On the Mark

Posted: Thursday, October 02, 1997

A rainbow spanned the Mendenhall Glacier last Friday afternoon. The Juneau-Douglas High School cross country team took advantage of the brief break in the inclememt Southeast weather to make one final round of the 5-kilometer course through Mendenhall Lake Campground in preparation for what would be a thoroughly dominating victory at Saturday's Region V meet.

Sophomore Breea DeSloover, one of seven reasons why the JD women are serious contenders for a state title this weekend, remarked that she thought the rainbow was an omen. What exactly the rainbow may portend in terms of athletic success on Saturday at the state meet in Palmer is yet to be determined. But whatever the outcome of the race, success in more significant areas is sure to follow this team.

Cross country has always been overshadowed by the ``glory'' sports. It is like the neglected stepchild of prep athletics. But those who would pass the sport off as a useless diversion do it a great injustice. Not that it seems to matter to anyone involved. But the ease with which teams, like the Crimson Bears, incorporate good sportsmanship and general goodwill into their weekly competitive regimen is an example for all to follow.

Last weekend's Region V meet provided many shining examples of student-athletes being just plain good people. In the small schools women's race, for example, Naomi Oyler of Petersburg ran stride-for-stride with Skagway's Courtney Mason the whole race. The two talked together, encouraging each other all the way. Oyler also looked back from time to time and gestured to those behind her, urging them to catch up. ``I didn't want them to think I wanted to beat them,'' she said.

This would be impressive enough if the two had been running in the middle of the pack. As it turns out, they led the race from start to finish, with Oyler edging Mason for a successful defense of her individual region crown. There's something you'll never see on the football field. And maybe you shouldn't. Perhaps it's what makes cross country most unique.

The Bears have demonstrated all season their own brand of good sportsmanship, and last weekend they brought intra-squad support to new heights. As a surprise to the men's team, the varsity women made signs before last weekend's race, one for each of the seven men, and waved them each time the runners passed. The men reciprocated at the awards assembly, presenting a bouquet from bended knee to each of the women as they lined up to receive their championship trophy.

This is what I love about cross country. There's something special about the sport, something that transcends the mere thrill of the chase, especially as the season winds down. It's a greatly underappreciated activity, both in terms of the level of competition it offers, and in its propensity to attract good, upstanding student-athletes.

Speaking of which, it should be noted here that in addition to proving themselves to be exceptional athletes and quality people, the Bears have shown they are also no slouches in the classroom. The varsity men have a collective 3.64 GPA, led by Jeffrey Early's 4.0 and the 3.9s of Luke ``Beach'' Dihle and Dan Fagnant. The women check in only slightly lower at 3.53, with rainbow-watcher DeSloover topping the pack at 3.9, followed by Maria Eley and Abby Blair with matching 3.8s.

There is so much about cross country that make it such a joy to cover. In fact, in my three years of following Alaska prep sports, the state cross country meet is among my favorite events. One of my most enduring high school sports memories came out of the first state meet I attended - the '95 race. It was a typically brisk, clear fall day in Mat-Su when the Colony men raced to their second straight championship. But the real story for me was the unexpected and most welcome lift that the Knights got that day from a new runner, one whose family had relocated from Arizona shortly before school started.

The unassuming sophomore began the season that year competing with the junior varsity, and with each race, his times improved. His impressive rise through the JV was capped by his first-place finish in the open race at the Palmer Invitational - a performance that so impressed his coaches they promoted him for the final two weeks of the regular season.

But he was not finished yet, and his remarkable rise continued through the ranks of the varsity. Following additional successes at the borough and Region III meets, the newest Knight saved his best for last, crossing the finish line at the state meet second for the team and ninth overall.

I approached the young runner as he departed the finish chute, still panting and soaked with sweat, and asked him to name the biggest difference between runners he had competed against in Arizona and those here in Alaska. Expecting him to address the comparative athletic quality of teams and individuals, I was impressed nearly speechless when, after pondering the question for only a very brief moment, he responded, ``the sportsmanship.''

The runner was Ben Blackgoat, who went on to leave an indelible mark on the Juneau squad a year later, before his untimely passing last November. It is indeed rare in these days of too-abundant negative role models that individual athletes or programs can find a way to mix athletic success with the far more significant and lasting values of sportsmanship and decency. It is a credit to parents, coaches and community that our young athletes represent us so well.

I look forward to another state meet this Saturday. The prospect of a championship for the local team makes it even more exciting. But regardless of the outcome of the races, these Bears, like so many other teams around the state, have already proven themselves to be winners.

The weatherman has forecast another clear, cold race day. Not exactly rainbow weather, but the real victory, the one already won by Juneau runners, is infinitely more valuable - and lasting - than any pot of gold.

Mark Kelsey is a Juneau Empire sports writer (mkelsey@alaska.net) .

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