” Brand said. “I have been wanting to win a title for a while. This is a hard course, the hills kill you.”
Sitka’s Darin Davis took second (18:11) and Wrangell senior Jacob Marshall saved his best run of the season for a third place (18:17).
“My senior got in there,” Wrangell head coach Monty Buness said excitedly. “That was spectacular. And my freshman (Bryce Gerald, 9th, 18:37) is going too. Jacob is a senior first year runner, they both had their best runs ever. On any given day, any given kid can do something pretty spectacular. That is what makes cross country so special.”
Mt. Edgecumbe swept both the team titles. The boys scored 55 points to edge out Sitka (59) and Haines (68). The Lady Braves scored 47 points to top Sitka (61) and Petersburg (64).
“Our girls have never finished first,” Mt. Edgecumbe coach Josh Arnold said on the course. “But by my math, and I went to Sitka so I will have to double check the calculations, but by my math we just won one. The girls ran hard all season. These ladies worked hard and we emphasized running as a team. Seven girls are on the course and have the same job to do.”
Said Mt. Edgecumbe runner Deirdre Creed (19th, 24:26) said, “I am so happy we are going to state, we get another chance to improve ourselves.”
Those teams will battle it out for bragging rights at state next weekend against Alaska’s top high school runners.
The top three teams in the 2A/3A races go to state and runners in the top 15 finishes if not on those teams. Complete results are on page B6.
For the 2A/3A girls, Thorne Bay’s Nyquest was the class of the Region V championships and posted a fast enough time to be considered a serious state title contender.
Nyquest finished over two minutes a head of the next finishers, Petersburg’s Grace Weller (21:42) in second, Haines’ Zayla Asquith-Heinz (3rd, 21:51), Mt. Edgecumbe’s Crystal McNeilly (4th, 21:52) and Sitka’s Jennifer MacIntyre (5th, 22:13). Those runners will lead their teams at state while Nyquest will be joined by teammate Amy Jenson (6th, 22:23).
“I will continue to keep running,” Nyquest said. “And keep improving. This course had hills, I love hills. They push me and challenge me and I like that and I am excited for state. I like to see how far my legs can take me.”
The ASAA 1A/2A/3A/4A State Cross Country Running Championships will be next Saturday on the hilly course of Anchorage’s Bartlett High School.