By STAN BUSH
In the late summer and early fall of 2001 the Skagway Panthers cross-country team raced at the highest level the state has to offer. It was the first time in nine years the entire team was able to compete at such a high level. Here is their story over the two-week period from the Region V meet to the State Championship in Palmer, Alaska.
Friday, September 21
The rain pours down on a gloomy Sitka day. We, the Skagway Cross Country team have been in town no more then two hours and are already anxious for the start of tomorrows race. Coach Gary Trozzo shows us the course and has us run the 3.1 mile trail through Totem Park. Its only a brisk run but the body language of the team looks positive. Russell Bush calmly coaches Kyle Mulvihill on their strategy for the Region Championship. Kyle concurs, but is obviously not as interested as Russ wants him to be, Kyle would rather just run it than talk about it.
While those two went over their plan, John McCluskey, Jeremy Kilburn, Garrett Henry, and I jog around the course with them, rarely talking about the game plan. The four of us already know what needs to be done. When its all said and done the four of us all expect Russ and Kyle to make it to State, however if we intend on going as a team we all need to run like the wind as closely to each other as possible.
In order to get to State we need two top 10 finishers and three in the top 20.
That night the teams went for the traditional night-before meal. These sessions are primarily spent carbo-loading for the upcoming race. However, for a half hour the team was on a scavenger hunt searching for the hidden restaurant. Shockley, who claimed to know Sitka like the back of his hand had gotten the team thoroughly lost on the winding roads of Baranof Island. The schools vans passed the restaurant twice as it was actually an old run-down gas station without a properly painted sign.
Chris Shockley trudges up the final hill in loop one of the State Championship.
Back at the hotel, Trozzo got us together for what could be one of our last meetings of the year. The speech was short and spirited and coach Trozzo spoke like he had been preparing to say it for two months.
Weve got a great chance tomorrow, Trozzo said We can go to State!
It was all we needed to hear. It was one of those speeches that could get an army to charge into no-mans land. After we break a team huddle, coach went over to Chris Shockley and thanked him for running the past two years and then thanked me for four years as a varsity runner.
Shockley and Garrett decide to watch a movie while the rest of the team opted for some needed sleep. Each of us is sleeping with a set of head phones on listening to some form of inspirational music. Even over my own headset I could hear Russell blasting Eye of the Tiger to get him mentally prepared.
September 22 - Southeast race day
At 8 oclock we began our pre-race meals. These are usually small meals consisting of nothing more than bagels, fruit, protein bars, and Gatorade. Its not exactly a very delectable meal but it gets the job done. The team is beginning to get as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room of rocking chairs. The only way to shake it seems to be to listen to our music and stretch for the race still three hours and 45 minutes away.
It is no longer raining or windy, but the skies are still extremely overcast and the weather is far from warm. At 11 a.m. the girls 1A-2A-3A race gets underway. This is the largest group of runners the region has had all year. Angoon enters two girls that have not run all season, and Wrangell and Craig use girls from their volleyball programs to form teams. Our girls fall behind early and struggle to make up spots. Most of the mens team is stationed at the chute, stretching and warming up while waiting for the runners.
Kyle Mulvihill gets in a pre-race stretch in before the state race.
Kakes Chrissy Morris is first across the line, then we begin to count the trailing runners. Crystal Ketterman is 12th coming into the home stretch she gave her strongest final kick of the season, but the gap between her and 10th is too large and she neither gained nor lost a position. The rest of the team begins to trickle in, however there are too many places to make up and our girls were out of contention.
When the last girl crossed the finish line we lined up for our race. After a short briefing of the race rules, we were off. It seemed as if most of the racers had just watched Prefontaine. Russ and Kyle went off and did their thing near the front of the pack, while John and I stuck back and started to go to work. Kilburn went out really fast and had a 12-pace lead on the two of us going across Indian River. At that bridge coach Trozzo was counting spots. When he saw where we were, John and I thought that he was going to have a stroke. His face was as red as a fire engine and veins looked like they were going to pop out of his skin. I quickly asked John jokingly, Whats his problem? Then we decided to make our move weaving through runners left and right. McCluskey pulled ahead and broke through the pack.
At the beginning of the season I was worried that I wouldnt even make top seven, said McCluskey. Then I learned that I was fast, really fast and an important member of the team.
When I crossed the finish line I ran over to see how Russ had done. He had taken the region title followed immediately by Kyle, John took 11th, missing top ten by one second, but it was then evident that we were headed to State. It was the first time we had taken the region since 1992.
That same night the team loaded back onto the crowded confines of the Fairweather Express catamaran. With Skagway were the likes of the Juneau and Haines volleyball teams along with Haines cross country team.
These trips are great for strengthening the bond between friends and teammates, said Garrett. You really get to learn a lot about people.
SHS team members celebrate with Coach 'Trozz" after winning the region title in Sitka.
Back in Skagway, we try to get some work in with our spikes for the upcoming state meet. We spend our real work day running a section of the course doing hill sprints. As our feet slap the hard dirt it is not uncommon for us to step on a large rock sending shooting pain through our legs. By the time our practices are over our calves are sorer then they have been all year, and some of us have bruises across the bridges of our feet. However the pain doesnt affect the morale of the team. Everyone is too excited about the State Championship to worry about something like our health.
The team heads up to Palmer to get our first glance at the course. The course is amazingly deceptive. Two hills that look fairly small feel monstrous. The sun blazes through a forest of naked trees making it almost impossible to focus on the trail, and the chilly air keeps everyone in their warm-up clothes. The course consists of three small loops, but with as many S turns as there are, it makes the course feel longer than its actual length. The team follows the same pattern that we did in Sitka, it worked before so why not do it again. Afterwards several members of the team are lining up on the blocks of Palmers track to race 100 meters.
Getting to run on that track field, said Henry who considers himself somewhat of an unproved track star. That was a special thing!
Back in Anchorage most of the team was awestruck by the number of people they saw in the Last Frontiers largest city, especially those of the opposite sex.
Jeremy Kilburn and John McCluskey try to shield their eyes from the sun before the race at Palmer.
It was good to see a new variety of women, Kilburn said. Seein them (women) Alaska-wide.
The night before the race we watch West play Dimond at Anchorage Football Stadium. Dimond gives West a real shellacking, 47-0. Most of the team didnt even notice. They were mostly busy goofing off and messing with each other. Shockley was actively trying to gross people out and was basically succeeding.
At half-time, we went to Romanos, an Italian restaurant where we went for our final carbo-loading session of the season. Everyone seemed in high spirits, but it was evident we were starting to get very nervous. The underclassmen looked like they were trying to calm their nerves by speaking some sort of gibberish to each other. Kilburn seemingly thought it was more soothing to stare at the Romanos hostess.
I was glad to see that everyone was nervous, its a very important race said Trozzo. State is special and then its over in BOOM 20 minutes.
September 29 - State Race Day
At 7:15 AM the buzzer on the hotel rooms nightstand sounds. Groggily, Shockley slams his hand on top of the clock, silencing the ear-piercing noise. He and Garrett will end up sleeping for another 2 1/2 hours. The rest of the team is just barely crawling out of bed. Stretching, eating, and watching TV are the only things that happen for the next 45 minutes.
Stan and Russell Bush take an early stretch near the finish line.
There is not a cloud in the sky. However that didnt mean it would be hot, in fact the air was chilly enough to keep the entire team in their warm-ups.
At noon the girls race gets underway, with nearly 2,000 people attending the event, lining the course and following the racers progress. In the cold air it is hard to break a sweat so the warming up was taking longer than normal.
Kyle was frantically pacing up and down the field trying to get warmed up, but at the time he was more worried that his father would not show up. As soon as he did, Mulvihills face lit up like a Christmas tree and he was really relaxed for the duration of the day. Kyles family joined the rest of the Skagway fans who had taken the trip up to see the race.
After the final girl finished, our race was on the verge of starting. Trozzo huddled up the team and told us to be proud of how we run.
After the huddle break we were finally lined up in the starting blocks. After review of the rules, an echoing gun shot sounded, signaling the start of the race. Rapidly the large pack of runners moved from a practice football field to the dusty Mike Janecek Trails. The leaders thundered off in a cloud of dust while the rest of us jockeyed for position in the middle of the heap.
The airborne dirt worked like microscopic pieces of shrapnel to many runners who dropped back complaining of dehydration and mud in their eyes so to speak.
Skagway fans Miranda Collecchi and Marlene McCluskey pose for a picture at the Palmer course.
Russell stayed around 15th place during much of the race waiting for the correct time to make his move. McCluskey started to move up in the pack after the first loop and would eventually finish very respectably in 48th. Kyle landed himself in 22nd, myself in 65th, Garrett in 72nd, Jeremy in 79th, and Shockley finished in 96th out of 101 runners total.
With less then 300 yards left Russell had gotten himself less than a strides length away from 10th place. When he tried to accelerate through the last stretch, so too did Ryan Wicker of Nikiski. Wicker would then outsprint Russell and finish only three seconds ahead of him. Russell was upset that he did not break into the top 10, but none of his supporters were. He had ran absolutely as hard as he possibly could have and really had no reason to be dejected by his performance.
Russell Bush sprints hard into the finish chute at the State Championship.
After all the races an awards ceremony was held in the Palmer High School gym. There we learned that because of a tie-breaking performance by Jeremy Kilburn, we had finished in fourth place, the highest a Southeast team had done at State since 1987 when Skagway won State.
On the way back to Anchorage the team picked up where they had left off, messing around with each other, calling each other names, and speaking basic forms of nonsense and gibberish.
I, ya know, enjoyed hangin with the guys and kinda getting in trouble, Kilburn said. It was pretty much all fun.
After the season Coach Trozzo was very pleased with both his boys and girls team performance.
I think that we did excellent, Trozzo said. I was very, very happy. I knew it was going to be tough, but thought that we could get third or fourth and we did get fourth.
Trozzo also had a bright outlook on the teams future for the upcoming X-C season.
I think that the team has an excellent shot at repeating as region champs, Trozzo said. I also think that Crystal and Candi Ketterman have a shot at breaking the top 10.
If anything Trozzo has time to get the new team ready for the grueling cross country season. Next season starts in about 290 days.
Photos by John and Veronica Bush