JUNEAU - When it comes to Juneau-Douglas High School cross country, three-time defending state champion Leah Francis is certainly the headliner of the girls' team, but expectations also are high on the boys' side.
Boys' coach Guy Thibodeau acknowledged Francis as the hands-down, early-line favorite to win her fourth straight Alaska 5k state title, and both the boys' and girls' teams will be strong again this year. The girls finished fourth last year, and the boys tied for fifth. Both were the Region V champions.
"We have one of the top boys' runners in the state in Zach Bursell, and he'll be running on our first team," he said. "And we have the top girl in Leah Francis. That's a pretty good starting point, and we should challenge for one of the top spots. It will be tough to come out on top with the tough competition that's here, but we'll have a good squad to push out there."
The girls' team returns nearly in tact after losing just one runner to graduation.
"And we have a great group of senior leaders," girls' coach Merry Ellefson said. "Of course Leah as not only the state champion, but also as a hard worker. And Annika Ord is our other co-captain, and we have other seniors on the team. We also have a strong group of sophomores and juniors as well.
"I expect a lot more because they are coming in with more experience and drive," she continued. "They know we have a strong group of seniors that are going to be gone next year, so I expect the bar to be higher, and I know that they'll live up to that."
Sophomore Sid Browning said the team wants to continue to build upon last year's success and win another Region Vchampionship.
"I hope that I can break my PR, 20:30 last year, by 30 seconds," she said. "I'm hoping to get around 20 or in the 19s. But we just want to have fun, get a good workout and hopefully do as well as we can at state."
Thibodeau said the boys' team also is off to a good start, though battling a few injuries.
"We have a pretty strong boys' team, and the determining factor will be how we come back from some of our early-season injuries," he said. "Andre Bunton has a couple of ankles that are bothering him that he injured over the summer, and he's just starting to run again. And David Francis broke his toe, so he's just starting to get some miles in, and those are two of our toprunners."
Bursell, a junior, finished 10th at last year's state meet, and he'll look to improve on thatstanding.
Bunton, a junior, is looking to improve on his finish of 61st at last year's state meet with a top 20 finish.
"Last year, I broke 18 (minutes) by 26 seconds, so my goal this year is to break 17 minutes - 16:59 or lower," he said. "That's going to be hard, but I'm going to work hard, stick with my team and have fun. It's really easy to stay ahead when you push each other during races and in practice. For the region (meet), I'm going to stick with my personal (time) goals, and placement doesn't matter."
This year's Region V meet is held in Juneau on Sept. 26.
"We invite the public to come out and see these athletes," Ellefson said. "This is the only time they're on their home course, and it will be the premier for Thunder Mountain, which is exciting as well."
Ellefson said she's been reading columns to the team to help inspire them for what could be a tremendous season.
"George Sheehan is a pretty famous running writer, and he has an amazing column which I read to the runners yesterday about how we're not competitors, we're witnesses to each other's growth as humans," she said. "And that is to say that, 'If you run faster, I run faster, so bring me along and help me improve my time as you try to do your best.' I think that's the great part about this team is that they really support each other, they really work together and they really push each other.
"I am really excited to see what happens."