The Juneau-Douglas High School boys and girls cross country teams open their season Saturday in Anchorage, competing at the Bartlett Relays against some of the best runners in the state.
"This will be a real fun season opener for us," said Guy Thibodeau, who begins his third season as the Crimson Bears head cross country coach. "The teams will want to get that mixed relay title. The top runners will be right there."
Two-time Region V boys individual champion Jesse Stringer is coming off a fourth-place finish in the mile at the State Track and Field Championships in May and looks to be a top contender for this year's individual cross country title. Stringer also swept distance events at the Region V track and field championships, winning the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs.
"Jesse's coming off the summer in really good condition," Thibodeau said. "With his summer running, he's going to want to see where he sits."
Stringer had a disappointing outing a last year's state meet, where he was forced to pull out of the race after the 2-kilometer mark with flu-like symptoms. It turned out Stringer's appendix was bothering him and it was subsequently removed.
"I didn't have an appendicitis, but my appendix was really big," Stringer said. "They took it out and I got scars here and here (pointing to his abdomen), but it's better now."
Stringer's main competition will most likely come from Palmer's Aaron Dickson, who placed third at last year's state meet, and Service's Ted O'Reilly, who didn't run in last year's state meet but took second place in the mile at the state track meet, six seconds ahead of Stringer.
Although Stringer's individual achievements could be significant this year, the headband-wearing senior says he's setting smaller goals and taking more of a leadership role on the squad.
"It's kind of a rebuilding year for us," Stringer said after a team workout on Tuesday. "I'm setting goals to make it to the top. Eat well and sleep well and finish every single race."
Veteran Crimson Bears runner, Brian Nowlin sees the future of the program in Juneau's youngsters as he tries to cap off his senior season.
"We have some real good freshman coming in like Bryce (Iverson) and Tristen (Knutson-Lombardo)." Nowlin said. "I just want to stay healthy, run all my races to the fullest and encourage the younger guys to run to keep the program going."
The other top Crimson Bears' runners this year include Tim Davin, Phillip Dierking, Chris Frank, Jordan Gray, Gabe Hayden, Bryce Iverson and Axel Thibodeau.
A wild card on the boy's team this season will be the addition of Frederico Malannetti, an exchange student from Italy, who according to Guy Thibodeau has won several awards for running in Europe. Malannetti is scheduled to arrive in Juneau this week and join the team for next week's Juneau Invitational.
On the girls side, the Crimson Bears will try to improve on last year's sixth-place team finish at the state meet with a experienced and balanced team.
Greta Thibodeau, Heidi Denton and Hilary Young placed 3-4-5 respectively at the last year's Region V championships. Those three runners will be joined by Brittany Rohm and Molly Krehlik, who placed fifth in the 3,200-meter run at the state track and field championships, to give the Bears a formidable top five.
"We're going to try and finish together this year," said Molly Krehlik. who is also the reigning Region V champion in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs.
"The girls are a little more tightly packed than the boys," Guy Thibodeau said. "Hilary Young's time at our last trial was comparable to Jesse's (Stringer). I think they are legitimately with the elite teams. East and West (Anchorage) will be tough, but there are no dominant teams."
Three-time state team champs East Anchorage lost individual state champion Kikkan Randall, but return five runners on a team that outscored Juneau by 70 points at the state meet. West Anchorage returns preseason individual favorite Kris Smith and three others from their second-place team last year.
"We're a stronger team by far than last year," Emily Krehlik said. "It's a lot more friendly than last year and that helps with team spirit. Everyone is pushing each other and are real supportive."
Other top runners on the girls team who will make the trip to Anchorage include Emily Krehlik, Abby Lawson, Jo Marshall and Phoebe Rohrbacher.
"Our 4-5-6 girls and especially Emily (Krehlik) made a real good jump today in practice," Guy Thibodeau said on Tuesday. "We've had kind of encouraging results from our freshman."
"They are going to do as well as they can do," new assistant coach Merry Ellefson said. "We have a great group of young people. The main reason why you do this is for the memories."
Ellefson, a long-time Juneau resident, replaced Nancy Thomas as assistant coach this year and according to some of the runners, has breathed some new life into the athletes.
"We're real excited to have Merry," Stringer said. "We hate to see Nancy leave, but sometimes new faces help."
Jeff Kasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.