The Juneau-Douglas High School boys and girls cross-country teams are heading into Saturday's state meet in Palmer under very different circumstances.
The Crimson Bear boys are traveling north as a marked team, after the squad won the Palmer Invitational - the state's premiere regular-season meet - earlier this month. That victory, accomplished on the same trails as the state championship, squarely placed the Juneau boys on the map as a state contender.
Meanwhile, the Juneau girls are entering the competition as a largely unknown commodity. Due to injuries and late additions, last weekend's Region V meet was the first time the varsity squad competed as a whole. The Crimson Bear girls have yet to face any opponents from up north at full power, and they are anxious to see how they stack up.
They'll get that chance on Saturday, as the Class 4A girls - including Juneau - conclude a full day of state championship running with a race starting at 2:15 p.m. on Palmer's Michael Janecek Trails. The Class 4A boys run at 12:45 p.m. The Class 1A-2A-3A boys and girls will run at noon and 1:30 p.m., respectively.
"I'm really nervous, but no matter what we're going to have a good race," said freshman Ray Huebschen, who ran the state course at the Palmer Invite. "Seeing the trail first-hand makes it a little easier."
Of the 14 Crimson Bear runners heading to Palmer this weekend, half participated in last year's state meet. Three more - including Huebschen - ran the state course at the Palmer Invite. And four will see the trails for the first time on Saturday.
Juneau coaches Guy Thibodeau and Merry Ellefson said the team veterans will spend a lot of time talking to the younger runners about race strategy on the course. It's a trail system that gets high marks from sophomore Jordan Harvey, who helped the Juneau girls to a fourth-place finish at last year's state meet.
"I'm really excited - this has always been my favorite course," she said. "There's so much scenery that you go through. You have the field, then you go into the woods ... then you see a road, and then a meadow."
And the runners will pass several groupings of cheering spectators along the way, Harvey said, creating a great atmosphere.
"You get that tingling feeling of how great it is, what a privilege and an honor it is to run at state," she said.
Thibodeau said the Palmer course has more hills than Juneau's home course at the Treadwell Mine Trails, but the Palmer hills are not as steep or as long as those on the Treadwell course.
"In my opinion, it's not as hard as (the Treadwell trails)," Huebschen said of Palmer. "It has a couple steep hills and some S-turns, but unless it's raining, it's not going to be a problem."
A key to the Palmer course is getting into a good spot early, Harvey said, since it gets hard to move up in the pack once the runners leave the open field.
"You want to make sure you're in the top position because when you go into the woods, it's really narrow," she said.
Junior co-captain Tristan Knutson-Lombardo, fresh off winning his first Region V-Class 4A title last weekend, will lead the Juneau boys. He finished ninth at state last year, while the boys team finished seventh. Sophomore twins Tyler and Wesley Dinnan and senior co-captain Tim Davin also bring state experience to the squad. Huebschen, senior Isaac Milligan and freshman Nils Domke round out the team.
Among the other contenders at the state meet are Dimond, led by Palmer Invite individual champ Jeff Quickel, and defending state champion Chugiak, led by Region IV champ Jesse Cherry, who was second at state last year. Palmer's Aaron Dickson, last year's inidvidual winner, graduated last spring.
For the Juneau girls, senior co-captain Greta Thibodeau - who also won her first Region V-Class 4A crown last Saturday - returns to the state meet for the first time since 2001. She was studying abroad last fall. The Crimson Bears' sophomore "Js" - Harvey, Jordan Moser and Jaci Hayden - all ran at state last year. Sophomore Lexi Garvey, junior Megan Bush and senior Kendri Cesar - late additions to the varsity squad - will be seeing the course for the first time.
Two-time defending individual state champion Kris Smith of West Anchorage graduated, but defending team champion East Anchorage returns a strong team headed by Leah Besh and Katelyn Stearns. The Service Cougars won the Region IV title last weekend, and Soldotna's Ari Goldstein won this year's Palmer Invite.
Other Southeast state qualifiers are:
For the Class 4A boys race, the Sitka team (Kevin Conway, Tyler Eggen, George Howard, Vince Licari, Daniel McArthur, Keith Reeves and Scott Totten) and Ketchikan's Houston Laws.
For the Class 4A girls race, the Sitka team (Juliet Agne, J.J. Carlson, Kelsey Davidson, Michala Dunlap, Misty Leccese, Megan Lehman and Sara Poindexter) and Ketchikan's Amanda Hammermeister.
For the Class 1A-2A-3A boys race, the Mount Edgecumbe team (Joel Hunt, Kyle James, Matt Mercier, Jesstin Patterson, Cliff Shellabarger, Maxwell Shellabarger and Tirrell Thomas); the Petersburg team (Jesse Agner, Brendan Goodwin, Mads Hansen, Casey Knight, Kyle Knight, Logan Stolpe and Fred Yip); Skagway's Kyle Mulvihill; Wrangell's Mike Howell and Gordon McCloskey; and Metlakatla's Darrick Gaube, Gilmore White and Beau Croisant.
For the Class 1A-2A-3A girls race, the Petersburg team (Sarah Aiken, Margaret Hunter, Hannah Meucci, Bergen Rosvold, Gillian Severson, Bridey Short and Autumn Streuli); the Wrangell team (Kristy Brown, Laurie Brown, Sarah Helgeson, Tasha Peterman and Brook Williams); Metlakatla's Hannah Henderson; Craig's Emily Haydu; Yakutat's Hannah Esbenshade; Klawock's Yadira Ramirez; and Skagway's Candi Ketterman.
Mulvihill, who has won the Region V-Class 2A-3A boys race two years in a row, finished ninth at last year's state meet and is the top returning Southeast boy to the small-schools race. Streuli won this year's Region V-Class 2A-3A girls race; Haydu, who finished 14th at state last year, is the top returning Southeast small-schools girl.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.