With another Region V cross country title all but sewn up, the Juneau-Douglas High School runners will have their sights set a bit farther down the road this weekend.
On Saturday, all Southeast teams will converge on Juneau for the annual region meet, held this year on a spectator-friendly, 5-kilometer course that winds through Mendenhall Lake Campground. The day will kick off with the combined 1A, 2A and 3A (small schools) races. The women's race goes off at 10 a.m. and will feature perhaps the tightest team battle of the day, as Petersburg, Haines and Skagway all vie for a bid to the state meet.
The men's race will be headlined by favored Klawock, which may be challenged by Mt. Edgecumbe when the gun sounds at 10:45 a.m.
The main event should offer no surprises to the host Crimson Bears, who have soundly beaten their only 4A (large schools) region opponents - Sitka and Ketchikan - all season. So as they get caught up in the race on Saturday, Juneau will be looking ahead to the state meet in Palmer the following week.
``They need to have an experience this weekend that will make them feel like they will feel next week (at state),'' said JDHS coach Nancy Thomas. ``They need to visualize the bumping and jarring and fast pace at the beginning of the race, then run so hard that they have nothing left at the end.''
As they get ready for their trip to Palmer and a shot at the big prize, the Bears will be looking to close the gap between their five scoring runners. Not that this has been any kind of problem for the team this season. The boys, especially, have been adept at keeping the elapsed time between their first and fifth runner under a minute, and even posted a season-best 34-second gap two weeks ago at the Palmer Invitational.
The drive to stay in a tight pack for three miles is what puts the ``team'' in a seemingly individual sport. And it is what makes or breaks a squad in the season's stretch run. But even with the end of the season so close, there is little sign of impending stress in the Juneau camp.
``You just have to go out and do your best,'' said Abby Blair, JD's fifth runner. ``We need to run as a team and be supportive of each other.''
Blair, one of just two seniors on the women's squad, has been a welcome addition to the Bears this season. A basketball cheerleader who has always run on her own, Blair decided to join the team this year just to try something new as her high school years draw to a close. It is an experiment that she says has been a great success.
``Individually we're all different. But when we run, it brings us all together,'' she said. ``We have fun. It's been a great experience. I wish I had done it every year.''
Her importance to the team has been an equal success.
``Abby has been a very nice surprise,'' said Coach Thomas. ``She has been a very positive, refreshing and energizing influence. She's just a wonderful kid.''
And one of seven talented runners on the women's squad, which also happens to be deep enough to overcome the loss of a regular. Freshman sensation Eden Orelove will not see action on Saturday due to a stress fracture in her foot. But filling the void will be another freshman, Michael Kohan, who has already logged many varsity miles this season.
She joins a seasoned group led by front-runners Maria Eley and Breea DeSloover that has much collective experience between them. Captain Christy Race, the team's third runner, along with Jeanette Gardiner and Marta Race, will round out the varsity on Saturday when the race begins at the 11:30 a.m.
In the 12:15 p.m. men's race, the Bears will benefit from the return of Jeffrey Early, who has battled a lingering knee ailment in the latter part of the season that kept him out of last weekend's meet at Wrangell. He has fronted the Juneau effort twice this season and looks forward to getting back into action.
``I just like to get out there and race,'' he said. ``It's really fun running with these guys. We're all so close.''
So close, in fact, that anyone of the top five appears to be capable of being the first Juneau runner to the finish line. Early and Shawn Miller, the only other Bear to break the tape this year, will be chased by Luke Dihle, Joe Kegler, Dewey Peacock, Dan Fagnant and Corey Denton.
And just as with the women's team, camaraderie, like talent, seems to be in abundance among the men.
``We've been running together for so long,'' said Fagnant, a senior and second-year varsity runner. ``We're nearly at our peak. We need to run our best but save a little for state.''
Fagnant's individual progress this season has also given the men hope for a sweep of the top seven spots on Saturday. The team's sixth runner, he has posted late-season victories over top region runners Steve Beedle of Ketchikan and Mitch Mork of Sitka. So all that stands in the way of a clean sweep for the men is getting another personal best out of number-seven man Corey Denton.
``It (a top-seven sweep) is a nice thought,'' admitted Fagnant. ``I think we can do it.''
As nice as it would be, the Bears know that the best prize waits in Palmer next weekend.
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