If experience is the best teacher, then the Juneau-Douglas High School cross country teams received a valuable lesson over the weekend.
With two big meets in two days, the Bears knew they would be facing their biggest challenge of the season. But both the men's and women's squads hung tough for the unusual double dip, turning in stellar performances at both the Anchorage Christian School Invitational on Friday and the Palmer Invitational on Saturday.
``Anytime you race twice in a weekend, you are going to be a little fatigued,'' said Juneau top finisher Maria Eley following the Bears' third-place finish in Palmer. ``We could have been a little stronger, but third place is great with the huge field.''
The state's hugest, actually. With more than 1,200 runners representing 43 different schools in eight different races, it is bigger even than the state meet. Nonetheless, the women followed up their overall victory at the 12-team ACS meet with a solid showing in Palmer, finishing within 12 points of first-place team and defending state champion Colony.
Eley, who continues to improve with every outing, shaved four seconds off her time at last year's state meet over the same course and placed seventh overall to pace the women. She covered the dusty 5-kilometers in 19 minutes, 48.93 seconds and was followed to the finish line by Breea DeSloover (17th, 20:31.62), Friday's overall third-place finisher Christy Race (25th, 21:04.59), Jeanette Gardiner (26th, 21:05.06) and Abby Blair (31st, 21:13.59).
The men, who also won at ACS on Friday, nabbed fourth place in Palmer behind the strong performances of Jeffrey Early (15th, 17:21.71), Shawn Miller (27th, 17:39.26) and Luke Dihle (28th, 17:40). The crowded trail appealed to the team that is more accustomed to sharing a race course with only a few other teams.
``It is great to race against the entire state for a change,'' said Dihle. ``It was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of work because you kept bumping into someone every step. You have to really push to do well because there are so many people chasing the front of the pack.''
Which meant chasing Tory Dugan of Anchorage's Dimond High School, who followed up sister Darcy's victory in the women's race with a first-place finish of his own in 16:15.23. Dugan's teammates were hot on his heels, as the Lynx placed all five of their scoring runners in the top 10 to claim the team title with an astounding total of 31 points.
Juneau's 140 points - three behind third-place Bartlett - turned some heads. Colony's Mark Doner, who has coached five state championship teams, said he was impressed with the Bears.
``I am very proud of the teams Juneau fields every single year,'' he said. ``They don't just have a great team, they have a great program, period. Their teams are always among the toughest in the state.''
The strong Juneau showing at the Palmer Invitational could be an indication of things to come at the state meet in three weeks, when the women will be looking to regain the state title they lost to Colony last year, and the men will be thinking upset.
``At this race, you see everyone you'll see at state and they get a chance to see you,'' said Eley. ``You have to have a good race, and I think we all did.''
The Bears' performance on Saturday was all the more remarkable because of their unplanned hard-running effort on Friday. Competing in a field of mostly 3A schools, JDHS had little trouble dominating. The men claimed four of the top six spots for a winning total of 27 points, far outdistancing second-place Homer, which scored 108 in the field of 13 teams. Additionally, Early, Miller, Dihle and Joe Kegler all came in ahead of defending 3A state champion Ryan Ellis of Nikiski, who placed ninth.
The women, meanwhile, had only slightly less trouble in their race. Eley and Gardiner joined Race in the top five, as the Bears put just 38 points up - 16 better than second-place Soldotna.
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