FAIRBANKS - Juneau-Douglas High School freshman Leah Francis concluded her amazing first year with two state championships at the Alaska School Activities Association State Track and Field Championships on Friday and Saturday at West Valley High School in Fairbanks.
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Francis won the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs. Also for Juneau-Douglas, Will Egolf won the high jump and Levi Benning captured the 110 hurdles championship.
On Friday, the thermometer hit 80 degrees under cloudless, blue skies as Francis captured the first of her two titles. The freshman won the 3,200 final going away in 11 minutes, 6.33 seconds. Her time was nearly 14 seconds better than second-place Crystal Pitney of West Valley.
While Francis stood at the finish line after the 3,200 with a wet towel draped over her head in an attempt to cool off, her face was flushed and her legs were a bit wobbly. Her post-race demeanor proved a strong contrast to the complete control she displayed during the race as she employed a cool-headed strategy and rock-steady pacing to make the win look easy.
Her words and slight wobble in her walk at the finish, however, told the true tale of her efforts.
"I was having a little trouble breathing," Francis said. "And I felt a little off balance."
But while the race was underway, the heat wasn't much of an issue, she said.
"At the beginning my whole mouth felt dried up, like I was sucking on a dry washcloth," she said. "But I was able to ignore it once I started running. The heat became insignificant compared to the pain in my legs."
Through the first 1,600, Francis was content to run second behind West Anchorage's Shoshana Keegan through laps one and two, and then behind Seward's Rubye Foldager, before seizing the lead on lap four.
"I feel more comfortable starting out behind someone," Francis said. "I tend to go out in the first lap much too fast if I'm in the lead."
Francis' time through the first 1,600 was 5:29, so she slowed just slightly over the second half of the race.
"For the first few laps I didn't feel stressed," said Francis. "But by the second mile, I really started to feel it. The lactic acid started to build up in my legs with two laps to go, and on those last laps I just try to give it everything I have left."
On Saturday, Francis' strategy in the 1,600 mirrored the one she'd employed so effectively in the 3,200. For the first two laps she tucked in behind the West Valley duo of Samantha Davis and Kayla Teslow, along with Haines' J.J. Lende, until first Lende and then Teslow fell off the punishing pace set by Davis.
With Francis right on her shoulder, Davis led through the mid-point of the bell lap.
Then Francis dropped the hammer.
She surged past Davis on the backstretch, opening a 5-second lead and finished in 5:01.90
"Really, I expected to get second," said Francis. "I was glad to have someone faster to run behind, especially Samantha Davis, and just try to kick at the end. But I kept trying to pass her and she kept speeding up. I said to myself, 'It's going to be close,' but then I really got excited and got this huge adrenaline rush, and thought, 'I'm going to go for it.' I really wanted to win."
Francis fell just shy of an astounding third state title on Saturday as she took third in the 800. Davis won the race in 2:17.09 while Teslow took second in 2:18.58. Francis finished in 2:22.49.
On Friday, Egolf won the high jump title, but needed overtime to do it.
The senior cleared 6 feet, 2 inches on his second attempt of a jump-off to beat Lathrop's Charles Scott.
Adding intrigue to the high jump drama was the strategy of Service jumper Ben Jackson. He, Egolf and Scott were the only competitors to clear 6-2 through the regular rounds of competition.
But while Egolf and Scott both cleared 6-2 on their first attempts, Jackson needed his third and final try to clear the height. Though he stood in third place behind Egolf and Scott based on the number of misses, Jackson elected to pass at the next height of 6-3, which Egolf and Scott both elected to attempt, to try his luck at 6-4.
Egolf and Scott each missed all three attempts at 6-3, which opened the door for Jackson to steal the title if he could clear 6-4. Jumping alone, Jackson missed his three attempts and was relegated to third place as Egolf and Scott moved on to the jump-off.
With the bar set at 6-2, Egolf missed his first jump but cleared the bar in his second attempt for the title.
"I moved my stance up a little bit and concentrated a little more," Egolf said.
And his reaction to the victory?
"It's pretty cool," he said. "A state championship is awesome."
On Saturday, Benning won his first state title, capturing the 110-meter hurdles in a state-best time of 15.04 after coming tantalizingly close last year. In 2006, Benning finished second by .01 seconds.
"It felt good, really good," said Benning of his race. "I was excited. I was all in the zone for it and ready to go."
Benning said he'd bruised his foot a few days earlier in training, but he wasn't about to let that pain bother him during the race.
"My foot hurt a little bit but not too bad," He said. "This is my final year and I'm not going to be worrying about injuries. After coming in second last year by just hundredths ... this is my race. I just wanted to win my race."
Juneau-Douglas' Aaron Kearns finished second in the long jump to West Valley's Tommy Woolf, who won the event with a jump of 20 feet, 3¼ inches, to Kearns' 20-1¼.
When asked if it had been a good day of jumping for him, Kearns replied, "It was. Everybody kind of jumped under what they'd been doing, either from the draining weather or the hype of states."
Kearns admitted that the hype of the state championships had gotten to him.
"I was nervous," he said. "But I tried to use it, and I thought I jumped well."
While Kearns and Woolf hadn't faced off against each other this year before the state meet, Kearns said he kept tabs on how Woolf performed throughout the season.
"I've been keeping up with his distances," Kearns said. "It's been kind of a battle between us two the whole year."
In the girls 3,200 relay, the JDHS team of Katie Krehlik, Evelyn Fisher, Leigh Miller and Isabel Bush finished second to West Valley, while Krehlik and Fisher teamed with Francis and Alison Delabruere to finish third in the 1,600 relay.
Fisher ran the second leg of the 1,600 relay and made a big move to put the Crimson Bears in third place before handing the baton to Krehlik.
"Alison handed off to me and I just tried to go out hard and then stride down the backstretch," Fisher said. "Then give it what I've got left to the finish."
Krehlik and Francis kept the team in third place until the finish.
Krehlik said she briefly had her sights set on moving to second when she started her leg.
"When I got the baton I sped up really fast," Krehlik said. "I got really excited for a minute, but then I realized I wasn't running a 400 pace."
The boys 800 relay quartet of Ron Cuanzon, Phillip Moser, Jake Pernula and Erik Bickmore notched a solid fourth-place finish.
Bickmore, who ran the anchor leg, picked up one more place during his run.
When asked if there is any strategy involved in running the anchor leg of the 800 relay, Bickmore replied, "Not really. You pretty much just haul."
The JDHS girls placed third overall in the team standings, behind second-place West Valley and the champion Bartlett High School Bears.
The boys team placed fifth overall and won the Sportsmanship Award while Kenai Central High School finished second to the champion Kodiak High School Bears.
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