After winning three of the last four large schools softball state championships, Juneau-Douglas returns perhaps its deepest, most complete roster ever from top to bottom.
The Crimson Bears, who return 15 seniors, begin defense of their 2010 state crown in a doubleheader starting at 5 p.m. today against Sitka, and then Ketchikan at 7 p.m. in the nightcap at Melvin Park.
Manager Dave Massey, the National Fastpitch Coaches Association 2010 West Region Coach of the Year, said he’s never had the luxury of having so much talent.
“It’s by far the deepest team we’ve had. We’ve had strong teams before, but I don’t think we’ve had this depth of talent,” he said. “I’ve never had that many seniors on a roster before, so it will be an interesting juggling act trying to figure out what to do with all those girls. It will be fun and I think we’ll have a really good team.
“We ought to have a really good shot to compete for another state championship.”
JDHS lost both Brittany Fenumiai, the two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Alaska, and Krista Barril to graduation, but senior Jennifer Nelson returns to take over as the Bears’ ace in the circle. Nelson pitched her way on to the All-Tournament team last year after throwing a complete-game shutout to East Anchorage in the state championship game. JDHS won its seventh state title 11-0.
“Jenni was good enough to pitch a shutout in the state championship game, so that’s a pretty good place to start,” Massey said of his starting rotation. “We feel very fortunate to have her back to lead the staff.”
Backing up Nelson is sophomore Malin Murray, junior Ashley Kikendall, who returns after missing last season due to injury, and freshman Kayla Balovich could see time.
“I know there’s a lot of pressure on me but there are others who will try their best, and they’ll definitely be able to step up,” Nelson said of the staff. “It’s not just going to be me.”
“I think we’ll do fine,” Massey added. “We ought to be able to get some runs to support whomever’s pitching. We’ll play good, solid defense and we’ll be competitive.”
Nelson said she hopes to springboard off her performance in the 2010 state tournament, but added that the team has turned the page to a new season and the girls are done thinking about last year.
“Kaci (Hansen) and I called the right pitches and it gives me confidence for this year,” she said. “But that was last year, this is this year.”
Hansen, a senior mainstay, returns behind the plate as one of only two catchers to call her own pitches for Massey.
Senior Haley Pusich and Kikendall will both see time at first base, and Nelson will play second when she isn’t pitching with Megan Wright as the other starter. Senior Kalea Chapman returns at short stop, and classmate Gabi Saldivar is back at third with Chelsea Flint as back up.
Southpaw slugger Taylor Larson — the Bears’ other state All-Tournament Team returnee in left field — Kyelisa Graham, Peyton Millay, Wright and Murray will see the majority of time in the outfield. Massey said sophomore Rachel Doogan will play a utility role for the Bears, and he can plug her into any position on the field.
“Then we have a whole bunch of freshmen who will play backup roles in various positions for us,” Massey added.
The lineup isn’t quite set yet but replacing Fenumiai’s monster bat will be the Bears’ biggest challenge, though Massey thinks this group is up to it.
“We had five girls hit home runs during the state tournament last year. Three of them are back,” he said. “We had one freshman hit a home run in a JV game last weekend, so we’ll still have a fair amount of power this year.
“We’ll have a little more short game than we’ve had in the past, but we expect to put pressure on you top to bottom,” he continued. “We think we have hitters at every position in the lineup, and that’s JD softball. Softball is having hitters everywhere and it’s hard to identify where the top or bottom of our lineup is.”
Larson said the girls’ bats have come alive of late during practice, and hitting will be a team strength.
“I think we’re going to do a pretty good job (offensively),” she said. “Everybody’s been hitting a lot of line drives during practice, which could lead to home runs. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace (Brittany) because she was such an outstanding hitter, but we’re doing a good job of stepping up.”
Tonight’s season-opening doubleheader also is the Bears’ second annual pink out game, where they will don pink jerseys to raise awareness in the battle against breast cancer.
“We want to highlight our support of Cancer Connection, and we’ll be selling lemonade to support children’s cancer with the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. That’s a national program we got involved in down in Arizona,” Massey said. “We’ll be out here wearing our pink proudly in support of those two cancer programs.”
Larson said the girls are ready for game action, and they’re taking a quietly confident approach to the season.
“We don’t want to come in too cocky or confident, but we are strong,” she said. “We’re open-minded and supporting each other, and we’re ready to finally play some games.”