By Craig Giammona
Courtesy Daily Sitka Sentinel
Mt. Edgecumbe High School cross country coach Josh Arnold never puts too much stock in the results of the first race of the season.
The meet usually rolls around before the Edgecumbe students have been on campus for a full week, and Arnold typically doesn't race his full team.
``My whole goal, and I tell this runners this, it's just a really hard practice,'' Arnold said recently, as the Braves and Lady Braves gathered for an afternoon run. ``I was pleased with how they did with one week of team conditioning.''
Arnold said the Edgecumbe runners are supposed to train during the summer, when they are scattered in hometowns across this vast state. Some did, some didn't, Arnold said.
``It's really easy to tell once the running shoes are tight,'' Arnold said.
The late start to the fall sports season is a fact of life for the Edgecumbe cross country team -- it affects volleyball too, but coach Rich Calkins has until November to get his squad in postseason form each year. The cross country season is fast and furious in Alaska, lasting just over a month.
``We're a little behind the eight ball,'' Arnold said. ``That's the Edgecumbe way in cross country.''
The flip side of the late start is that Edgecumbe teams have the potential to peak at the right time, when the Region V hits in late September. Cross country and track coaches obsess over getting their athletes in prime form at just the right moment, but Arnold doesn't have much choice. In fact, he said he'd like to see the cross country season extended by a week, to give him a little more time to get his runners into shape.
The 2010 Southeast meet is being hosted by Sitka High at the Sitka National Historical Park Sept. 25. Technically a SHS home meet, Arnold said the Braves and Lady Braves will also feel right at home on the tree-lined trails of Totem Park. Not having to travel and wait around in airports or ferry terminals will be a boost for the Japonski squads, as it will for the Wolves and Lady Wolves, Arnold said.
``Spending the night in our own beds, eating regular food -- it's an advantage for us,'' Arnold said.
And while he was reluctant to make predictions about how his teams might fare this season, he acknowledged the Braves have a good shot to make a return trip to the state meet.
``We might be all right,'' Anrold said, when asked about the Edgecumbe's early season results.
The Braves are led led by captain Teddy Payenna, a senior from Nome. Twin brothers Matt and Jesse Rogers, seniors from Dillingham, have joined Payenna to form a very strong top three for the Braves. But Arnold it was tough to predict how the season will play out.
``It's way too early to tell,'' Arnold said. ``(But) if we can pull out a fourth and fifth runner, we could be pretty good.''
He added: ``We have a lot of work to do.''
Vance Gregory (10th grade, Galena) and Jordan Johnson, a senior captain from Kotlik, were the fourth and fifth finishers for the Braves at the first meet of the year. Arnold also said he has high hopes for Keane Moore, a freshman from Nome and Rudy Waska, a junior from Emmonak.
The Braves slipped into the state meet last year, nipping Skagway for the third and final state berth out of Southeast. In past years, only two 3A teams from the 1A-2A-3A Southeast race were granted trips north for state. But in 2009, the Braves took advantage of the third bid, and finished 8th at state.
Payenna ran for his hometown Nome Nanooks last year, helping Nome-Beltz to third place at state. He was third in a time of 16:53, beating Sitka High's Niko Friedman by six seconds.
A pair of Grace Christian runners, both seniors in 2009, took the top spots at last year's state meet, leaving Payenna and Friedman, now a junior, as the top two returning runners in 3A. Payenna, who ran at Edgecumbe his freshman and sophomore years, has returned for his senior season.
Matt and Jesse Rogers are also back at Edgecumbe after spending a year in their hometown. Both spent their first two years of high school on Japonski Island, then stayed at Dillingham last year. They are both top wrestlers and helped the Wolverines win a state title in 2009. Jesse was a state champion at 119 pounds, while Matt took sixth at 135.
The battle between the Mt. Edgecumbe and Sitka High boys heated up almost as soon as the Wolves dropped down to 3A. The local teams spent the 2008 season swapping positions, with the Braves edging the Wolves at the Region V meet that year. The Braves ended up fourth at state, while SHS was sixth.
The Lady Braves are captained this year by Brandi Hale, a junior from Hooper Bay, and Clara McConnell, a junior from Kotzebue. Hale qualified for the 2008 state meet as an individual, but was nursing injuries last year and did not reach top form. McConnell was the top finisher for the Lady Braves last month in Ketchikan, finishing 51st in a time of 26:53. Krystle Lincoln (12th grade, Bethel), Caitlin Rapoza (12th grade, Bethel), Cing Pavilla (10th grade, Bethel), Charlene White (12th grade, Eek) and Michelle Slwooko (11th grade, Gambell) also competed for the Lady Braves at the first meet of the season.
Arnold said the Lady Braves will attempt to crack the top 3 at the Region V meet. He added that, at the very least, he has a few individuals who should be in the mix to earn trips to state.
The Braves and Lady Braves will spend the next few weeks traveling to meets around the region before returning home Sept. 25 for the Region V meet. Paul Fitzgibbon is Arnold's assistant coach this season.