When the 2005 high school track and field season opened in March, winning a state championship wasn't even in the plan for the Juneau-Douglas boys or any other Southeast track team.
While Southeast track teams had popped up with an occasional individual title, or the rare relay crown, none of the Southeast squads had ever been in the running for a team title. The Juneau boys were coming off their best finish in recent years with an eighth place in 2004, so winning it all wasn't really a consideration.
Two weeks ago, the Crimson Bear boys shocked the state track community as they dominated the three distance races en route to claiming Southeast Alaska's first team state championship. Senior Tristan Knutson-Lombardo beat junior teammate Wesley Dinnan in the 3,200 meters, then junior Tyler Dinnan led a 1-2-3 Juneau finish in the 1,600 and also won the 800.
The Juneau boys scored 70 points during the May 20-21 meet at West Valley High School in Fairbanks, with Lathrop taking second place with 52.67 points, Bartlett third with 52 and Colony fourth with 51. In the girls meet, Juneau improved from 12th in 2004 to sixth place this year.
"To be honest, I knew we'd fare better than the year before," said Knutson-Lombardo, who won Juneau's only 2004 individual title in the 1,600 meters. "I knew we had a shot at the top three, but during the season we lost some people and we gained some people, and I didn't know how we'd do."
"The top three was my goal," Tyler Dinnan added. "I knew our team, ever since Wesley and I got here, had gotten progressively better. Now we were not just a distance team, but a hurdling and sprinting team."
Besides the 52 points scored by the trio of Knutson-Lombardo and the Dinnan twins in the three distance events, Juneau picked up some key points from sophomore Levi Benning with a pair of fourth places in the two hurdles races and a surprising fifth place from senior Craig Millard in the 400 meters. The Crimson Bears also scored points in three of the four boys relays.
"I didn't expect our team to win it at all. I didn't think we had a chance," Wesley Dinnan said. "As the season went on, the top five looked possible. But at the season start, I just wanted to improve what we did last year."
Also winning state titles from Southeast were Sitka senior Greg Hunter in the high jump and the Juneau girls 4x200-meter relay team of senior Heather Bennett, junior Rachelle Albay, sophomore Evelyn Fisher and junior Sophia Smith.
"One thing that's been lost in all this is Juneau has four girls state champs," Juneau head track coach Scott May said of the relay quartet.
May said he was hoping to make the top five or maybe the top three teams when the season started, but midway through the year he moved his goals higher.
The regular season is difficult for Southeast teams, who usually stay within the region because of travel costs. The only way they can compare themselves to the rest of the state is by watching times posted in other meets. Also, with the only modern track in Southeast and the largest school, the Crimson Bears tend to dominate the region's regular-season meets because of their tremendous depth.
And this year, Juneau had an advantage over some of the other Southeast teams. Knutson-Lombardo became race director of the team's annual Glacier 10-kilometer fundraising race and increased the team's take from about $600 last year to $2,000 this year. That enabled the Crimson Bears to send a few more athletes than usual to the Skyview Invitational, which is one of the bigger regular-season meets of the year.
That's when May adjusted his goals for state.
"Before Skyview, it never even registered for me that we had a chance to win state," May said. "But the boys took second (place) there and that's when I looked at the possibility. We didn't run Tristan and Tyler in the 4x800 (the 3,200-meter relay), so I knew we could get more points."
Despite their success in the Skyview Invitational, the Crimson Bears were missing several key athletes that week to the region music festival. The Juneau boys figured they'd be back to help the push for the region and state meets.
"I started scoring the state bests, the list that comes out every week in the paper (on Thursday's prep page in the Anchorage Daily News)," May said.
Watching the list as the season progressed, the Crimson Bear distance trio ranked near the top in the three long events for most of the season, with Benning ranked in the hurdles and senior thrower Josh Lehauli ranked in the shot put (senior Mychal Hutcherson joined the shot put rankings late in the season).
But in early May, West Valley's Tony Tomsich and Colony's Mark Doner held the top two spots in the 1,600 ahead of Knutson-Lombardo in third, with West Valley's Anders Gillis and Kenai's Trevor Baldwin fourth and fifth ahead of Tyler Dinnan. Add in large schools state cross-country running champion Jesse Cherry of Chugiak and small schools cross-country running champ Matt Adams of Seward, and the long race fields were loaded and Juneau's distance domination wasn't assured.
However, the Crimson Bears had a couple of advantages. The distance trio had been on Juneau's first two teams to win boys state cross-country running titles, and Knutson-Lombardo's victory in last year's state 1,600 (aka, the metric mile) added another dose of confidence.
"For me, the second straight cross country title was a boost," Tyler Dinnan said. "We knew Tristan was up there, but it showed me where Wesley and I stood in the state. When both of us got in the top 10, that was a big boost. ... And Tristan's winning the mile carried over to the cross country season. You might have a bad day in practice, but then you realize you're running with the top miler from last year and that helps you always stay positive."
"Coach May's peaking program worked well," Wesley Dinnan said. "We kind of do the same schedule every year, and it's designed to make sure we have our best performances at the region and state meets."
At the Southeast Conference Championships (formerly known as the Region V Championships), the Crimson Bears received a boost when seven records were broken during the meet. The fast speed helped Juneau's top runners get decent seeds at states, and it helped some extra athletes qualify for state with at-large berths.
But the Crimson Bears also had their chances to win the state team title damaged in the meet. Lehauli had a family emergency that took him out of town, and he wasn't able to make it back in town in time for Friday's shot put, which kept him from qualifying for state. Hutcherson won the region shot put crown with a toss that would have seeded him third at state, but an academic issue kept him from going to Fairbanks.
"When we saw there'd be no points in the throwing events, we decided to have fun and see what happens," May said.
"The people we did take, the distance and the hurdlers, it was just us and we had to make up for it," Knutson-Lombardo said.
The Crimson Bears got a boost on the first day of the state meet, and it came from Sitka's Hunter winning the high jump.
"It was great to watch Hunter in the afternoon, and then the girls 3,200 race was fun to watch," said Knutson-Lombardo, who will run for Willamette University next year. Juneau freshman Katie Krehlik battled eventual winner Ari Goldstein of Soldotna for the lead early in the girls 3,200 meters before fading to fourth place.
In the boys 3,200, Knutson-Lombardo held off Wesley Dinnan's late kick to win the state title, reversing their finish from the region meet and starting the Crimson Bears on the way to their state championship.
"There's always a little frustration when you're the top seed and don't win," Wesley Dinnan said. "But if somebody else was going to win it, I'd pick Tristan."
"The 3,200 was huge for me, mentally, because it was the start of the plan," said Tyler Dinnan, who wasn't entered in the race. "When they went 1-2, it made me think we can all do the mile."
The Crimson Bears picked up assorted points in the hurdles and relays, but took command of the meet in the 1,600 with their 1-2-3 finish. Tyler Dinnan, who rarely beats Knutson-Lombardo in the 1,600, won the race with Knutson-Lombardo second and Wesley Dinnan third. Tyler Dinnan followed his 1,600 victory up with the title in the 800, which sealed the team championship for Juneau.
"That was huge, that was 24 points right there," May said of the 1,600. "They really do push each other. Wesley was injured in the early part of the season, but he finally did it. I knew we'd be up there with Tyler and Tristan, but I wasn't sure about getting the top three."
Tyler Dinnan said he learned a valuable lesson watching Knutson-Lombardo's victory in last year's 1,600 race, where Knutson-Lombardo sat off the pace while two runners burned themselves out early.
"Tristan and I were sharing leads and I thought back to his race last year when Tony (Tomsich) took off," Tyler Dinnan said. "I thought back to how Tristan let those other two guys burn themselves out when I might have panicked."
Now that Southeast finally has a team track title, May thinks it will help make the entire region's track teams better.
"It's nice for Southeast to bring a title back," May said. "Ketchikan is finally getting a track, and Sitka has a big team and so does Petersburg. It'll make us all better."