The Juneau-Douglas High School boys and girls cross-country running teams may not be the favorites in Saturday's Class 4A state championship races at Palmer High School, but both teams are strong darkhorse contenders.
And sometimes a longshot winds up winning.
"We know we have a chance and we might do good as a team," Juneau senior Heidi Denton said.
"We're confident we might do good," Juneau senior Brittany Rohm added. "We don't want to say we can win it, but we're confident we can do good."
The state meet opens with the girls Class 1A-2A-3A race at noon, followed by the boys Class 1A-2A-3A race at 12:45 p.m. The girls Class 4A race is at 1:30 p.m. and the boys Class 4A race is at 2:15 p.m.
As his team prepared to catch a plane to Anchorage on Thursday night, Juneau head coach Guy Thibodeau said his girls team may have a better shot to win a state title than the boys squad. But both teams need a few breaks to claim Juneau's first team title since the Crimson Bear girls won in 1995.
"Our girls are probably third and our boys are probably seventh or eighth, but it's close," Thibodeau said. "Both Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley/Kenai Peninsula regions have teams we haven't beaten yet this year."
The Crimson Bear girls will find their toughest challenges will come from the three-time defending state champion East Anchorage Thunderbirds and from the Chugiak Mustangs, who upset the T-Birds by one point to win last weekend's Region IV team title. Kenai Central is another strong contender in the girls race.
The Juneau girls hope to build on their performance in last Saturday's Region V-Class 4A meet, when the Crimson Bears narrowly missed posting a perfect score of 15 points as they won 19-36.
Juneau senior Hilary Young won the individual title, with Molly Krehlik, Greta Thibodeau, Denton and Rohm finishing in third through sixth places. Ketchikan's Elisa Bolling took second place to break up Juneau's top-five runners and spoil the shot at a perfect score. Juneau's other state runners are Elise Wahto and Emily Krehlik.
"East and Chugiak are teams we haven't raced against this year, so I don't know if we have a shot," Young said. "We're feeling pretty good and we've put in a lot of hard work. Last week was a really good sign for us and hopefully we can run that much better. Our region's so small we wind up running alone a lot of the time, and at state there will be a lot more runners so we'll be pushed constantly around the course."
The leading contenders in the girls race include West Anchorage's Kris Smith, Bartlett's Christina Copus, Colony's Dominique Colberg, Kenai's Katherine Amen, Chugiak's Morgan Ekemo and Skyview's Marci Moller.
Several of the top individual contenders this year won't have their teams to support them, and that could impact the team race, coach Thibodeau said. When the team scores are added up, the solo runners won't be included in the standings so a runner could finish as far back as eighth and still earn the same team points as if she finished third, Thibodeau said.
This year's state meet returns to the Michael Janecek Trails behind Palmer High School after a four-year stint at the Tsalteshi Trails at Skyview High School in Soldotna. The Palmer course has three laps on a very spectator-friendly loop behind the school's football field, and the Crimson Bears expect the course to be a little bit easier for them compared to Skyview's hilly trails. The Skyview course had several long, steep hills, while Palmer's course has more hills but they're shorter and more rolling. Palmer's course is narrower than Skyview's, which means runners will have to plan their attacks better to avoid traffic bottlenecks where it's difficult to pass.
"I was thinking this might be more Heidi's type of course than Hilary's, because Heidi does better on the hills," Thibodeau said. "The runners will have to go out harder and then recover faster. You'll have to go out smart when you run the hills, because they just keep coming. It's a little different, but it's still a challenging course."
In the boys Class 4A race, the Soldotna Stars will be gunning for their third straight team championship with the defending state runner-up Palmer Moose also looking strong. After that, the boys picture gets interesting as the next four or five teams could all finish within a few points of each other. The Crimson Bears are in that grouping after Soldotna and Palmer, even though they dominated the Region V-Class 4A meet with a near-perfect score of 16 points.
Juneau senior Jesse Stringer won his third-straight region title -- the first male runner to win three straight individual region titles since Skagway's Richard Hunz won three straight in the late 1970s, when the large and small schools still ran in the same race. (Carl Blackhurst of Haines won three straight small schools region titles in the early 1990s).
Stringer was followed by teammates Bryce Iverson in second, Tristan Knutson-Lombardo in third, Blake Rider in fourth and Jordan Davis in sixth place. Only Ketchikan's Jay Miller, who took fifth place, broke up Juneau's lead five runners. Juneau's other state runners are Chris Frank and Axel Thibodeau.
In the individual race, Soldotna's Kyle McBride is the runner to beat after winning all but one race he entered this season. The only runner to beat him was Service's Ted O'Reilly, who edged McBride by five seconds at the Skyview Invitational but has been running injured since then. Besides McBride, O'Reilly and Stringer, other leading contenders for the boys individual title include brothers Aaron and Drew Dickson of Palmer, Soldotna's Brent Knight, Chugiak's Brian Knowles, Dimond's Jeff Quickel, Service's Brendan Trickey and Lathrop's Owen Fuller.
"We're right up there, but for anyone to beat Soldotna, their top three guys would all have to break their legs," Stringer said. "We're pretty excited. It should be a fun trip. We're a lot more relaxed this year. We're a younger team and for a lot of our guys, they're just getting a taste of what this is all about."
"McBride has kind of separated himself from the pack, and he's not had anybody run close to him lately," coach Thibodeau said. "O'Reilly has been injured, but he won big in the Region IV race last weekend. I expect the Dicksons to be tough on their home course. Right now I'd have to say Jesse has a chance of going anywhere from second to 12th, it's so close with all these guys. Bryce is aiming for a top-20 finish, which is pretty good for a freshman."
In the boys Class 1A-2A-3A race, the Anchorage Christian Schools Lions seek a second straight team title, with the other team contenders expected to be Bethel Regional, Skagway and Delta Junction. The top individuals include Chester Bukowski of Bethel, Sean LeBaron of ACS, Russell Bush and Kyle Mulvihill of Skagway and Kade Kimball of Delta Junction.
In the girls Class 1A-2A-3A race, the Grace Christian School Grizzlies are after a repeat team championship and will be led by the 1-2 punch of Danielle Pratt and Ashleigh Thomas. Other team contenders include Susitna Valley, Seward, Delta Junction, Eielson and Craig. Besides Pratt and Thomas, the other top individuals are Taz Mannix and Melissa Ostermick of Su-Valley, Chrissy Morris of Kake, Anjuli Haydu of Craig and Lindsey Viltrakis of Eielson.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.