"It depends" seems to be the mantra of the Juneau-Douglas High School cross country teams this weekend.
The weather, the performance of young runners and even the course layout could either surprise or disappoint the Crimson Bears' varsity teams on Saturday as they race in the A.J. Dimond High School Lynx Invitational at Kincade Park in Anchorage.
The event will feature many of the state's top running squads, including Kodiak, whose boys' team won the Bartlett Invitational last month. The JDHS boys placed third in that meet. Many Anchorage teams also will participate, providing the Crimson Bears with their final test against elite competition before Palmer hosts the state meet in three weeks.
"This is a great chance to see where the kids stack up. I'd like to see our top guys stay competitive with the top 10 under 17 minutes, and our next line keep shrinking that gap down," head coach Guy Thibodeau said. "Same thing for the girls. (Leah Francis) is running quite a bit ahead, and we're trying to get our top three to close that gap."
The runners will be attempting to improve their times on a brand new course this year. The old hill-based track of climbs and descents is out, with an unknown, flatter course taking its place. Thibodeau said his teams won't decide how to attack the new path until their walk-through before the race.
"It was really muddy up there last year, and it slowed us down quite a bit," senior runner Daniel Stoops said. "(Francis) lost her shoe and ended up getting 12th. She usually wins the race by 2 minutes. My time was a minute slower than usual. I hope it's a nice day for us."
Both JDHS teams are counting on young runners to keep their teams competitive. Sophomore Zach Bursell and freshman David Francis have combined with Stoops to lead the boys' team so far this year.
The girls' team features just one senior, Francis, but junior Annika Ord sees a bright future for the squad's underclassmen.
"Oh yeah, (the young runners) are a big part of our team, and they're doing amazing," Ord said. "We lost four or five seniors on varsity after last year, but the new girls have worked their way up and definitely are going to contribute."
Juneau-Douglas' junior varsity teams and runners unable to make the Dimond meet will have a chance to compete today in Haines, as they take on a handful of fellow Southeast squads. Assistant coach Merry Ellefson will lead the team and hopes to see an inspired effort from her group as well.
"It's really great we have an opportunity to send eligible, hard-working kids out to compete," Ellefson said. "They'll have a chance to run against the same kids they've been competing against and improve against conference rivals."
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