What better place for the JDHS cross country teams to find a challenge than at the state's largest meet of the year?
No, it is not the state meet, but the annual Palmer Invitational, the event that brings teams large and small from every corner of Alaska to the sight of the state meet for a midseason progress report. Both the men's and women's teams take an unblemished record up north. And though they have dominated their competition for the first two weeks of the season, they are ready to find out how they stack up against the top squads in the state.
``There's definitely a sense of anticipation,'' said coach Nancy Thomas. ``They're all looking forward to it because they know they have to see what's going on up north.''
Leading the men into action is newly elected captain Luke Dihle, who was the team's fifth finisher last weekend in his first stint with the varsity. Joining Dihle is a talented cadre of runners that just seem to get better with each passing week.
Among those showing noteworthy improvement is Jeffrey Early. The senior, who was the Bears' third finisher two weekends ago, outkicked teammates Shawn Miller and Joe Kegler down the stretch last week in Sitka to claim his very first individual victory.
But it is not important who crosses the line first for JDHS. Clearly, there are a handful of men who are capable of pacing Juneau on any given weekend. What makes this such a potent group is the way they cross the line as a team. Like the women, the men have managed to send their five scoring runners across the finish line in a pack so tight that less than a minute separates them all - a truly remarkable feat.
``Cross country is not as independent as people think. We really are a team,'' Early said. ``And I think we're a strong team. But we'll know more this weekend.''
Corey Denton, the team's seventh runner, said the relative equality of each runner has helped the team improve.
``It's good to have different people up front,'' he said. ``It keeps us pushing each other.''
The Bears' consistent fourth runner, Dewey Peacock, and sixth man Dan Fagnant round out the squad, which has a pre-Palmer meet in Anchorage on Friday. Competing the day before a big meet is, perhaps, Juneau's biggest challenge of the weekend.
``Two races will be good practice mentally. We need to get used to running against all those teams,'' said coach Guy Thibodeau, in reference to the upcoming state meet. ``We'll try not to go all out on Friday. We'll use that race as a group run.''
Of course, running as a group has been a hallmark of JDHS cross country this season. The girls, especially, have been so tightly grouped at the finish that they have swept the top five places at each of their first two meets.
Maria Eley, a third-place finisher at last year's state meet, is undefeated so far this year, but she is likely to encounter several competitors looking to outrun her this weekend. Christy Race, newly elected women's captain, heads the cast of supporting runners that has helped the Bears dominate their first two meets. Breea DeSloover, Jeanette Gardiner, Abby Blair, Marta Race and Eden Orelove complete the squad of state championship hopefuls.
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