The friendly rivalry between the Juneau-Douglas High School girls cross country team and Ketchikan has continued to unfold throughout the season.
Twice the varsity teams have run against each other this year and both times the Crimson Bears have come away with close victories. Ketchikan will have one more chance to end Juneau's reign as the top girls cross country team in Southeast on Saturday at the Region V-Class 4A Cross Country Championships in Sitka.
Racing begins at noon with the girls Class 1A-2A-3A run, followed by the boys Class 1A-2A-3A race at 12:45 p.m. The girls Class 4A run is at 1:30 p.m. and the Class 4A boys start at 2:15 p.m. The top two boys and girls teams in each class earn a spot at the state meet on Sept. 29 in Palmer.
"They (Ketchikan) really, really want to beat us," Juneau's Heidi Denton said. "It's a friendly rivalry, but when we race and we're on the run, it's kind of a battle."
The Kayhi girls have even more incentive to dethrone the Crimson Bears after last year's region meet where Juneau overcame a 1-2 finish by Ketchikan's Jodi Jakubek and Elisa Bolling to claim the Region V title by a single point, 27-28.
Jakubek, who placed ninth at last year's state meet, and Bolling, the reigning 800 meters state champion in track and field, are back this year and have been running strong all season.
"Jakubek and Elisa (Bolling) are going to try to beat each other and go 1-2 again," Crimson Bears head cross country coach Guy Thibodeau said. "Ketchikan has a really strong team."
But Juneau counters with a trio of runners -- Molly Krehlik, Hilary Young and Denton, who all have a chance for an individual title Saturday.
"We've won the Southeast forever and I know they've trained so hard," Denton said. "It (the rivalry) gives the race a little excitement, but I know we will still beat them."
At this year's Juneau Invitational on Aug. 25, the Crimson Bears outscored the Kings 30-42. Two weeks later at the Ketchikan Invitational, Juneau won again but Ketchikan closed the gap to 25-30. Bolling won both races, but Young, Krehlik and Denton were not far behind.
The difference between the teams have been depth. Greta Thibodeau and Brittany Rohm, Juneau's No. 4 and No. 5 runners, have stayed close to the lead runners throughout the season and in Ketchikan, Thibodeau outran Kayhi's No. 3 runner Erin Nugent by 21 seconds and Rohm was just six seconds behind Nugent.
Juneau's Elise Wahto and Pheobe Rohrbacher have also ran well this season and could have a chance at moving up and scoring points for the Crimson Bears.
"For us to win, everything will have to go our way," Ketchikan cross country coach Dan Ortiz said. "On paper, they (Juneau) look too strong for us this year. Our first two runners can compete with anybody, but Juneau has the depth."
"We're looking for a close race," Thibodeau said. "Last year they almost got us. They've been really wanting to get a Southeast championship."
While the girls race looks to have all the characteristics of an epic battle between two rivals, the boys race, on the other hand, will likely have little of the drama of the girls race.
Juneau's two-time defending individual champion Jesse Stringer should be a cinch to win his third Region V crown. Nobody in the Southeast has even come close to Stringer this season, winning both the Juneau and Ketchikan Invitationals, as well as the Skagway meet last week.
"I've really been blessed the past two years," Stringer said. "I'm real excited to do it again. I try not to think about it too much. I just try to take it race by race."
The Juneau boys will have virtually no competition at regionals as the talent level in Ketchikan and Sitka is considerably lower than past years.
"We kind of thought our boys (Ketchikan) would be a little more competitive this year," Ortiz said. "We lost a couple guys from last year and Jay Miller hasn't fully recovered from an injury. We kind of hope we can break Juneau's top seven."
Although Stringer is in a class of his own in the Southeast, the rest of the Juneau team has steadily improved this season, most notably two freshman -- Bryce Iverson and Tristan Knutson-Lombardo.
Iverson broke onto the scene at the Juneau Invitational with a fifth-place finish and has yet to falter. Knutson-Lombardo won the Wrangell Invitational on Sept. 1, as a member of the junior varsity squad, and has been the No. 3 varsity runner ever since.
"We have a lot of potential as a team," Stringer said. "These guys have been running tough all year long. The only thing bugging me is that Brian Nowlin won't be running with us."
According to Stringer and coach Thibodeau, Nowlin has been sick and battling asthma, which has affected his running enough to drop him out of the team's top seven. Nowlin, a senior, will make the trip to Sitka, but only as the team manager.
"Brian's been with us every to every Southeast meet of his career," Guy Thibodeau said. "He's been trying to find the right combination with his medication and he just hasn't run the times he has in the past."
Jordan Davis, who has been steadily improving, will take Nowlin's spot and Axel Thibodeau, Blake Rider, Chris Frank and Jordan Davis will round out the Juneau boys' squad.
"They've all had a real good week of training," Guy Thibodeau said. "We're focusing on one race at a time. Before we look to state, we want to get the Southeast out of the way."
In the boys Class 1A-2A-3A race, Skagway looks to be the favorite, especially with the 1-2 punch of Russell Bush and Kyle Mulvihill. Wrangell, Petersburg, Craig and Mount Edgecumbe should compete fro the region's second berth at the state meet.
The small schools girls race should be lot closer, with three teams vying for the two Region V spots at state. Mount Edgecumbe, Wrangell and Skagway finished within six points of each other at the Ketchikan Invitational.
Jeff Kasper can be reached at email@example.com.
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