It's never easy to lose a three-time state champion like 2010 graduate Leah Francis, but the type of depth the Juneau-Douglas cross country team possesses will make it easier to move forward in the Southeast Conference.
"They're still the big favorites in the Southeast (Conference) because our depth is good enough to do really well down here," said Crimson Bears coach Guy Thibodeau of the girls' team. "Statewide, it'd be nice to see those gals challenge for a top-5 position. But right now we're looking to improve times and set PRs (personal records) - that's the main focus of cross country."
While the girls' team may be deep, Thibodeau knows the youth on the roster will have to come in and fill the void left by runners like Francis and fellow graduate Annika Ord.
"Having lost Leah Francis, a perennial state champion, they're rebuilding," he said. "But there's some good young runners coming up and a good corps of freshman girls coming in this year.
"A girl that has really progressed this year is Lily Burger-Pothier," Thibodeau continued. "She ran strong in track in the middle distances and she's run right at the front of the pack of our time trials so far."
Along with Burger-Pothier on the girls' side are other top returners, juniors Karissa Jackson and Sid Browning, as well as senior leaders Monica Ashenfelter, Lia Domke and Sarah Donohoe.
"I think the team will do really well, even after losing our top two runners from last year," Jackson said. "All the girls are working as hard as they possibly can to set that bar as high as it used to be, if not higher."
Jackson also said this young team learned many things from Francis and Ord, who were the team's natural leaders during their senior seasons.
"They were very inspirational, and they helped us push ourselves and come together as a team," she said. "We're trying to set new PRs for all the girls this year because a lot of us are determined to get better than last year as a team."
As for the boys' team, Thibodeau has a pretty good idea of where his team stands as the season approaches.
"On the boys' team we have five of our top seven returning, so we've got a pretty strong squad," he said. "Most of the top boys that finished high in the Southeast are coming back, and that was a team that was second at state.
"We felt like, time-wise, that was maybe the fastest team we'd ever had," Thibodeau continued. "So they're a really strong contingent."
Sophomore Tal Norvel said the boys' team expects to be very successful given the high number of returning athletes from last season's squad.
"We've got a lot of returning runners after losing only one runner last year," he said. "I think everyone who was successful last year will be even better this year. The team should be really good this year and should be able to compete with teams in Anchorage and the Southeast."
Norvel and Thibodeau said the boys' team will be led by seniors Zack Bursell, Andre Bunton and Southeast Conference champion Sage Thibodeau, as well as juniors David Francis, Ian Andrews and Jesse Miller.
"We'd like to keep running strong as a team," said Guy Thibodeau. "I know in their minds they'd like to challenge Service for that state title.
"We'd like to be in there with them, and anytime you can run with those guys you have a chance on any given day."
Juneau-Douglas will face tough competition this season in Wasilla, South Anchorage, West Valley and Service.
The Crimson Bears start their season Saturday in Ketchikan, and the only meet in Juneau will take place Sept. 18 at Sandy Beach.
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