A strong group of proven veterans will anchor the Juneau-Douglas High School boys and girls track teams when they open their season today with a two-day meet in Ketchikan.
The Crimson Bears girls will be anchored by sophomore distance prodigy Leah Francis, who claimed state titles last season in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters while placing third in the 800. Her remarkable performance paced the Juneau girls to a third-place finish last year at the Alaska School Activities Association State Track and Field Championships in Fairbanks.
"As far as outstanding individuals, she's established herself," Juneau coach Scott May said.
A deep squad will back up Francis, including junior Kristie Ely, one of the best jumpers in recent JDHS memory, and senior distance runner Katie Krehlik. Ely placed seventh in the long jump and Krehlik finish eighth in the 3,200 at the state meet last year.
Notables for the Crimson Bears girls' squad include senior sprinter/hurdler Samantha Eyre, senior high jumper Nancy Banh as well as senior distance runner Isabel Bush.
Although the girls distance runners have dominated Juneau's program for several years, the boys program has seen shifts in its strength.
"We (the boys team) used to be strong in distance; then we were strong in field events," May said. "Now we're shifting towards sprints - I can't put my finger on it."
The boys team is built for speed with three established sprinters. Seniors Erik Bickmore and Phillip Moser and junior Jake Pernula anchor a boys team that placed fifth in the state last year. The trio was also the bulk of the fourth-place 800-meter relay team.
Moser, a seventh-place finisher in the 400 meters at last year's state meet, will also run hurdles along with junior Eric Schlechter. Schlechter will also run distance events with team captain Hunter Brown and freshman Zack Bursell.
"Bursell could be following off where other great Juneau distance runners have left off," May said.
Returning junior sprinter Josh Smith looks to be Juneau's most hopeful in the long jump and will be backed up by senior Billy Sarandria and freshman Andre Bunton. The weight events - shot put and discus - will be led by junior Robert Partin.
A strong group of unknown seniors are also showing early potential, according to May.
"Usually one to two kids come out as seniors for the first time," May said. "This year we have a whole bunch and they show a lot of potential."
Two seniors in particular who could make an impact are Erin Oelklaus and Ji Librando. Oelklaus has been impressive early in the girls sprints while Librando has been showing strength in the boys shot put and discus.
"Erin is really showing some strength," May said. "She's been working all summer on proper technique. She's got great form and strength."
Training is always a challenge in Southeast Alaska for track and field athletes. But the Bears have been able to manage a few hours on the track recently.
"Just this week we've been able to run around in the lanes," May said. "But Juneau Parks and Rec have been great. They kept a lot of the snow off since February and did a good job."
Jeff Kasper is a freelance writer and former Empire sportswriter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.