Juneau-Douglas began its second straight baseball season with a new manager calling the shots, and the defending 4A state champion Crimson Bears would love to see a similar end result.
JDHS is back with a brand-new look for the 2011 season after losing eight starters, and the Crimson Bears have turned the page on the undefeated in-state title run from 2010.
Gone is 2010 Gatorade Alaska Baseball Player of the Year Dylan Baker and teammate Aaron Cohen, who helped power the 2010 team to a record 37 home runs in 24 regular season games. Baker also was the Bears’ ace on the hill.
Sheldon Winters is the new manager after Steve Bavard retired after just one season with the varsity baseball team.
Winters said there are pros and cons to being the defending champs.
“They are the defending state champions so the advantage is they’ve been there and they know what it takes to get the job done. Sometimes, there’s a tendency to think that it might be their right (to get back), but I think they’ve accepted that was last year and this is this year,” he said. “It’s a brand-new set of kids and we only have one guy back who was in the starting lineup throughout the season.
“We lost Aaron Cohen, who has the all-time high school state record for career home runs, and we lost Dylan Baker, the
Gatorade Player of the Year. We definitely lost a lot. Last year’s team was an offensive and defensive juggernaut — probably if not the, then one of the best teams ever in Alaska high school baseball.”
Senior southpaw Miles Bedford will take Baker’s spot as the Bears’ ace after sitting out last year with a broken collarbone. Bedford said it’s tough to come back as the returning champs, especially with such big shoes to fill.
“There are a lot of expectations and you have a lot of eyes on you. It’s especially hard having not played last year, and it will be tough to fill those shoes,” he said. “But I think the team, as a whole, will be just fine. We have seniors stepping up and taking command, and we have some younger guns that are filling in with bigger shoes than anyone expected.”
JDHS starts in-state play at 2 p.m. Friday against South in Sitka. The Bears open with the Wolverines again at 2:30 p.m. Saturday before taking on host Sitka at 5 p.m.
JDHS has a leg up on most of its competition after the Bears took their yearly trip to Arizona, finishing 1-2-1 in the 2011 Coach Bob National Invitational in Phoenix, which featured 64 teams from all over the country.
“We played some tough teams and came out of it with this: If we stay focused and execute, we can play with anybody,” Winters said. “We’re not good enough to have a bad day, so we have to stay focused.
“I think we came out of there realizing we have the potential to be a very, very good team.”
Senior infielder Brendan Daugherty said JDHS was able to put up a lot of runs on the trip.
“We scored about eight runs a game, but we need to work on our defense,” he said. “But that’s expected because it was our first time out on the field.”
Winters said junior shortstop Ibesate, the lone returning starter in the field, led off in Arizona, followed by sophomore Jackson Lehnhart, senior James San Miguel third and senor Justin Brooks batting cleanup. Junior Ryan Kelly can hit fifth or sixth, with several possibilities at the bottom of the lineup.
“We’ll have to be flexible (with the lineup),” Winters said. “We’ve got a lot of speed and we’ll use it when we need it. We’re going to have all our options available and we just have to hit. “It took nine runs to win the state championship game last year so it’s all about hitting at this level, in my opinion.”
Joining Bedford on the mound is San Miguel in the No. 2 spot.
“He pitched a lot as a sophomore but not so much last year,” Winters said. “Pitching, those two guys are the mainstays and after that, we’re waiting to see who steps up.”
Ibesate and Alex Campbell, both seniors, and junior Josh Magnuson will each get a look to break in the rotation at the Nos. 3 and 4 spots, while senior Eric Fagerstrom can throw in relief. San Miguel also is the Bears’ starter behind the plate.
Backing the staff up the middle is Ibesate at short, and sophomores Kyle Gould and Tal Norvell will both get a look at second. Winters said Daugherty can play third, second and short, but first base is the biggest hole after Damon Ludwig didn’t return to the team this year.
“Lance will be our starter at short and he’s got to have the best range in the state. He’s fantastic,” Winters said. “Brendan Daugherty has great hands and can play anywhere ... and Kyle Gould and Tal Norvell are both looking really good at second.
“I guess the unanswered question on defense is on the corners, and we’re going to try different things and see how it works,” he continued. “Someone’s going to have to step up.”
Winters said the early four-man rotation of Fagerstrom, Brooks, Campbell and Lehnhart might give the Bears the fastest outfield in the state.
“We have tremendous speed. I’m almost certain those guys could win a 4-by-400 relay against the track team,” Winters chuckled. “They are just so darn fast and athletic out there.”
Bedford said Sitka, Dimond and West are the teams to beat this year, but you can’t count Ketchikan out.
“Sitka’s always good. They’re one of those teams that you always have to be thinking about or they’re going to come up and beat you,” he said. “Ketchikan’s a team you can never count out, and the Southeast is the strongest. Ketchikan is known for sneaking up in there. Dimond, West, they’ll be powerful.
“Besides us, Sitka and Dimond will be the other powerhouses.”
Bedford said the team is excited about seeing Sitka so early in the season.
“It’s going to set the tone for the whole season,” he said. “Who comes out strongest and shows the most mental grit is really the team that could roll through Southeast and eventually state.
“Opening weekend is huge.”
All in all, Winters said there are still a lot of questions to be answered at such an early juncture.
“We have a lot of people that have played baseball for a long, long time, but we don’t have a lot of day-in, day-out varsity experience,” he said. “We obviously lost a lot of the offense from last year, but went to Arizona and were really pleased with the way we hit down there.”
Daugherty said this team will look quite a bit different, but he expects good things.
“We’re coming off a great year but this team’s a lot different. We don’t have quite the power, so we’ll look to play a lot of small ball,” he said. “We’ll probably have some lower-scoring games and we’ll have to play tight defense. I think we’re going to hit for a good average this year, and with Miles and James, we should have a good 1-2 combo pitching.”
Winters said he’s eager to see this year’s bunch to make its own mark.
“These kids, this is their time. Most of these seniors, they got some playing time but they played roles on a great team,” he said. “Now it’s their turn to step up and win their state championship or see what they can do. And they’re really excited about it.”