After winning her first two 5-kilometer cross country races in Southeast Alaska, local fans and competitors know what Juneau-Douglas High School freshman Leah Francis can do.
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On Saturday, the entire state found out how fast Francis is as she captured the Adidas/Lynx Invitational at Anchorage's hilly Kincaid Park with a time of 18 minutes, 23 seconds. Her time was just six seconds off the course record. West Anchorage's Letita Luch finished second, 26 seconds behind Francis.
"I knew the times and stats of the fastest runners but I never look forward to a race," Francis said. "I was really nervous. I get nervous before all races."
Nerves aside, Francis became a favorite for a state championship with an impressive performance.
Francis ran with West Valley's Crystal Pitney and West Anchorage's Luch and Shoshana Keegan for most of the race before turning on the jets in the final kilometer. As Pitney bowed out with an injury, Francis ran past the competition.
"I got to the hills and just passed some people," Francis said. "I think I passed then at the 4K and then just ran fast. It was really fun. I thought it wasn't going to be fun because you don't think it'll be fun. I thought this is fun."
While Francis stole the show, she certainly wasn't the only Juneau-Douglas runner posting a powerful performance.
The girls placed second among the Class 4A schools and third in the combined competition.
Juniors Katie Krehlik and Kirsten Jorgensen finished 11th and 12th overall, respectively. Annika Ord and Leigh Miller set personal records while finishing 15th and 16th.
The girls ran against more than 100 competitors on the course, and had to work as a team to get through the massive pack.
"Katie and Kirsten ran really strong but their experience is pulling this talent through," JDHS coach Merry Ellefson said. "They pulled Annika and Leah through the pack in the beginning. There are 100-something people in the beginning."
Isabel Bush and Brittany Lehnhart both placed in the top 40 to round out an impressive finish by the Bears.
On the boys end, Juneau-Douglas ran well as a team to finish third overall despite not placing one individual in the top 10. Kodiak won the team competition as the Bears' Trevor Dunbar won the race.
"This is my first time here, and it was a real shock seeing that many people that close to me in the early stages of a race," Juneau's Daniel Stoops said. "There weren't a whole lot of problems. No one complained about getting stuck, but there were lots of schools."
Nils Domke, Andrew Flansaas and Hunter Brown all finished in the top 20 among Class 4A competitors. Overall, Domke took 16th in 17:04, Flansaas finished 21st, Brown took 23rd, Stoops finished 39th and Ray Huebschen took 41st.
While Juneau-Douglas doesn't have a clear front-runner, it used its depth to post solid team races.
In a sport where a few seconds could be the difference between fourth place and 14th place, teammates must help each other and run in packs to keep the team scores low.
Juneau-Douglas did a solid job of that on Saturday.
"I think they're working so well as a team," Ellefson said. "The boys are fast-kicking some turns. If Andrew doesn't have a good day, then Nils covers for him and does what he has to do. They're both working well and to get PRs on this course is really special."
After running on flat courses in Sitka and Ketchikan before Saturday, the team took some time and inspected the course on Friday.
The extra homework paid off as the Crimson Bears hung tight with some of the state's finest.
"It's the hilliest course we've raced so far and the deepest field so far," Ellefson said. "The came across the big field by running aggressively and not making a big mistake in the first 400-500 yards. I fell proud of the boys and girls for running smart and aggressively in the field and ending in positions where they bettered themselves or were in a good place, which is not being behind a big pack."
The varsity will take next weekend off while the junior varsity competes in Petersburg. Juneau's varsity resumes racing on Sept. 23 at home in the Southeast Region Championships.
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com.
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