Thunder Mountain cross-country takes its biggest step yet as a program this weekend after qualifying its first-ever runners for the state meet, and they're all sophomores with two more years of improvement ahead.
Katie Jones finished seventh during last weekend's 4A Region V championships in Sitka to qualify as the only girl from Thunder Mountain, setting a new school record time of 21:33.01.
Avery Stewart, Hugh Watts and James Steeves finished eighth, ninth and tenth, respectively, to qualify for the boys' team, with Stewart's time of 17:51.72 now standing as the school record. Watts' and Steeves' times of 18:10 and 18:18, respectively, were personal records.
"It exceeded our expectations. We just missed out on qualifying anybody last year so this year, we thought two or three would be great. To take four, my goodness, that's just wonderful," coach Scott May said. "They each keep improving and that's our top girl and top three boys, and really, there's such a short span between our top six boys that any one of them could have been in the top three for us.
"It was exciting to see who it was going to be, and who it ended up being."
Avery didn't even run the Region V meet last year, and his school record time is the only one to break 18 minutes for the Falcons thus far.
Watts shaved a remarkable 3:21 off his time from last year's region championship meet, while Steeves cut 3:35.
"That's a huge improvement," May said. "Those are incredible, and it's consistent across the board with all of our guys dropping like that. If you were to project that kind of gain from this on to next year when they're juniors, it's impossible, I think, but it sure is exciting."
Freshman Khalil English finished eleventh (18:25), just missing an at-large state bid.
Steeves said he was surprised but pleased he was able to qualify.
"It's a great feeling and I'm really looking forward to it. I hope that Katie, Hugh, Avery and I will get the Thunder Mountain name out there," he said. "I really didn't think I'd go because there are some other runners on this team that I thought would pass me. It was close and I really thought Khalil would pass me, but I was pushing it really hard at the end and I'm really happy that I made it."
May said there's no pressure on any of the four as far as where they finish, and this year is just the first step toward finishing strong the next two seasons.
"They're running as individuals and I'm just telling the kids that it's a great experience for them," he said. "We know that Bartlett is going to be the course for the next three years, so for the rest of these guys' careers, they'll be running there for state, and I'm confident they're going to be up there two more times for their junior and senior years. It's going to be a great experience for them.
"I want to go in this one with no expectations," he continued. "They've never run a course like this before, they've never been in a meet this big before, and so we're just going to go in and enjoy this experience."
The course, May said, has a lot of elevated sections, much like the trail at Sandy Beach.
"It's hilly. It's really hilly," he said. "We talked about moving the Juneau Invitational out to Thunder Mountain at one point but we decided to keep it at Sandy Beach because the hills there mirror the state course more. We figured that would be a great preparation for this course. It's very comparable to the Sandy Beach course."
Steeves said he'll play his plan of attack by ear.
"I heard the trail is supposed to be kind of like ours, with a lot of hills. I'll probably start out fast and then catch into a good pace," he said. "I'll always work a few paces faster than the person in front of me to move up my placement. That's usually what I do during races, but it all depends on what the conditions are."
The girls' race is Saturday at 12:45 p.m., with the boys racing at 2:15 p.m. at Bartlett Trails behind Barlett High School.