By Matias Saari

West Valley's Courtney Kisner takes command of the lead from Juneau's Leah Francis during Saturday's ASAA/First National Bank Cross Country Running Championships at the Michael Janecek Trails at Palmer High School.

Photo by ROBERT DeBERRY/Frontiersman

Courtney Kisner passes Leah Francis to take command in girls' 4A

PALMER — The West Valley Wolfpack girls executed to perfection their plan for a cross country championship — and added an exclamation point with Courtney Kisner’s improbable come-from-behind victory.

“We really wanted to show what we could do,” said senior Marisa Rorabaugh, who called Saturday’s Class 4A championship on the Mike Janecek Trails more exciting for her than West Valley’s last title three years ago. The team now has 10 girls championships.

The Wolfpack scored 63 points to edge runner-up South Anchorage by 11 points. Making that possible were three runners — Kisner in first, Rorabaugh in fifth and Hannah Boyer in 10th — who placed ahead of the Wolverines’ fastest person, and two others — Eliza Rorabaugh in 28th and Molly Callahan in 31st — who passed South Anchorage’s fifth and sixth runners late in the race.

“It feels really cool to have West Valley be really good again,” said Callahan, who as a middle schooler witnessed the Wolfpack’s three-peat from 2004-06.

The big individual story, however, was Kisner catching three-time defending champion Leah Francis of Juneau on the third and final lap.

Kisner had started the 5-kilometer race in fifth place and once she got ahead stayed there to finish on the Palmer High School football field in 18 minutes, 58.4 seconds. A hard-charging Ivy O’Guinn of Skyview ran out of real estate and placed runner-up 1.7 seconds later.

“I don’t know,” Kisner said, when asked how a runner who wasn’t fast enough to compete at the state meet a year ago could suddenly be a state champion. “I didn’t even see it coming. I wasn’t expecting it at all.”

A fading Francis — who skipped the Southeast Regional last week due to sickness and wasn’t able to practice all week — didn’t see Kisner coming either. In her bid to become just the third prep runner in history to win four straight titles, Francis opened up a huge lead on the second lap.

“I could see her (on the third lap). I wasn’t expecting to pass her. I just wanted to gain a little bit (of ground),” Kisner said.

But, sensing her opportunity, Kisner reeled Francis in and charged past her.

“I guess the adrenaline kicked in and I just surged,” said Kisner, a junior.

Things got drastically worse for Francis, as she became disoriented and briefly lost the trail before being guided back onto it. An ashen-faced Francis plummeted all the way to 21st in 19:53, then collapsed not far from the finish line.

Francis was tended to by medical personnel for about 45 minutes and was taken to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center for observation, Juneau coach Guy Thibodeau said. “She’s doing better now,” Thibodeau said after the awards ceremony about an hour later.

Marisa Rorabaugh, after getting boxed in behind a pack early on, methodically worked her way toward the front with Boyer. She also took inspiration in Kisner’s rally.

“What actually did it for me was when in the middle of the third lap I heard people yelling ‘Courtney’s in first!’ and I was like ‘I can do this,’” Rorabaugh said.

After placing fifth at the state meet in 2008, West Valley was hardly a favorite coming into this season but gained confidence after taking second at the Lynx Invitational and by winning the Palmer Invitational on the same course used Saturday.

“We were pretty stunned when we realized what we could do,” Rorabaugh said of the Lynx runner-up result, “and from then on everything kind of picked up and we got more determined.”

Lathrop sophomore Megan Edic was seventh in 19:15 and was among 24 runners who finished within a minute of Kisner in a very competitive field.

In the boys 4A race, Kodiak’s Dylan Anthony emerged from record-holder Trevor Dunbar’s shadow by winning in 15:42, six seconds clear of Service’s Silas Talbot.

Service easily claimed the team championship, with Lathrop seventh and West Valley ninth among 11 teams.

Lathrop’s Pat Nugent was thrilled with ninth place in 16:29.

“It was the worst I’ve ever hurt before in a race,” said Nugent, who along with the rest of the Malemutes spiked his hair and dyed some of it purple. “But it was worth it when I got to the end.”

West Valley freshman Kuba Grzeda achieved his goal of breaking 17 minutes (16:57.7) and placed 18th.

“I don’t think I could have run a better race,” Grzeda said.