All season long, the Juneau-Douglas High School boys cross-country running team felt it had enough quality runners to challenge for a state championship.
The Crimson Bears will finally get a chance to see if they can become the first Juneau boys team to win a state title when they compete in the state cross-country running championships Saturday afternoon at Skyview High School's Tsalteshi Trails in Soldotna.
The state meet opens at noon Saturday with the Class 1A-2A-3A boys race, followed by the Class 1A-2A-3A girls race at 12:45 p.m. The Class 4A boys (Juneau's level) run at 1:30 p.m. and the Class 4A girls run at 2:15 p.m.
Earlier this season, Juneau took a partial squad to Anchorage for the Fleet of Feet Flight Races at Russian Jack Springs Park and the Crimson Bears took third place only a few seconds behind Chugiak in a rare cross-country race scored by combined team times. The Crimson Bears are at full strength now, but they still could have their hands full with Palmer, which edged defending state champion Soldotna in the Region III meet last weekend. Other team contenders include Soldotna, Kodiak, Ketchikan, Chugiak and Dimond.
"We're going to try to make it where it becomes a pure guts race," Juneau's Jesse Stringer said of the boys race. "And if it comes down to that, there's only one team that can win."
"Our challenge is to get our gap down," Juneau coach Guy Thibodeau said of the spread in times between its top runner, Stringer, and the slower runners on the team. "The team that wins is going to have its top-five runners within 30 seconds of each other."
Thibodeau said the Juneau boys have a chance, but its strongest competition could come from the three team qualifiers out of Region III.
"Palmer is tough and they pack their top five in within 30 seconds," he said. "Soldotna's got a top three that's really up there. They're all threats to the top five (overall). Even Kodiak, which was third in that region, matches us time for time.
In the individual race, two-time Region V-Class 4A champion Stringer should figure into the list of top contenders for Juneau's first individual state championship. Others include Andy Liebner and Brent Knight of Soldotna, Drew and Aaron Dickson of Palmer (two-thirds of a set of triplets), Curtis Mortenson of Kodiak, Sean Mcmahon of East Anchorage, Brian Knowles of Chugiak, Colin Bonfield of West Anchorage, Jay Miller of Ketchikan and Brian Hanley of West Valley. Besides Stringer, Juneau's Kevin Almlie, Justin Dorn, James Voelckers, Axel Thibodeau, Wesley Brooks and Brian Nowlin all have shots at the top-10.
"Jesse ran the third-fastest qualifying time, but we're still trying to decipher how our new course matches up with the others," Thibodeau said. "We just have to calm Jesse down and keep him on an even keel."
The Juneau girls, who won a Class 4A state title in 1995, have an outside chance in the girls race but defending champion East Anchorage will be hard to beat as it goes for the three-peat. Other girls team contenders include Ketchikan, West Anchorage and Kenai. But the Crimson Bears, who only edged Ketchikan by one point in the Region V meet, could challenge for a team trophy.
"East is out there, but they dropped back to the pack a little last week (at the Region IV meet)," Thibodeau said. "They have a great 1-2 punch in Kikkan (Randall) and freshman Jessica Allman, who's done a good job replacing (graduate Diana) Johnson. East is awfully strong. But it's really wide open for second place. When I compared our times with Kenai, it was 27 1/2 to 27 1/2."
Randall and Allman will be the leading contenders for the individual title, but other top runners are Service's Tara Hamilton, West Anchorage's Kris Smith, Skyview's Erika Edwards (who will have the home-course advantage), Colony's Nikki Campbell, Kenai's Lindsey Church and Katherine Amen, Region V champion Jodi Jakubek and runner-up Elise Bolling of Ketchikan, Juneau's Greta Thibodeau, Heidi Denton and Hilary Young, and the West Valley trio of Davya Baker, Holly Person and Jillian Bartling.
Juneau's top girls runner last weekend was freshman Greta Thibodeau, Guy's daughter, who finished just four seconds behind Jakubek in third place at the region meet. Denton took 11th place at state last year as a freshman.
"I feel great about our chances if we do as good as we did last weekend," Greta Thibodeau said. "I haven't run any of these courses before, so this is all new to me. I think I'll pace myself with Heidi, Hilary and Brandy (Weston), who are all more experienced than me. I'm looking to prove myself to the state. I didn't run that well at the Flight Races."
While Juneau wants to finish among the top-two teams at state to earn a team trophy, there will also be a bit of Region V rivalry in the works. Ketchikan has never beaten Juneau at the Region V or state meet, at least for the past decade or two, and Guy Thibodeau thinks the Kings might be gunning for the Crimson Bears on the state course.
"They're still kind of out there for bragging rights," Thibodeau said. "Ketchikan has never gotten us at state and I'm sure they'd like to."