At 7:30 a.m. this morning, the Juneau-Douglas High School boys and girls cross country teams embark on a flight to Anchorage for Saturday's state championship meet.
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On Wednesday the Crimson Bears prepared for the year's biggest race with a light run - and a spirited game of duck, duck, goose.
While the U.S. Olympic Team may not use the elementary school game as a warm-up to a gold medal race, the game helps the JDHS team remember sports are supposed to be fun.
"I think it represents our fun atmosphere in cross country," JDHS junior Kirsten Jorgensen said. "We do a lot of fun things that help ease the tension from race stress."
Juneau-Douglas will send 14 athletes - seven boys, seven girls - to the annual meet in Soldotna. While each one of the athletes holds his or her own personal goals, all of them will be looking to run their best race on Saturday.
For the girls, the Crimson Bears enter Saturday's race on a roll after posting a perfect 15 score.
Actually, the team's been on a roll pretty much since the season's start. After winning all their Southeast Conference meets and a having a very strong showing on the hilly Kincaid Park course in Anchorage, JDHS will look to improve in Soldotna.
"In order for us to get first we have to be amazing because the competition at West (Anchorage) High School is really, really good," Jorgensen said. "I think we're going to focus on West Valley from Fairbanks and run as closely in a pack as possible because the closer you are to your teammates, then the lower your total score."
A bulk of the attention will be placed squarely on one freshman girl: Juneau's Leah Francis has won every race she's participated in this season and should be considered a threat to anyone trying to capture the individual state title.
Her impressive performance at the Adidas/Lynx Invitational on Sept. 9 in Anchorage's Kincaid Park should give her the confidence of knowing she's raced against the entire state and prevailed.
At state, however, the adrenaline and the magnitude of the event can change things.
"She's just going to try and not lead the first part and not get away from the field," JDHS coach Guy Thibodeau said. "She can recover from a fast start, but we still don't want her following any rabbits as well. But she's strong enough to take care of herself."
Even if Francis wins the event, it'll take a total team effort if the girls want to challenge West Valley and West Anchorage for the title.
Jorgensen and Katie Krehlik have been consistently strong all season while Leigh Miller and freshman Annika Ord have been coming on as of late.
Brittany Lehnhart and Evelyn Fisher also may be counted on in the always unpredictable event.
"For all teams, the standard line is it comes down to the four and five runners."
Juneau-Douglas High School cross country coach
"For all the teams, the standard line is it comes down to the four and five runners," Thibodeau said. "Obviously it's all your runners who add up the score, but that's where it's at. Leigh and Evelyn and Brittany too - sometimes that six or seven runners gets to be four or five. We have not been to a state meet yet where form held true like in the regular season."
While the girls will strive to do their best, some of them will be coming with a little something extra to prove.
Jorgensen, who placed second at the regional meet, will be looking for redemption.
In last year's race, Jorgensen battled dizziness and fatigue in the final stretch. She finished 38th overall, but is looking to greatly improve her finish this Saturday.
"I'm looking forward for a little sort of redemption," Jorgensen said. "I just want to have a good race because so far I haven't been able to have a great state race. It'll just be a good way to end what has been a good season thus far."
Another Crimson Bears athlete looking forward to state for similar reasons is Ray Huebschen.
Last season Huebschen ran most of the year on a partially dislocated hip. This year, however, he's been healthy and helps lead a strong, experienced boys team ready for action.
"I thought I ran a really strong race last week," Huebschen said of his sixth place finish at the regional meet. "It was bothering me the first half of the season, but I took that week off and it did me some good."
While none of the Crimson Bears players have posted a time that would make them a favorite to win the individual race, what JDHS does do well is work together.
Since the season's start in August, the Bears placed great emphasis on running together so no opposing runner could get between them.
Running together translates into low team scores - which is incredibly important at a state championship race where more than 100 runners will take off at the starting line.
"There's only a few seconds between five places," JDHS senior Andrew Flansaas said.
A key to the race will be the first 100 meters.
At races start, athletes packed like sardines will jostle for position. Finding a good spot is crucial.
Being stuck behind a pack may mean a runner will have to burn excess energy to fight through the traffic. That lost energy could be the difference between a strong finishing kick and a gassed ending to an arduous race.
"You need to get good position so you have more energy to pass," Huebschen said.
Huebschen, Nils Domke, Flansaas and Hunter Brown all boast experience in Soldotna while Nathan Ord, Gus Browning and Daniel Stoops will all be making their state championship debuts.
Domke and Flansaas have been alternating as the top two runners for most of the season. For JDHS to jet up the team standings, it'll need its other runners to step up.
Brown and Domke ran as a tandem last Saturday while Huebschen and Stoops finished sixth and seventh, respectively.
If Ord, Browning, Stoops and Brown can raise their game in the year's biggest race, it could help JDHS vault into the top three.
"I'm looking forward to hopefully a great race," Domke said. "I'm looking forward to seeing what we can do as a team."
Greeting the Crimson Bears is a hilly course with rolling hills and inclines.
The team plans to scope out the course today and Friday to acclimate itself to the course.
Checking out the course is very important for a runner's preparation, especially those new to Soldotna.
"You learn the hills, the lay of the course and how you have to run the race," Ord said.
How the JDHS boys and girls finish will depend on a number of factors. Everything from health, stamina and luck plays major roles in a 5-kilometer race with a large field.
What JDHS can control, however, is supporting their teammates and racing with energy and desire.
"Guy and (JDHS coach) Merry (Ellefson) told us to run the first two-thirds of the race with our heads and the last with our heart," Krehlik said. "So pretty much you have to run a smart race and then at the end run with everything you have left."
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com.
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