Runners from the Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé cross country team practice during the preseason. (Courtesy photo / Tristan Knutson-Lombardo)

Runners from the Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé cross country team practice during the preseason. (Courtesy photo / Tristan Knutson-Lombardo)

Cross country teams gaining speed and numbers

Both high schools are looking at substantial rosters this year.

Juneau’s high school cross country teams are waxing gibbous as the beginning of the season approach.

At least one team is looking at a bumper crop of runners for the 2021 season.

“It is the biggest team we’ve ever had,” said Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé co-coach Tristan Knutson-Lombardo in a phone interview. “When I was in high school, there were 1,600, 1,700 students at JDHS and there were probably 30 people on the team. Now JDHS has 600 students, 500 students or something, and we’re 80 runners strong.”

The outsized team is driven by large underclasses and many returning runners.

“We have a large freshmen class and leadership in the senior class includes three girls who were state champions as freshmen,” said JDHS co-coach Merry Ellefson in a phone interview. “We see ourselves developing a really strong, fast, powerful and connected team this year.”

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Thunder Mountain High School coaches Topaz Shryock and Kent Mearig are replacing former coach Sandra Pahlke. This will be their first year coaching the Falcons.

“We’ve got new students showing up all the time, like every day,” Shryock said. “Our roster is saying about 50. I think it might be a little less than that.”

JDHS has adopted a system of squads and assistant coaches to break the titanic team into more manageable segments, both for coaching purposes and to not crowd trails as they train, Ellefson.

“We’ve learned a lot since last year. We’ve learned how to be more efficient with our training,” Ellefson said. “We learned different strategies for how to group, whether how fast you are or where you live. We don’t have 70 young people on the trail at one time; we’re all spread out.”

TMHS has also been training diligently, Shryock said.

“It was good. We didn’t have a ton of runners- different runners would show up on different days- but we’d go on different trails, mostly around the Valley,” Shryock said. “We do have returning juniors and seniors. We already have our captains. The captains last year, they were juniors.”

A good summer of weather has allowed both teams to train diligently, even as Juneau’s rains loom. Rain is just part of life for XC runners, Shryock said.

“It’s kind of what you do here in Juneau,” Shryock said.

One fact of life residents can affect is the COVID rate around the state, which Ellefson hopes will allow teams to travel.

“We hope we don’t have to change to not competing and traveling. Juneau’s done so well,” Ellefson said. “We want to get these kids competing against other teams. Intersquad is great, but there’s nothing like competing against other schools. There’s a lot of red places in the state right now.”

Captains Marina Lloyd, McKenna McNutt, and Skylar Tuckwood will be leading a strong JDHS women’s team with a hard core of sophomores and returning seniors, Knutson-Lombardo said. Five of the boy’s varsity are returning as well, led by captains Kyle Dusenberry, Aubrey Hekkers and Sam Holst.

“If we can have two robust and competitive cross country teams in our community, it’s very exciting for us,” Ellefson said. “That translates to a healthier community.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or

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