‘Go Thunder Bears!’: Juneau cross country teams work together preparing for new season

“Keep your friends close but your enemies closer,” said either Vito Corleone, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli or Petrarch, depending on who you ask. In any case, Juneau’s high school cross country teams are running with the military maxim in preparation for the 2016 season.

Juneau-Douglas High School and Thunder Mountain High School cross country trained together the week before their first meet as part of their “Trials and Tribulations” pre-season event. Falcons and Crimson Bears athletes paired up with the intention of fostering camaraderie and competition in the run up to their first meet in Ketchikan this weekend.

The result? The line between friend and competitor was thoroughly blurred by the time the teams gathered for a cheer at the end of the event, shouting “Go Thunder Bears!”

“There’s competition within our own team and with TM, but we’re all really friends,” JDHS captain Gillian Smith said.

“When you see a JD person, you really want to go and catch up to them,” Falcons girls captain Erin Wallace said after the event. “Our girls really push each other in a positive way.”

Runners teamed with partners from opposing schools, combining times from a 1600-meter run and a two-mile in one event Saturday afternoon, with time trials at Eaglecrest and Sandy Beach on Friday and Saturday morning.

“We want to stair-step into competition speed,” JDHS coach Tristan Knutson-Lombardo said. “We have a lot of younger runners on both teams and sometimes they have nerves before their first meet. Any work we can get in to ease them into competition will help.”

“This event today and yesterday has really helped us, it’s fun to get our there and train with TM and bond as two teams, challenge each other,” JDHS boys co-captain Tim McKenna said.

If splitting into two schools has weakened competition in some Juneau sports, cross country isn’t one of them. Individual sports have suffered less from a lack of stiff competition; TMHS coach Scott May says the roster spots opened by a second program have offered opportunities freshmen and sophomores benefit from as they become juniors and seniors.

“When we just had JDHS, with a student population of 1,500, we had 25 kids coming out for cross country,” May said. “The cool thing about having two schools is now we have 80 to 100 kids running.”

JDHS rosters 15 freshmen this year; TMHS has 10. Some of these athletes are already poised to challenge their team leaders for spots at the state tournament.

TMHS freshman Bradey Beam is one of them. In the 1600-meter leg of Saturday’s relay, Beam led a group of half the combined teams’ rosters, lapping runners and posting a time of 5 minutes, 23 seconds.

Beam led the relay from the start, jumping to a 40-meter lead halfway through the first lap. When asked if this was an ambitious pace for the freshmen, JDHS coach Merry Ellefson simply shook her head as she watched the freshman outpace juniors and seniors.

“I am looking forward to travelling and meeting people,” Beam said of his humble goals for the cross country season. Starting out as a stellar miler, Beam looks poised to meet and then beat people. In addition to cross country, he plans to compete in basketball, soccer and track and field for the Falcons.

TMHS boys team captain Justin Sleppy sees a lot of potential in their budding ranks.

“There are some freshmen on our team that are very fast and I think they are going to have a very, very bright future,” Sleppy said.

Sleppy and co-captain Ricardo Worl are looking to break 18 minutes on their 5K times this season; Sleppy has to shave 10 seconds off his time, Worl needs to shave 50 seconds. The pair’s team goal: Win regions and bring the boys team to state, something the Falcons have yet to accomplish.

A win at regions qualifies a team to bring seven runners as opposed to the maximum three from a non-region champion (Sleppy and Wallace qualified for the state meet last year even though their team didn’t win regions). The Falcons Girls team last won the Southeast region in 2013, finishing 10th at the state meet that year.

“If we really wanted to, I feel like it’s going to be hard but if we really try hard we can beat JD,” Wallace said. “That would be pretty exciting.”

The JDHS boys have won the Southeast region six out of seven times since TMHS opened its doors. The JDHS girls are five of seven during the same time.

On JDHS’ side, they have enough competition within their own ranks to start worrying about those outside.

“The girls team, we have a lot of new freshmen coming in, a lot of them with potential so it’s probably going to be a great year for us,” Smith said. “Even if they’re beating us we want to push them to their full potential.”

The Crimson Bears will look to build on tenth-place finishes at the state meet last season. Their last top-three finish came back in 2009, the year Thunder Mountain opened.

JDHS and TMHS both compete at the same events during the season. Look to the Empire online and in print for results, stories and photos from the cross country season.

All events are 5K runs.

• Contact Sports and Outdoors reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.

2016 cross country schedule:

Aug. 27: at Ketchikan

Sept. 3: at Petersburg

Sept. 9: at Skagway

Sept. 17: Juneau Invite

Sept. 24: Region Meet at Sitka

Oct. 1: State Meet at Bartlett High School, Anchorage

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