The last time the East Anchorage Thunderbirds came to Juneau, most of the Juneau-Douglas High School boys basketball team members were toddlers -- if they were born at all.
East returns to Juneau for the first time since November 1985, playing a pair of games this weekend against the Crimson Bears at 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday at the Juneau-Douglas High School main gym.
"It's been a while since they were last here," Juneau coach George Houston said about East's two-game series split in 1985. Juneau won the first game of the 1985 series 84-54 and lost the rematch 58-41. Juneau also lost twice more to East that year, in East's tournament (72-62) and at the state tournament (64-49).
"It's awesome they're finally coming back," Juneau senior guard Clay Brown said.
The Thunderbirds are the two-time defending Class 4A state champions, and they'll bring a potent squad to town even though East lost four starters to graduation. East is just 1-2 so far this season, one of the rare times over the past 30 years when the team's had a losing record. But those losses came at the prestigious Surf-N-Slam tournament in San Diego, where East finished in fifth place.
East returns five key seniors from last year's team -- 6-foot-2 swingman Ricky Brown, 6-2 swingman Jevon Miller, 6-8 forward G.J. Macon, 6-4 post Tom Marriage and 6-4 forward Stevie Moss. In addition, East picked up 6-7 senior forward Yannick Evina-Ze as a transfer from the Lower 48, and also features 6-5 junior forward Andre Moss and 6-0 freshman guard Derek Laws. Rounding out East's roster are 6-0 senior guard Larry Cook, 6-2 senior forward Joe Hamlett, 5-10 senior guard Quinncey Heartwell and 6-0 sophomore guard Johnathan Zuker.
"They're not real bulky, but they're real long," Houston said of East's height. "It's East, they reload. This is a chance to measure ourselves against one of the top teams in the state."
Houston said Miller "makes East go," and second-year East coach Geno Morgan said Ricky Brown is another player to watch. Miller, who is an all-state football and soccer player, is fast and has good hands. Marriage also plays football and soccer. Houston said Evina-Ze is 6-7, but he can shoot the 3-pointer.
"They're very upbeat," Juneau junior guard Julius 'Junior' Cumlat said. "They're a non-stop, running team. They're very big and they're leapers. They're all very incredible."
Juneau played East once last year, losing 70-40 at Colony High School's Alaska Hoops Challenge last January. The loss was Juneau's most lopsided in five years, but it was also early in the season when Juneau was just starting its rebuilding process. East went on a 13-3 run midway through the first quarter, and Juneau was down 21-9 entering the second quarter because of East's press.
"I'm sure they'll press," Houston said as his team went through press-breaking drills Wednesday night. "That's what hurt us last year, when we got behind."
The Crimson Bears feel things would have been different later in the season, when the Juneau players would have been better able to handle East's attacking defense.
"We didn't come out aggressive at all last year," Juneau sophomore guard Joe Ayers said.
"It was our fourth game of the season and we'd travelled all day to get there," Brown said. "We flew to Anchorage, then had to ride a bus up to Colony which is another hour or so. By the time we got there we just had time to get dressed out and hit the floor. We weren't ready mentally to play. I think we would have competed with them at the (state) tournament."
Juneau (3-0) is coming off a three-game sweep in its own Capital City Classic, which featured victories over West Valley, state runner-up Dimond and Kentlake (of Kent, Wash.). Even though they won, the Crimson Bears were slow to get going in their latter two games as they fell behind in the first quarter. Juneau was able to battle back, but the Crimson Bears can't afford the same kind of an early letdown against East.
"We definitely can't come out flat like that against a team like East," Brown said. "It will be good for us to see a team like this early. That can set the tone for the rest of the season."
Juneau forward James Severin has been the top scorer for the Crimson Bears in each of the team's first three games, but in two of those he didn't score his first points until the second quarter. Guard Curtis Lane has been the team's second-leading scorer and the top 3-point threat, but he missed Wednesday's practice with the flu (he was in school earlier that day, though). After that, Juneau's had a balanced attack with Ayers and Ryan Monagle both reaching double figures once and Brown scoring nine points twice.
"We definitely need to refocus, because after this weekend we're on the road for four games," Houston said. "I'm hoping the gym will be packed. This is a good opportunity for us to see where we are early in the season, and we get them in our house so we've got to be ready."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.