The Palmer Invitational cross-country running meet is generally considered the season's best preview of the state championships.
If that's the case, the Juneau-Douglas High School boys cross-country running team may be on track to win its first state title since the 1995 season.
Running on the same Michael Janecek Trails course at Palmer High School that will host the state meet later this month, the Crimson Bears overcame a slow start to win the Palmer Invitational's Class 4A boys varsity race on Saturday.
Even though Juneau had only one top-10 finisher - junior Tristan Knutson-Lombardo in fifth place - the Crimson Bears still put six runners in the top 28. Juneau scored 98 points to beat runner-up Dimond by 20, even though Dimond runner Jeff Quickel won the individual title. Dimond's third runner finished 29th. The Lynx had 118 points, followed by Chugiak in third place with 124.
"We're really excited," Juneau senior Tim Davin said in a phone interview from the course, where cheers for the awards ceremony could be heard in the background. "We all finished pretty solid. Everybody was under 17:30, at least our top six were. We were pushing each other. We kind of came in under the radar. We were aiming for a top-three finish and we had a bad start."
Quickel won the race in 16 minutes, 7 seconds, followed by Chugiak's Jesse Cherry and Lathrop's Devin McDowell, who both finished in 16:18 (Cherry won the sprint for second place).
The Crimson Bears got off to a slow start, which created problems when the runners left the football pracitce field and funnelled into the narrow trails. Most of the Juneau runners were between the 50th and 80th places as they entered the three-lap trail, so they spent much of the first lap trying to work their way through the field.
"It's hard because it gets so narrow in the woods," said Knutson-Lombardo, who thought he passed about 20-30 runners in the first lap. "But when you're passing them, it felt like you were running faster."
Knutson-Lombardo finished in 16:41 for fifth place. Sophomore Tyler Dinnan was the only other Crimson Bear in the top 20, posting a time of 17:20 for 17th place.
But where the Crimson Bears won the meet was in their pack that came next.
Sophomore Wesley Dinnan took 24th place and freshman Ray Huebschen was 25th, both in 17:34. They were followed by seniors Isaac Milligan in 27th and Davin in 28th place, both in 17:36. The other Juneau boys runner at the meet was junior Greg Frank, who finished 65th out of 116 runners in 18:37.
"We're really pumped," Knutson-Lombardo said. "We knew we'd do well. We have a lot of young runners. We only lose two seniors this year and we've got a great JV (junior varsity), so we're really excited."
"It was great, we had our third, fourth, fifth and sixth guys in a tight pack," Huebschen said. "We had a really great race and we're only going to get better."
For a couple of the Juneau runners - Knutson-Lombardo, Davin and the Dinnan twins - the Palmer course was familiar territory from last year's state meet. But it was new to Huebschen, Milligan and Frank.
"This was my first high school meet," said Milligan, who recently moved to Juneau from Kodiak. "We'll do better. So many people are going to drop times."
"This was my first time at Palmer," Frank said. "It was really nice to see the course before state. The other guys did well keeping the pack, but I kept getting separated from it. There were too many runners."
The Juneau girls didn't have a complete team at the meet, so they didn't score team points.
East Anchorage put three runners in the top-10 finishers and won the girls team title with 50 points, followed by Service with 83 and West Valley with 99. Ari Goldstein of Soldotna won the girls Class 4A race in 19:04, followed by East's Leah Besh in 19:06 and Katelyn Stearns in 19:20.
The top Juneau runner was senior Greta Thibodeau, who finished 11th in 20:15. The other two Crimson Bear girls at the meet were sophomores Jordan Moser (20:42 for 22nd place) and Jordan Harvey (21:04 for 32nd).
"It feels really good to see the competition," Thibodeau said. "Hopefully we all can improve. We only brought three girls up, so we didn't score. If we'd had a full team we could have placed pretty good."
"This is my favorite course," said Harvey, who saw it at last year's state meet. "It was sunny and beautiful. They had cowbells ringing and people hanging in the trees screaming for us."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.