The Juneau-Douglas High School boys and girls cross country teams aren't underdogs or overachievers. They are just among the elite cross country programs in Alaska and the East Coast.
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The boys and girls open their season Saturday at Savikko Park with great expectations.
The girls team finished second in the state, but went on to shock the field in a second place finish at the 2006 Adidas Cross Country Classic in Oregon. With almost everyone returning, JDHS could be poised for greatness.
JDHS Cross Country Schedule
Aug. 25: JUNEAU INVITATIONAL.
Sept. 1: at Wrangell.
Sept. 7: at Skagway.
Sept. 8: at Palmer.
Sept. 15: at Ketchikan.
Sept. 22: at Southeast Conference in Sitka.
Sept. 28: at State Championships in Palmer.
(Note: Home games in CAPS).
"I think there is a lot of pressure," JDHS co-coach Merry Ellefson said on Aug. 2 after a team practice. "The bar is raised. But it's early for me. I need three weeks to see where they're at."
Based solely on what the JDHS girls accomplished last year, this season could be a landmark year.
The Crimson Bears' girls return Leah Francis, the defending state champion, and the corps of last year's team that finished second in the state team competition.
"Because most of the same people are back the expectations are pretty high," senior Katie Krehlik said.
Headlining the returners is Francis, who last year enjoyed one of the greatest seasons ever for a girls cross country runner.
As a freshman, Francis won five straight races and set a new course record en route to winning the Adidas Classic. She also placed 17th at the Foot Locker Western Region Cross Country Championships in Walnut, Calif. - which serves as the regional high school championship.
At the state championships, Francis completed the 5 kilometers in 18 minutes, 52.5 seconds. It was the third-fastest time since 1985.
She also won two track and field titles in the spring.
What will she do for an encore?
"Once she gets into the race, she's as competitive as anyone I've ever seen," JDHS co-coach Guy Thibodeau said.
Francis missed some training in the first week of the preseason due to an illness but should be good to go come Aug. 18 at Savikko Park, where she also owns the course record.
Her impact, however, is much more than individual accolades. Her speed brings the pack and her teammates toward her, forcing them to run faster.
She's not only the thoroughbred, she's the carrot used to motivate the other horses.
"(At the Adidas meet) She not only set a course record, but the whole field moved with her," Ellefson said. "The team set personal records, even at the state meet. She's very talented, but a really hard worker and works on those things that everyone else does.
"You assume that it's easier for her, but it's not."
A talented, tight-knit group of runners will join Francis this year.
Three seniors - Krehlik, Kirsten Jorgensen and Leigh Miller - will not only be counted on to be fast, but to be leaders as well.
"You should step in and help other people," Jorgensen said. "Help other people calm their nerves, and that helps me calm my nerves."
All three have been with the team since their freshmen years.
Being the veterans of the group gives them the maturity and experience to help the younger runners learn, improve and feel like their part of the team.
"Leadership is important in perpetuating the good culture this team has," Ellefson said. "They can relate to the diversity of kids. Everyone brings something to the team, like cooking or laughter or being a soccer player. It's important to know why everyone is there and honor that, whether it's a love of running, or my mom made me."
Sophomores Annika Ord and Alice Ottoson-McKeen both return and should continue their rapid improvement. Isabel Bush, Alison deLaBruere and Kendra Berger also will compete.
For the boys team, three seniors will lead the defending region champs into battle.
Daniel Stoops, Hunter Brown and Gus Browning will be the elder statesmen on a team packed with talented freshmen. Brown placed 20th in last year's state meet while Stoops took 34th place and Browning placed 55th.
"We have the theme in cross country of 'We not me,'" Stoops said.
The team couldn't have a pair of better leaders than the affable Stoops and Brown.
With freshmen Zach Bursell, Sage Thibodeau and Daniel Francis stepping up to the high school competition, encouraging and leadership from the veterans can be invaluable.
"They're doing a good job of leading the troops," Guy Thibodeau said. "It looks like it'll be a pretty young group behind them."
Returning to a Bears team that finished third in the state last year are Erik Schlechter, Nick Waldo, Robin Woodby and Nathan Ord.
Ord finished 53rd out of 83 people as a freshman last year at the state championships.
"I think it'll be a pretty good challenge to get into the top five," Guy Thibodeau said. "We've been consistently in there. We're so young this year a top five would be a great accomplishment."
In preparation for the season, seven team members went to the high-altitude Steens Mountain Running Camp in Oregon, as well as a bigger team event in Bend, Ore.
While the runners certainly got stronger for the experience, what's more important is how the events foster the team's camaraderie.
Above trophies and times, Juneau-Douglas always places its biggest emphasis on togetherness and growth.
For the Bears, building a family always will be more important than winning a championship.
"Definitely the main focus of the team is encouraging each other," Brown said.
Contact sports editor Tim Nichols at 523-2228 or email@example.com.