Thunder Mountain’s Hannah Deer, front, leads Sally Thompson to the finish line during the Douglas Island Mini-Meet at Savikko Park on Saturday, August 18. Deer and Thompson will anchor the TMHS girls cross country running team this season under new head coach Sandi Pahlke. (Nolin Ainsworth | Juneau Empire)

Thunder Mountain’s Hannah Deer, front, leads Sally Thompson to the finish line during the Douglas Island Mini-Meet at Savikko Park on Saturday, August 18. Deer and Thompson will anchor the TMHS girls cross country running team this season under new head coach Sandi Pahlke. (Nolin Ainsworth | Juneau Empire)

Season preview: Young runners bring new energy to Falcons

There’s a scarcity of upperclassmen on the Thunder Mountain High School cross country team this season.

Luckily, for captain Sally Thompson, one of the Falcons’ five seniors, she has no qualms hanging around freshmen.

“It’s been awesome having so many younger kids because they are all so excited and they contribute a lot of energy to the team,” Thompson said. “That’s been good for me, too, because I’m excited about running again. Everything feels new, and that has been really nice.”

The influx of 10 freshmen isn’t the only change to this year’s team: Sandi Pahlke takes over for Scott May as the head coach. Pahlke has assisted May ever since the program launched in 2009 with just 10 kids. Pahlke said May’s attention to detail, especially when it comes to analyzing results, is one of the skills she learned from him.

“He was able to really keep into perspective the kids that wanted to be really competitive as well as the kids that are training maybe for a different sport,” Pahlke said. “Their goals mattered just as much as the goals of Maddie Hall and Erin Wallace and some of our boys that were there … to place really well at state.”

The team graduated nine seniors last year, including Wallace, who qualified for the state meet for four consecutive years. That leaves junior Reece Bleakley and sophomore Hannah Deer as the only two returners that ran on the big stage last season. Only the top-10 region finishers not on the winning team receive an at-large bid to the state meet.

Thompson qualified for state her first season as a sophomore but missed out by four seconds from going last year. Sportsmanship, Thompson said, is one of the values she’s trying to pass along to her younger peers: “While competition is important, also making sure we have a good balance of enjoying ourselves and the sport,” she said.

Deer seems to have already gotten that message.

“With running, it’s just cool to improve on your own abilities and it is a team sport as much as it is a personal sport so you get to push yourself while also encouraging your teammates,” she said.

The girls team includes a strong freshmen group in Abigail Booton and Kiah Dihle.

Junior Tucker Kelly is the top boys runner for the Falcons. He’s shown great improvement in just two meets this season. Kelly finished in fifth overall both the Douglas Island Mini-Meet and Sitka Invitational. Kelly’s 17:07 in the Sitka Invite is already one of the fastest times ever run by a Falcon.

He will join senior Riley Sikes as a leader for the deep freshmen class, which is already off to a hot start. The freshmen duo of Isaiah Unzicker and Tommy Bowman both crossed the finish line in under 21 minutes in Saturday’s Sitka Invitational. Sikes was the No. 3 Falcons runner to the finish line with a time of 19:57.

“I like being around all the younger kids,” Sikes said. “It’s fun, you get to know people and teach them a couple things. Even not just for cross country, but high school (as well).”

• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.

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