By Craig Giammona
Courtesy Daily Sitka Sentinel
Mt. Edgecumbe High coach Josh Arnold is now in his eighth season leading the cross country program on Japonski Island. The last three years, the Braves have been a staple at the state meet, with a pair of fourth-place finishes up north to go with a 2008 Region V title.
But Arnold has never had a girls qualify for the 3A state championships, and with just about a month to go before the big race at Bartlett High in Anchorage the MEHS coach is setting a high bar for the group of female harriers he has on the roster.
“It looks to me like the girls team will shape up,” Arnold said this week, as his squad of nearly 60 runners piled into buses for the trip across the O’Connell Bridge to Sitka National Historical Park, where an afternoon time trial awaited the Braves and Lady Braves. “I’m really confident that when we get these girls in shape they’ll be able to compete with anybody in Southeast.”
So can both MEHS teams make state this year, finishing among the top three teams at the 3A Southeast meet?
Arnold paused a second to think.
“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “I’m not going to predict Southeast champs right now, Sitka is going to be tough to beat. But by the end of the season we’ll be able to compete.”
Arnold clearly likes the Lady Braves’ chances, but added “we have more work to do on the boys side.”
Arnold’s teams are always a little behind when the Alaska cross country season opens. Most teams start practice in early August, but Arnold’s runners don’t come to Japonski Island until the season is about to start.
Most Edgecumbe runners claim to have trained over the summer, but Arnold said the results at the first few practices indicated otherwise.
And with the Region V meet scheduled for Sept. 24, there is little time to spare. Arnold said each practice is important, and he’s already seeing gains as this weekend race in Wrangell approaches.
“So far, we have some fantastic speed,” he said.
Arnold took a group of 13 runners to the Capital City Invitational in Juneau Aug. 27, but some of his top female athletes were not eligible for the opening-season race, which was held less than a week after Edgecumbe students came to campus. The Lady Braves finished in last place, but Arnold noticed his senior captains convening an impromptu team meeting shortly after the race concluded.
To Arnold, it was a sign he has some leadership to go with a strong crop of young runners.
Arnold has his top three girls back from a team that took fifth at the 2010 Region V meet and missed qualifying for state by 16 points.
Scarlett Beaver, of Kotzebue, was Edgecumbe’s best runner last year and qualified for state as an individual in her freshman season, becoming only the second female runner to earn a state berth during Arnold’s tenure. The first was Brandi Hale, who is now a senior captain for the Lady Braves, along with Clara McConnell.
Both Hale, from Hooper Bay, and McConnell, another Kotzebue runner, are in their fourth season with Arnold.
Deidre Creed, a sophomore from Kotzebue, just missed making state last year despite twisting her ankle during the regional meet, and will join Beaver at the top of the pack this year, Arnold said.
Crystal McNeilly and RaeAnn Patkotak, a pair of sophomores, from Pilot Station and Barrow, respectively, also appear poised to be regular members of the MEHS varsity, Arnold said.
Then there’s Jillian Shade (Dillingham) and Sarah Freese (Fairbanks) a pair of juniors new to the team who have impressed Arnold so far.
The early favorites in Southeast would appear to be the Sitka High Lady Wolves, who were second overall at the Southeast meet in Juneau last weekend. Coach Shasta Smith has only seven runners, but can still field a formidable top five as the SHS girls look for a fourth straight Region V title.
The MEHS boys won a 3A Region V title in 2008, beating out Sitka, and were second in the region and fourth at state in 2010. But graduation hurt Arnold’s squad, with the Rogers twins and 2010 Region V champ Teddy Payenna now gone from MEHS. In fact, only one runner from the varsity squad that was second in Southeast last year will run for Arnold this weekend.
Junior Michael Matthew, from Quinhagak, is Arnold’s top returner and will serve as the team’s captain. Two runners who have shown encouraging signs so far this season, freshman Lukas Zachar and senior Daniel Adams, will not run this weekend. Adams was Edgecumbe’s top runner in Juneau this weekend, but won’t travel this week because he’s under the weather, Arnold said.
Still, the Wrangell race will give Arnold a look at Cody Sherman, a senior basketball player who is out for cross country this season, as well as Joseph Friday (9th grade, Chevak), Rudy Waska (12th grade, Emmonak), Justin Andrew (12th grade, Kwethluk), Nicholas Bouker (10th grade, Bethel) and Nelson Kanuk (11th grade, Kipnuk).
Arnold acknowledged that he wasn’t quite sure who would emerge to lead the Braves, but is confident that he has some speed on the roster.
“It’s the same gig every year,” Arnold said. “I never know what’s coming. The first day of school can be like Christmas morning. This year, Santa brought me some good runners.”
He added: “I’m really enjoying watching these boys. We’re going to have a boys team that will be competitive in Southeast.”
Mt. Edgecumbe will host a cross country meet Sept. 16 at Sitka National Historical Park. Arnold’s assistant coach is Paul FitzGibbon. He also gets help from volunteers Emily Routon and Jack Davis.
The 2011 Mt. Edgecumbe Cross Country team gathers for a photo at the school's Japonski Island campus. The Braves and Lady Braves both hope to qualify for the 3A state championships this year. (Photo by James Poulson, Daily Sitka Sentinel)