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Ask Southeast cross-country coaches or runners to size up this year's Region V competition, and more often than not they'll reply, "It's an unknown."
Entering a season with a lot of turnover among top runners, Southeast teams will get their first opportunity for a first-hand assessment this afternoon as they gather for the Sitka Invitational. Region V-Class 4A schools Juneau-Douglas, Ketchikan and Sitka will be joined by a field of smaller schools including Kake, Craig, Metlakatla, Yakutat, Wrangell and Petersburg.
The invitational will send runners on the same 5-kilometer course as last fall's Region V meet - winding through Sitka National Historical Park - but many of last season's top performers will not be treading the trail.
The top two boys and girls finishers from last year's Region V-Class 4A region meet - Jesse Stringer, Bryce Iverson and Hilary Young of Juneau and Ketchikan's Elisa Bolling - have all departed, leaving an opening for this year's runners.
"We're all going to go there and review the competition to see what's out there," Crimson Bear senior Chris Frank said. "We'll see who trained this summer."
"It'll be good to see where everyone else's team is at," Crimson Bear sophomore Tristan Knutson-Lombardo said.
Knutson-Lombardo and teammate Molly Krehlik, a senior, are the top returning 4A runners in the region. Each finished third at last fall's region meet.
This will be the second meet of the season for Juneau-Douglas, which made the trip to Anchorage last weekend for the Bartlett Relays. Coach Guy Thibodeau said it was good to have the chance to scout the competition up north.
"It was a great opening meet for us," he said. "There are some really good teams up there."
"We were pretty strong," Knutson-Lombardo said. "We have a lot of depth on our team."
Ketchikan is fielding a team of 15 boys and 11 girls this year. Junior Erin Nugent - eighth in the region last fall - is leading the girls team, and Kayhi coach Ron Medel said Nugent turned in a time of under 20 minutes at a recent 5K event in Ketchikan.
The boys team is led by senior Stefan Hovik and junior Houston Laws, who finished eighth and 13th, respectively, at last fall's Region V meet. Medel said a freshman - Thomas Montgomery - could also make an impact for the Kings this season.
In addition to the freshmen that have joined the team, Medel said there are several sophomores and juniors who are running for the first time this fall after trying other sports in previous years.
"They've really added to the depth of this relatively young squad," he said.
Sitka has a team of 25 runners this season, including nine girls.
"This is the first time in seven or eight years we've fielded a (full) girls team," Wolves coach Rich Krupa said.
Sitka will be led by four runners who are returning after state appearances last season - senior Logan Wild, junior Magan Lehman and sophomores Scott Totten and George Howard.
Krupa said the boys team looks to make an impact in the region this fall.
"We're excited," he said. "It looks like it could be a real competitive boys team this year."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.