In a year where seemingly every facet of public life divided Americans, Alaskans and Juneauites, I am not afraid to say I looked to local sports for a little escape. When I sat down on the bleachers at Juneau-Douglas or Thunder Mountain High Schools this year, I checked my baggage at gate: I really just needed to tune out and watch a game.
2016 honestly made me feel sick at times. Local sports were my chicken soup.
This year, Juneau’s athletes brought it. JDHS saw its first basketball state championship in 19 years, Thunder Mountain earned its first ever state championship and three of Juneau’s high school activities merged into one.
A slew of other athletes won championships, set records and defied the odds this year. All of these stories can be found online at juneauempire.com.
JDHS boys claim 4A crown
Crimson Bears boys basketball ended its 19-year championship drought in March, marking the team’s first state title since Carlos Boozer graced JDHS’ hardwood. The boys beat Dimond in the title match 38-31.
The Crimson Bears barely made it out of the first round of the state tournament. Then-sophomore bench player Kolby Hoover’s last second heroics helped JDHS over Bartlett 58-57 in the quarterfinals.
JDHS then faced their vaunted rivals Ketchikan in the semis, where leading scorer Kaleb Tompkins played the hero’s role. With the ball and nine seconds left on the clock, JDHS senior Guy Bean inbounded to Tompkins at the baseline. Ketchikan, in the double bonus, couldn’t foul as Tompkins — who almost lost his dribble at half — took the ball all the way down to the right elbow, and flushed the game winner from 12 feet.
The title game against Bartlett ended up being the fourth-lowest scoring state championship in Alaska history.
It was a truly special campaign. In the regular season, Juneau-Douglas split four inter-conference battles with the state’s No. 2-ranked Ketchikan, also boasting an all-senior starting cast.
The team had as much chemistry on the court as off. Four of JDHS’ five seniors (Hunter Hickok, Tompkins, Molo Maka, Treyson Ramos and Bean) played together since elementary school for Juneau’s Hoop Rats team.
Falcons softball earns school’s first state championship
Falcons softball soared to new heights this year with their first ever Alaska Scholastic Athletics Association team title, defeating rival Juneau-Douglas 14-6.
TMHS head coach Jorge Cordero couldn’t have been prouder of his team.
“I’m flying high!” Cordero said after the game. “It was a little tough in the beginning, but we came back and put them away. Parents, kids, everybody’s excited, I’m just happy for our program. It’s a big boost for the school, that’s huge and I am glad it’s our team. It put us on the map.”
Welling wins three events at state
Falcons standout track and field runner Naomi Welling capped an exceptional career by winning three events at the ASAA state championships in May.
Welling won the 300-meter hurdles with a blistering state record time of 43.49 seconds, a full half a second faster than her 44.01 Region V record set only a week earlier. A mere 40 minutes later, she turned around and won the 800-meter, completing a brutal double most athletes wouldn’t even attempt.
Welling also took the top spot in the triple jump with a 38 feet and five and three-quarter inches jump, seven inches further than the second place finisher.
Falcons upset Kings at Region tourney
When you’re 5-17 on the season and on an eight-game losing streak, people tend to count you out. This thought never occurred to the Thunder Mountain Falcons boys basketball team when they took on the state’s No. 2-ranked Ketchikan High School at the Region V tournament in March.
The 71-68 win marked Alaska high school basketball’s biggest upset of the season as Ketchikan was knocked out of the running for the Southeast Conference 4A title. It was Thunder Mountain’s best overall performance this season: eight different scorers got on the board for the Falcons as they shot their best percentage from the field all year. Seniors Moa Maka and Shane Mielke both hit clutch fourth-quarter 3-pointers and senior RJ Manning had two huge back-to-back buckets with less than a minute to go.
Thunder Mountain would go on to lose in the conference title match to JDHS, but the win redeemed a tough season for the Falcons, who, despite their record, always gave the impression they could beat anyone.
Ketchikan football walks off the field
In the strangest and most controversial story of the year, Kayhi football walked out of a September football game at Thunder Mountain High School citing dangerous play and poor officiating.
Two Kayhi football players were hospitalized during the game. ASAA later issued Ketchikan a fine for forfeiting.
“Guys are getting injured because there are no fouls being called, no flags being thrown with illegal hits taking place,” Ketchikan coach Jim Byron said after the game.
When the game was called, the Falcons had a 21-0 lead with five minutes left in the second quarter.
TMHS and JDHS tennis, wrestling merge into one program
The state’s governing sports body, ASAA, granted Thunder Mountain and Juneau-Douglas High Schools the right to combine four prep sports this year in an effort to cut district costs.
Wrestling, drama debate and forensics, tennis and dance were originally proposed to merge into one program, though TMHS’ dance team found a coach, and decided to stay separate this year.
TMHS students were allowed to participate on JDHS’ tennis team and JDHS’ wrestlers joined TMHS’ team.
The merger may (or may not, depending on who you ask) foreshadow further sports mergers in the future.
Cody Weldon wins wrestling state championship
Seemingly nothing could stop Cody Weldon this year as he tore his way to the top of Alaska high school wrestling. The Juneau-Douglas High School senior worked all season with a confidence and tenacity that couldn’t be denied, winning six tournaments on his way to last weekend’s Alaska Scholastic Activities Association state championships.
There, he made ended his career on a high note by pinning South Anchorage’s Tyler Cross for the 220-pounds title.
“It’s been something I have been trying to get to for a long time,” Weldon said. “I’ve worked pretty hard to get here, had a lot of support from my coaches in all my sports, and I finally was able to make everything click and work. It feels pretty good.”
TMHS honors Ryan Mayhew
“There’s no script, there’s no playbook for something like this,” TMHS head coach Randy Quinto said after playing their first game without senior Ryan Mayhew, who was killed by an accidental gunshot in mid-September.
The team honored Mayhew by taking the field down a player for their first kick, laying Mayhew’s jersey where he would lineup. Senior teammate and friend Riley Olson wore Mayhew’s number for the rest of the game.
Afterward, the team lit and released sky lanterns on the field.
“He was just my best friend,” Olson said. “Always fun to be around. It just really hurts me to see him go, and I am playing for him.”
Erik Kelly’s one-handed alley-oop dunk
In the third of the Crimson Bears’ boys basketball games against Ketchikan last season, JDHS sophomore Kelly treated the home crowd to a monster, one-handed alley-oop jam off an assist from Bryce Swofford.
Words won’t do this play justice.
“It happened really fast. I thought Bryce was going to get it, but when I saw the defender was going over to him, I figured I’d jump. … It was my first alley-oop in a game so I was excited but I didn’t want to show too much emotion,” Kelly said.
JDHS swimmers bookend careers as state runners-up
In a fitting close to a stellar prep swimming career, eight-time state champion Mia Ruffin, the Crimson Bears’ 400-yard freestyle relay anchor, ended the state swim and dive championships with a comeback win. Ruffin went into the final leg of that event trailing Dimond’s Breckynn Willis by more than a body length.
“I saw that Andyn (Mulgrew-Truitt, sophomore) kept the lead for second, so I just thought, ‘OK, I am just going to try and win this,’” Ruffin said of the final leg of the 400 relay. “I just heard ‘go, go!’ so I just went for it.”
Ruffin’s comeback win highlighted a stellar performance by JDHS’ three senior girls swimmers: Ruffin, Gabi Kito and Sarah Mertz. The trio took home two relay titles and two individual titles at the ASAA meet.
• Contact Sports and Outdoors reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or email@example.com.