Juneau-Douglas High School boys basketball players will be living out of their duffel bags this month as they play nine straight games on the road.
And the Crimson Bears picked a doozy of a trip to open their three straight weekends of road games.
After opening the trip with a game at 7 p.m. tonight at Palmer High School, the Juneau boys head into Anchorage for a new three-day round-robin tournament hosted by the defending Class 4A state champion West Anchorage Eagles. The four-team Alaska Airlines Eagle Classic will feature two nationally ranked teams - Laurinburg Institute of North Carolina and National Christian Academy of Fort Washington, Md.
"We have nine straight road games, and this will be where our season is made," Juneau junior co-captain Luke Miller said. "How we play this month could make or break our season."
"We just have to come out and play hard," Juneau senior Norman Zura said. "We have to be ready to play."
Making the trip tougher, Juneau (2-1 overall) will be without two of its big men since junior Bryan Ryder suffered a broken left thumb while playing with the junior varsity at a tournament in Skagway, and senior Mychal Hutcherson won't travel on a coach's decision so he can catch up on some schoolwork.
Tonight's game will help the Crimson Bears ease into the trip, but Palmer (2-1 overall) is no pushover. The Moose are the defending Region III-Class 4A champions after going 21-6 overall and 10-0 in region play last season.
Palmer lost all five starters to graduation, but the Moose did beat North Pole and Houston with one loss - 52-48 - to West Valley (52-48) last month en route to posting a 2-1 record in their own Palmer Elks Showdown. The Moose are coached by Greg Fullmer, formerly of Service.
Palmer is led by senior 5-foot-9 guard David Doerr, the only returner with significant playing time last year and the only player shorter than 6-foot. Other top players include 6-2 junior swingman Willie Ratcliff, 6-0 senior guard Tanner Fullmer (the coach's son) and 6-4 forward Aaron Kohring.
"It'll be our first time playing since the Capital City Classic (Dec. 27-30)," Juneau coach George Houston said. "We open with Palmer, which is outside the tourney. It'll be our first time out on the road, so we'll have to see how we play."
"It's different being able to win on the road versus being at home," Juneau senior Kyle Huntsman said.
At 8 p.m. on Thursday, the Crimson Bears will play West (8-1), which earlier this season took fifth place in the What-A-Burger Tournament in Dallas, Texas. West's only loss was 79-78 to North Crowley (Texas) in triple overtime. The Eagles are coached by Chuck White, who returned to Alaska last year following a three-year absence and won his 15th state championship. His first 14 state titles came during his 35 seasons at East Anchorage.
The Eagles are smaller than the Moose, but explosive and quick. They are led by the senior guard combo of Jordan Jamestown and Deray Wilson, with senior guard LeRaun Robinson and sophomore guard Phillip Hearn also getting significant playing time. Junior center Ramon Harris anchors the middle.
"I heard something about nationally ranked teams, but I really don't know," Miller said when asked if he knew much about this weekend's competition. "We've just got to play hard and, personally, I'd rather win the West game. Palmer, I heard, is young and inexperienced."
On Friday, Juneau plays Laurinburg Institute at 6 p.m. Laurinburg (23-0) is ranked No. 1 in the HoopsUSA.com ranking of fifth-year prep school teams released Jan. 3. HoopsUSA.com breaks its national rankings into three groups - traditional high schools that play in state or city tournaments, national high schools that barnstorm across the country and fifth-year prep schools. Laurinburg recently won the Prep Stars of Canada tournament with a convincing 102-74 victory over No. 3 Lutheran Christian Academy of Pennsylvania in the final.
Laurinburg features four players who have already made commitments to NCAA Division I schools, including Memphis-bound Shawne Williams, a 6-foot-8 wing forward who is ranked second in USA Today's fall ranking of players (Bartlett's Mario Chalmers is No. 12). Laurinburg also features Memphis-bound 6-5 swingman Antonio Anderson, Washington-bound 6-6 guard Roburt Sallie and Nebraska-bound 6-1 guard Jamel White, who was the MVP of the Prep Stars of Canada tourney.
Juneau concludes the trip at 6 p.m. Saturday when it plays National Christian Academy (record not available), which is currently in the "others to watch" part of the HoopsUSA.com top-10 listing of fifth-year prep schools. NCA was ranked No. 7 in the preseason list. NCA also has a nationally ranked player in 6-3 guard Jessie Sapp, who has yet to make a college commitment.
"This will be a very challenging tournament," Houston said. "My goal is for us to compete and get better, and if there's one thing we'll do on this trip it's find five out of the 12 (players) who want to compete. We have a chance to get better, and it's just the opportunity to play some really good teams and see some good players."
"As long as we get better, that's what we want," Huntsman said. "The Classic showed us a lot of things we needed to work on, and we've stepped up a bit in practice. We're doing good on correcting the mistakes and doing what we need to keep getting better."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.