The Thunder Mountain High School basketball programs went 0-8 last season against their cross-town rivals from Juneau-Douglas, but their opponent’s graduations and their own maturity seem to play into evening out the competition level this season.
The Juneau-Douglas High School teams are not overlooking their up and coming neighbors, but are buying into two new coaches with old philosophies of basketball wisdom.
The Falcons will host both the girls and boys teams on Friday and the Crimson Bears will return the favor on Saturday.
“Fans will see a brand new squad in a way,” Falcons head coach Tanya Nizich said. “The same faces but, overall, everybody has really come together over the last few years and fans will see some really hard workers out there and a competitive game.”
The TMHS girls graduated Janie White and lost Mellissa Fisher to Mt. Edgecumbe, but return an entire roster of competitors.
Shale Kibby, Kinsey Marshall, Makayla Pierce, Ashley Young, Jonelle Staveland and Ashley Young have the height needed to compete with a traditionally physical JDHS roster. Staveland can also move to the wing, where she led the team in three-pointers last season.
“We have been working hard and running a lot so hopefully we won’t get too tired our first set of games,” “I think this first set of games are very important. They set the stage as how we have been practicing and if we need to make any changes. It gives us a preview on what needs to be done for the rest of the season. Hopefully we have covered all our bases and we can make a strong opening weekend.”
Eyerus Tingley, Shayla Reeves, Kylie Ibias, Michaela Demmert and Sarah Morris will be perimeter threats.
“As a ball club I definitely notice that everybody seems a little bit more mature in the sense that we are a little bit more court smart,” Nizich said. “Most of the girls have been together since freshmen and we finally have the chemistry down, we know where we are on the court.”
The JDHS girls graduated a talented arsenal that included Hannah Swofford, Taylor Larson, Maria Weyhrauch, Sara Tarver, Nani Ostrom, Olivia Henderson and Karli Brakes. Coach Leslie Knight stepped down, but in her footprints is a disciple that came into the JD system in 2003.
“I think our strength is our speed,” JDHS girl’s head coach Dee Boster said. “Hopefully that will make up for our loss of size in the key. We will have to work harder on rebounding and blocking out inside.”
The Crimson Bears return Esra Sideek, Marissa Brakes, Nicole George and Kaitlin Fagerstrom, players who all found time last year; and Ari Gross, Gabi Fenumiai and Kayla Balovich are expected to fill the front line.
“Marissa will be our leader, on and off the court,” Boster said. “I don’t expect her sister, I expect Marissa. She makes very good decisions on the court.”
Fagerstrom is a raw sophomore who only lacks confidence; all the other skills are in the Crimson Bears’ uniform.
Sideek will be the first option on offense, and the first person the defense keys on, so Fagerstrom, Gross, Fenumiai, lightning guard T Jae Garcia and senior Sierra Tagaban will be vital.
Replacing the speed, off-guard, and forward components will also come from Tori Gogg, Kymberlee Kelly, Rachelle Roldan, Amberli Fitka and Rolonda Scaife.
“We don’t want to change the program,” Boster said. “It has been successful for a long time. We are a really young team. I am a little nervous, a little excited. There are big shoes to fill, the expectations of keeping that success alive.”
Boster said she expects her kids to wear the Crimson Bears uniform with pride.
“The girls work hard in practice and are excited to be here,” Boster said. “Their expectations, and ours, are high.”
The Falcons’ boy’s graduation of John Correa, Josh Jones and Jimmy Mota will not affect their athleticism on the court of nine returning players.
“The first series for us is going to be much like Juneau’s first game last weekend,” TMHS head coach John Blasco said. “It will probably be a little sloppy at first until we settle down from the adrenalin of the first game and of playing our cross-town conference rival. We have had three good weeks of practice and I am excited to see how we perform in these games and how we react to facing a very tough opponent.”
Third year players Ty Grussendorf as a shooting wing with range and Sam Jahn in the pivot are impact players. Junior Keith Ainsworth, a varsity player since his freshman year, is the team leader. Travis Johnson is a hustler on the court and the Tupou brothers, Josh and Vili, are a competitive point guard combo.
Throw in Matt Seymour and Ben Jahn, who saw significant minutes as freshmen, and Avery Stewart and Coltin Lanz who know the program, plus football quarterback Camden Thomas with athletic leadership qualities, and the Falcons will hunt bear. Mike Uddipa will see back up point guard duties and Allen Shaw is a defensive workhorse off the bench.
“We got to see them play against Ketchikan and we know that they have a lot of strong players,” Blasco said. “We know we will have our hands full Friday. We haven’t beaten them yet but that is definitely on our minds. They have a strong senior class and size in side. They will be tough. I think fans will see, as they have the past two years, our group of young guys that are not going to quit until the buzzer goes off. We will play hard every possession and play an up-tempo kind of game. They are an exciting group for sure.”
The Crimson Bears’ boys graduated Ryan Baldwin, Nino Crisostomo, Travis Godfrey, Colin Gozelski, Eddie Hurtte, and De’Andre King but seem hardly affected. They too lost a retiring legend in Steve Potter, but JDHS filled the hole with a 12-year assistant.
“I think it is going to be a fun season,” JDHS head coach Robert Casperson said. “It will be a little bit more of a traditional look, a little more high school size and a rededication to doing the work.”
Lance Ibesate and Tony Yadao are two of the state’s top guards and have quality postman Evan Gross to work around, plus big men bench play from Jeffrey Pusich, Taylor Swofford, Bruce Jones and Gary Speck.
“We are very excited,” Ibesate said. “New coach, new system, it’s going to be fun. I am just going to try and be tough this year, be pesky and in people’s grills playing good defense. I just want us to learn from every game.”
Added Yadao, “We are looking to have good chemistry this year. As seniors we have to lead by example and bring our strengths to help make the team do better.”
Alec Calloway and Darien Stanger were starters at Ketchikan last weekend but Ryan Kelly, Jesse Miller, Austin Shoemaker and Aquino Brinson found time on the court. Calloway can go inside or outside and, being left handed, makes it hard on defenders. Phillip Fenumiai is still involved in all-star football practices each weekend in Anchorage, but when he joins the team he will be a starter at basically any position. Jackson Lehnhart is recovering from an ankle injury.
“A lot of guys did more off-season work than before,” Casperson said. “We talk about what it means to be a Crimson Bear and the responsibility that comes with it. When we passed out the uniforms you could see that light in their eyes, they are excited.”