While she was quick to note that winning this race wasn't as big as the Alaska state cross country championships, Juneau-Douglas High School sophomore Leah Francis proved again she's more than capable of hanging with the nation's best.
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Francis won the Nike Team Nationals Northwest Region Championship race Saturday at Eagle Island State Park in Boise, Idaho. She completed the 5-kilometer elite race in 18 minutes, 20.9 seconds. As a team, Juneau-Douglas placed 11th out of 13 teams in the first-ever regional championship.
"I think we just came down here to see how our team could do, so it's just another race," Francis said. "It's not as important as state."
The Blues XC club from St. Mary's High School in Oregon won the event while Jesuit High School, running as the Portland Harriers, placed second. Those two teams will move on to the Nike Team Nationals next week to determine the national high school cross country champions.
Defending Alaska state champions West Anchorage placed 12th overall.
Despite not competing in a major race since the state championships in September, Francis used her strength to overcome the course and field.
The course was pretty flat but was raced at an elevation of 2,724 feet, according to national track and field Web site www.dyestat.com.
"The start was really bumpy and uneven and so fast," Francis said. "I felt like everyone was sprinting, but once we were off it became a normal race. It was a fast start though, so I had to figure out what was happening."
She eventually surged to the lead but almost lost at the end after a wrong turn. Lions XC Club runner Nicole Nielsen took the lead, but Francis made up the ground to take first place by one second.
"I was following the cart person in front, then they turned off and so did I and some people were pointing and like, 'Oh no,' " Francis said. "We were probably next to each other, then she got six feet ahead of me and we were both sprinting."
Sophomore Annika Ord took 51st overall in 20:08.1, Leigh Miller placed 64th in 20:20.4, Katie Krehlik took 67th in 20:24.6, Isabel Bush placed 79th in 21:03.3 while Alice Ottoson-McKeen took 90th in 22:07.5.
Three boys competed in other races as well as senior Hunter Brown took seventh overall in the boys varsity race with a time of 16:55. The varsity race was an individual event, opposed to the championship races which determined who would compete for a national title.
"It was pretty close competition compared to the state championship," Brown said. "The people I was running against wasn't the top of the line. We watched the championship race and it was outrageous how fast they were."
Competing against more than 100 runners though, Brown said he enjoyed testing himself in a crowd.
"I was getting into the passing game," Brown said. "With that many people, it's fun to weave around people."
Junior Daniel Stoops completed the varsity race in 17:20 to finish in the middle of the pack.
After finishing 53rd in September's state championship race while fighting an illness, Stoops felt this race gave him the opportunity to finish the season on the right note.
"I wanted to do a good time for me and that's around 17:20," Stoops said. "I just wanted to make sure that I knew I had a good season and didn't end it on a bad note this year."
Freshman Zack Bursell placed 16th overall in the junior varsity race, which featured freshmen and sophomores.
The next race Juneau-Douglas may compete in is the Foot Locker Western Regional Cross Country Championships on Dec. 1 in Walnut, Calif. Unlike the Nike Team Nationals, the Foot Locker series determines the individual national champions.
Last year, Francis placed 17th and was the second-fastest freshman at the Foot Locker regional meet.
Contact sports editor Tim Nichols at 523-2228 or email@example.com.
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