The day could not have been more perfect.
A persistent rain lent a particularly nasty edge to a chilly breeze blowing down off the Mendenhall Glacier on Saturday, as cross country teams from all over Southeast gathered for the annual Region V meet at the Mendenhall Lake Campground. Despite the inclement weather though, the Juneau-Douglas High School cross country teams cruised to victory in stunning fashion, capturing the top seven places in both the men's and women's races for a perfect finish and another Southeast title.
The Crimson Bears' rare double play on Saturday was turned on a handful of top-notch individual performances. Paced by the stellar efforts of overall winners Jeffrey Early and Maria Eley, Juneau blew away second-place Ketchikan and earned a trip to the state meet in the process.
``That's awesome,'' said Juneau's Luke Dihle upon learning of the men's sweep, their first of the season.
So awesome, in fact, that less than 60 seconds separated Early and seventh-place finisher Corey Denton, who outsprinted Ketchikan's Jared Cockrum to the finish line to complete the impressive showing for the region champions.
Denton trailed Cockrum by a few seconds heading into the last mile of the 5-kilometer race that wound over a gently rolling course through the campground. But Denton closed the gap as the two approached the finish line and was taken by surprise when the Ketchikan runner broke into a sprint about 150 yards from the end.
``I didn't expect that,'' said a tired but happy Denton after the race. ``I can always do that at the end if I have to. It only hurts for 10 seconds. I just didn't want him to beat me.''
The two finished with identical times of 17 minutes, 33 seconds, but it was Denton who was first into the chute.
``He's a good runner,'' said Cockrum of Denton. ``He had a lot more left at the end than I did.''
Still, it was a great showing for the junior from Ketchikan, who is in his very first season of running. The team's consistent second finisher all season, Cockrum trailed ailing teammate Steve Beedle for most of the race, but overtook him at the end with his best race yet. And when it was over, he deflected the spotlight.
``Steve is only a sophomore. He's a great runner. He'll win state one of these years,'' said Cockrum. ``I think our whole team did well.''
But it would have taken a monster effort to defeat the talented and determined Bears. Early was content to let teammate Shawn Miller set the pace for the first half of the race, but stepped up his own pace as the race passed the halfway point. The two then matched each other stride for stride until Early kicked it up another notch with about a half-mile to go and cruised in with a time of 16:36, three seconds faster than Miller.
The individual victory was extra sweet for Early, who in three years of high school running had never competed in front of a hometown crowd before.
Also turning in an impressive performance was Dan Fagnant, whose time of 17:18 was good enough for his first-ever fifth-place finish for the men.
``I definitely owe this to all the support my teammates gave me,'' he said.
Dihle was one of three Juneau runners to break 17:00 in the race. His 16:51 was good enough for third place, 15 seconds ahead of teammate Dewey Peacock. Joe Kegler overcame a fast start to come in sixth in 17:28.
The women got some standout performances of their own. Team captain Christy Race, who has been the Bears' third runner all season, pushed two-time region champion Eley for most of the race before Eley kicked to the finish in a strong 19:12. But it was Race, not normal second finisher Breea DeSloover, who turned up the gas enough the last 400 yards to cross the line next for Juneau 22 seconds later.
``We all worked really hard together and pushed each other,'' said Race, a senior. ``But I just decided I was going to accomplish this (second-place finish).''
DeSloover, who finished third in 19:40, credited the strong team bond for the impressive sweep.
``We had a lot of fun this week in practice,'' she said. ``We're all really close right now.''
But she saved her biggest praise for Race.
``She's a really strong runne,'' said DeSloover, a sophomore. ``I'm really happy for her. She's a senior, and this was her race.''
Jeanette Gardiner, who was just three seconds behind DeSloover, also credited the Bears with a good team effort.
``It felt good. It was very wet and cold, but we need to get used to that,'' she said. ``We all ran together as a group and pulled each other along. Hopefully we can do the same next week (at state).''
Abby Blair closed out Juneau scoring with her fifth-place finish in 20:46, while Marta Race and freshman Michael Kohan finished half a step apart in sixth and seventh for the region champions.
``I am 100-percent pleased,'' said coach Nancy Thomas. ``Christy had a great race today. It's nice to see her peak at the right time in her senior year. And it was great the way Corey pulled out seventh place in the boys' race.''
Both Juneau and Ketchikan will travel to Palmer next week for the state meet on Saturday.