As he prepared for the Region V cross-country running championships this weekend, Juneau-Douglas High School junior Jesse Stringer said he can't help but feel like a marked man.
Stringer won last year's Region V-Class 4A boys title, but all of last season's top-five finishers are back in the running this year. Juneau's Kevin Almlie took second last year, followed by Ketchikan's Lou Hu, Juneau's Wesley Brooks and Ketchikan's Jay Miller.
Those five runners will be among those hitting Juneau's new cross-country running course Saturday at Treadwell Historic Trail in Douglas. The Region V-Class 2A-3A girls race is 10:30 a.m., followed by the Class 4A girls at 11:15 a.m., the Class 2A-3A boys at 11:50 a.m., the Class 4A boys at 12:30 p.m. and a junior varsity-community race at 12:50 p.m.
"That's been on my mind, but I'm trying not to let it bug me," Stringer said about the pressure of being the defending champion. "Ketchikan's top three (Jeff Updike, Miller and Hu) are pretty tough, but if all our guys have good races we'll be OK. Then we can unleash the beast next week (at the state meet at Skyview High School in Soldotna)."
Juneau has only had its boys team together for one meet this season, two weekends ago in Sitka, but the Crimson Bears think they've got a shot at winning the Class 4A state title. They just have to get everybody through this weekend's region meet before they can change their focus.
"We've got a good idea where we are, it's not like we've never met before," Brooks said. "As long as we're in the right zone and get the right preparation, we'll do well. Chimichangas and secret sauce, that's what we need."
Like the Crimson Bear boys, Juneau's girls also won the team title last year. But this year's girls team race is expected to be a tough battle between Juneau and Ketchikan, who have swapped victories this season in two Southeast meets. Ketchikan's Jodi Jakubek, who took second place last year, is the top returner from last year's region meet, with Juneau's Heidi Denton also returning from the top-five finishers.
"If we don't run well, we might get beat a little bit, a lot," said Denton, who finished 11th at state last year. "We've been talking about trying to get our pack closer. We know the course and Ketchikan doesn't, so that will be a big help. In Ketchikan they beat us by six points, but we won by two in Sitka when their girl (Jakubek) pulled out."
"I think we're trying to think positive," Juneau's Hilary Young said. "We know they're a lot better than they were last year. Running is 90 percent mental, so we're really trying to think positive."
The top two seven-member teams and any runners cracking the top-10 from other region teams will qualify for their respective Class 4A and Class 1A-2A-3A races at the state meet Sept. 30 at Skyview High School's Tsalteshi Trails in Soldotna.
Juneau coach Guy Thibodeau thinks Juneau and Ketchikan will be the top teams in both Region V-Class 4A races, especially since Sitka hasn't fielded a full girls team all season. Thibodeau said the girls race will be the closest, but the boys could also be a battle if Ketchikan does well.
"We have to break into their top-three runners," Thibodeau said of Ketchikan's trio of Jakubek, Lisa Bolling and Erin Nugent. "We need to challenge their top runners and not let them go 1-2-3. In the boys, we've had a couple of nagging injuries and I hope we get everybody through to state. If their three (Miller, Updike and Hu) run like they have been, it could be interesting. If they go 1-2-3, they can still win if their next two guys go 10-11."
In the Class 2A-3A races, Ella Allred returns to defend her individual girls title but she could face a tough battle with teammate Sarah Lende, who is unbeaten in Southeast races this year. Other leading girls contenders include Chrissy Morris of Kake, Kaelene Wilson of Wrangell and Erika Visscher of Mount Edgecumbe. The team title could be a battle between Mount Edgecumbe, Haines and Skagway.
In the boys race, Richard Montgomery of Petersburg won last weekend's Petersburg Invitational and could be the runner to beat. Other leading contenders include Josh Tyler of Metlakatla, Anthony Dolan of Kake (last year's runner-up), Rob Mills of Kake and P.J. Bush of Klawock. Petersburg won a close team battle with Mount Edgecumbe, Kake and Haines all within 10 points last weekend.