The sunny skies beating down on athletes sliding laterally on clay surfaces and diving with racquets extended across grass bordered by white chalked lines ... that is the general association with tennis.
In Alaska, the Juneau-Douglas High School tennis team does not have the frills of the outdoor game. They do not have the year-round competition of opponents from outside the region or the multiple skills’ coaches.
“We do have Cope Park and Floyd Dryden,” Juneau-Douglas coach Amy Skilbred said. “The weather here is the main obstacle.”
Yet, year in and year out, the Crimson Bears, thanks largely to the support of the Alaska Club in the valley, send a competitive team to the Alaska School Activities Association State Tennis Championships.
“We could not function without the support of the Alaska Club,” Skilbred said. “They schedule us for court time and help with fundraising tournaments that allow our players to compete against adults and get better. This year we have fewer seniors going to state but it could be one of our more competitive teams.”
JDHS senior Emma Good and junior Jasper MacNaughton have been seeded 4th in Mixed Doubles.
Tournament officials pick the four strongest representatives in each of the classifications, with the top two placed on opposite sides of the bracket. The next two strongest teams are placed in a draw and selected the 3rd or 4th seed.
For Good, this is her third year at the state venue. She finished as a runner-up last season with 2013 JDHS alumnus Marc Heifetz and in 2011 with alumnus Johnny Joyce.
“There was always a stronger team that entered the Mixed Doubles draw at the last minute,” Good said. “I think Jasper and I have a really strong chance to win it this year, we make a really good team. We are both really strong players and we are both really consistent. I haven’t had that consistency in the past few years but I have really improved a lot.”
Good said her strength was in volleying at the net while MacNaughton’s is being strong at the baseline.
Good’s younger sister, freshman Sami, will also be playing at state.
“I haven’t told her much about it,” Good said. “She is a smart kid, and good. She will figure it out.”
The Crimson Bears placed 3rd last season, behind West Anchorage and South Anchorage.
MacNaughton partnered with Sam Bibb last season and the duo finished 3rd at state. JDHS 2013 alumna Pelle Arthur took 3rd in Girls Singles, while Bibb and 2013 alumna Jade Pilcher were selected to the Good Sport Team.
“We just have to work on talking,” MacNaughton said. “For the most part our strokes are good. We just have to communicate and get the strategy of moving up and down the court. I think we will do well.”
Bibb will partner with sophomore Ben Scudder in boys doubles. They have only been playing together for a month, are unseeded and are on the same side of the bracket as the 1 and 3 seeds. They open play against Monroe’s Nathaniel Brose and Sebastian Griffin.
“A lot of pressure and a lot of people there,” Bibb said. “We have to communicate better on the court and stay confident in our shots. I think my net play is stronger, and my serve. He is a lot more consistent. I try to go for winners most of the time and Ben is better all around, all the time.”
Senior Kathe Tallmadge and freshman Sami Good are seeded 4th in girls doubles. They open play against Anastasia Ante and Ashley Stark from Hutchison.
“Sami and I really need to communicate well to be successful at state,” Tallmadge said. “That is probably one of our weaknesses. I probably have the stronger, more consistent serve, maybe not the stronger hit. Sami is really aggressive, which is good. I might be a bit more tentative but she is always ready to attack the ball.”
Tallmadge was on a six-month student exchange last season in New Zealand. Her host family’s father loved to play tennis so Tallmadge kept an edge while abroad.
“And I played on one of their local club teams,” Tallmadge added.
Sophomore Jon Scudder will play boys singles and junior Bailey Davenport will compete in girls singles. Both are unseeded. Scudder opens with Bartlett’s Jerry Vongkoth and Davenport plays the fourth-seeded Dana Lemay of North Pole.
Crimson Bears alternates are senior Johnny Connolly and junior Catherine Walsh.
The best chance for a Crimson Bears championship rests on the experience of Good and the power of MacNaughton.
“I am really excited to go again,” Good said. “But I am nervous. It would really suck to lose and take second for the third year in a row.”
Good is strong on the backhand while MacNaughton’s strength is his forehand.
“I learned that they are good up there,” MacNaughton said. “We got beat by a good team last season. I have the experience and know how the tournament works, so we just have to see how it goes.”
The JDHS tennis team got its start in 2003 through the efforts of parents and the owner of the Juneau Racquet Club, John McConnochie. The club had merged with the Alaska Club in 2001 but McConnochie stayed on under a three-year contract.
“A lot of the parents were in the need for a tennis team,” McConnochie said. “They spoke to the school district and did that side of it. I mainly did the operational side of making sure that we had courts available for them.”
The club pro, Hassan Banisaaid, was the coach that first season. The team consisted of eight to 10 players who had been playing for several years. Banisaaid moved on the next year and Skilbred was asked to replace him for two weeks while a new coach was found.
“We talked to a lot of people in the community and the club, finding out who they thought would make good coaches,” McConnochie said. “It took an effort to find somebody willing to spend the time and energy to run the program, and she was already doing it. I think we did well. Amy stepped forward and just seeing how the program has blossomed has been great. I think kids and athletics provide a great opportunity to learn a small slice about life... what you do when you fail, what you have to do to succeed, things like that. Kids become more well rounded for life. Tennis is one of those life-time sports you can be playing into your 90s.”
The second season saw the team (20 strong) playing its first matches against other schools, participating in the Fairbanks Alyeska High School Invitational and the Anchorage Invitational.
According to Skilbred, in 2005, the team continued to expand and again played the Fairbanks Alyeska High School Invitational and Anchorage Invitational, finishing first in Boys Doubles and second in Girls Doubles. This year JDHS added a JDHS Tennis Championship for the Juneau players and recognized the girls and boy’s singles winners and runners up.
In its fourth year, 2006, the team had grown to 35 tennis players. The team won the Alyeska High School Invitational, played a JV match against Dimond and participated in the Anchorage Invitational, coming in second in Girls Singles and Mixed Doubles.
In 2007 the team expanded to 45 players and played head-to-head against West and South in Anchorage, as well as playing in the Fairbanks Jamboree. In that year ASAA held the first Tennis State Championships.
JDHS exchange student Ling Chan won the inaugural girls singles title in 2007 and the Crimson Bears finished third in the team standings.
“She played a lot of tennis before she got here,” Skilbred said. “For years there were a lot of exchange students in Alaska that played in the state tournaments. We have had several.”
At the time, Chan was the 15th-ranked open and juniors ladies’ singles player in Hong Kong. She had won the 2004 Hong Kong National Junior Tennis Championship and the 2005 South Chinese Athletic Association Chairman’s Cup Title.
Teammates Nathan Graves and Lindsey Kelly finished second in Mixed Doubles and were selected to the Good Sport Team.
Merijke Coenraad and Dream Suchitbharabitya finished fourth in Girls Doubles.
In 2008 the JDHS team finished third again. Coenraad and Steffan Wilcox won the Mixed Doubles title and Aaron Cohen and Brian Vandor were second in Boys Doubles. Nathan Graves and Coenraad were Good Sport winners.
In 2009 the Crimson Bears were fifth, led by the Mixed Doubles championship from Vandor and Laurel Messerschmidt. The Boys Doubles team of Cohen and Graves were runners up and Nick Parker and Messerschmidt were Good Sport selections.
In 2010 and 2011 JDHS finished in 7th place. In 2010 Eddie Hurtt and Sage Davenport finished fourth in Mixed Doubles. Marlena Sloss and Nathan Fosket were Good Sport selections.
In 2011 Good and Joyce placed 2nd in Mixed Doubles and Davenport and Sloss took 3rd in Girls Doubles. Sloss and Joyce were Good Sport selections.
This season featured 42 participants.
The team participates under the USTA no-cut policy and its philosophy is based on bringing more people into the game while at the same time offering a competitive program for the more experienced players.
As there are no other high school tennis teams in Juneau or Southeast Alaska, there is no opportunity to play league matches similar to those played between the schools in Fairbanks and Anchorage. In order to develop more match play situations, the Crimson Bears play adults from the tennis community on weekends.
“These matches have proved to be a great draw for both adults and high school tennis players,” Skilbred said. “And they give high school players the opportunity to test their ability with the more experienced adult players.”
That has translated into a smoother transition into the state tournament for many players.
“I was not as intimidated my first year at state,” Emma Good said. “Now I am trying to be more intimidating. The experience of playing tennis has been one of my best in high school.”