Even some classic Southeast weather could not help the Juneau-Douglas High School cross country team.
A muddy trail and intermittent rain in Palmer should have made the Crimson Bears feel right at home for Saturday's state cross country meet.
Sadly, it was not the elements that the team had to overcome, but some nagging health issues instead. Nonetheless, some exceptional individual performances sparked a close third-place finish for the women in the day's most hotly contested team battle, while the men settled for fifth.
It was a disappointing end to a fine season for the Bears, who were expected to contend for a state championship in the women's race. The large schools women's race was billed as a runoff between region champions East, Juneau and Colony, and it lived up to the hype.
The three teams battled each other to a close finish three weeks ago at the Palmer Invitational, where the defending state champion Knights eeked out a win by placing runners in the top 14 - and all ahead of Juneau's second runner.
But this time out the Nike was on the other foot. Behind the truly inspired performances of Christy Race and Jeanette Gardiner, and a gutsy run by ailing Maria Eley, Juneau placed three runners in the top 10 - more than any other team - and for awhile threatened to dethrone Colony as state champion.
For nearly half of the 5-kilometer race the three ran ahead of the first Colony runner, who was in a Knight five-pack a few places back. Colony coach Mark Doner, architect of six state championships, said it was a nail-biter.
``I knew it would be close. Juneau is a well-coached team that always comes primed and ready to go,'' he said. ``Fortunately our fifth girl closed up the gap.''
And it was all the Knights needed to walk away with their third title in the last four years. A mere eight points separated the top three teams, but Colony's 70 was good enough for first, while East Anchorage claimed second place with 75, three better than the Bears.
In the individual competition, Dimond High School sophomore Darcy Dugan remained unbeaten over two seasons with a dominating wire-to-wire victory in 18 minutes, 54 seconds, despite a late charge by East's Kikkan Randall.
But the day really belonged to Juneau's Race. In the final meet of her high school career, the senior followed up an outstanding showing at last weekend's Region V meet by crossing the finish line first for the team and seventh overall. Her time of 20:11 was one second better than that of teammates Eley and Gardiner, who finished in eighth and ninth place, respectively.
``This is one of the best races I've ever had,'' Race said. ``Running together really helped. This is a good way to end the season.''
Gardiner, the team's normal fourth runner, turned in her finest performance ever. She, too, credited teamwork for her high finish.
``I had no expectations coming in here. I just wanted to go out and do the best I could,'' she said. ``Everything just seemed to come together. It was really good to run with Christy and Maria. We pulled each other along. It was great to see Christy have a good race at her last meet.''
Eley, who was feeling a bit under the weather, also said the teamwork helped her to the finish line.
``I liked the pack,'' she said. ``If they hadn't been there I would have fallen farther back.''
Despite her own disappointing finish, she said the race was not without its consolations.
``It was nice to have so much of the team on the (awards) podium,'' she said. Eley refused to fall back on the easy excuse of not feeling well though, and complimented her more ailing teammates instead.
``I've had good races all season,'' she said. ``It was much tougher for Abby (Blair) and Breea (DeSloover).''
Blair and DeSloover turned in courageous performances of their own under less than ideal conditions. Blair, the Bears' normal fifth runner, competed despite a week-long battle with a cold and finished seventh for the team (65th overall) in 22:57.
DeSloover, meanwhile, who usually follows Eley into the chute, fell victim to an untimely flair-up of an asthma condition, but managed to finish fourth for Juneau. She placed 25th overall with a time of 20:44, and Marta Race closed out JDHS scoring with a 46th-place finish in 21:36.
``You do everything you can to get ready, then it comes down to the lottery of who gets the virus and who doesn't,'' said Coach Thomas. ``Breea ran a great race for us today. And the thing I admire the most about Abby is she never complained. She just went out and did her best. Nobody on this team has anything to apologize for.''
Michael Kohan was sixth in for Juneau in her first state meet. The freshman placed 56th overall in a time of 22:00.
``This is still a good moment in the big picture,'' said Thomas, who bids farewell to Race and Blair this season. ``I will miss them as daughters as well as runners. They are both outstanding people who'll be able to do anything they want to do in the future.''
The Juneau men were not without health problems of their own.
Front-runner Shawn Miller struggled to finish 39th overall and fifth on the team in the final meet of his high school career, as the Region V champs placed fifth as a team.
As expected, the Dimond men took the team title, dethroning three-time defending champion Colony in the process. The Lynx won without claiming the individual victory, as Palmer's Eric Callison became the second non-region champion of the day to win an individual title. Nonetheless, the Lynx's
scoring runners grabbed five of the top 11 spots in one of state cross country's most dominating team performances.
In one of the day's three narrow finishes, Callison outkicked Dimond's Tory Dugan down the stretch to win by .6 seconds. It was supposed to an individual duel between Dugan and defending champion John Angst of West Anchorage. But Callison and Dugan pulled away early after Angst fell victim to his own blistering early pace. The Palmer runner, considered a darkhorse contender, said he did not expect to win.
``After the first mile I felt pretty good. I looked back and knew it was just Dugan and me. So I had to go for it," said Callison, who finished fourth at the Region III meet. ``We were both hurting pretty bad at the end. I guess it just cam down to who wanted it more.''
Jeffrey Early, probably the most mentally sharp of all the Bears after taking his SAT just before the race, led the team into the finish chute. The senior placed 16th overall in 17:21, and on a day that most race times were slowed by the conditions, Early was one of the few to match or better his time from the Palmer Invitational.
Joe Kegler rebounded from his disappointing showing at the Region V meet to better his own Palmer time and place 28th in 17:43. Teammate Dewey Peacock turned in his best team placing this season, completing the five kilometers in 17:53 and crossing the line third for Juneau with Luke Dihle three seconds behind.
Dan Fagnant and Corey Denton finished a second apart in 41st and 42nd place, respectively for the Bears, who will lose a solid core of senior runners to graduation. The state meet marked the final race for Miller, Early, Peacock, Dihle and Fagnant.
``That's a lot of experience,'' said Kegler, a junior. ``We're gonna miss them.''
``It's hard to lose them. It's tough to say goodbye,'' she said. ``But Joe and Corey will be back and we've got a bunch of eager freshman too.''
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