The first time the Juneau-Douglas High School boys basketball team played the Wasilla Warriors, the Crimson Bears were still trying to discover themselves during the first week of the season.
It was Juneau's fourth game on a four-day road trip, and the Crimson Bears were struggling to find their chemistry after losing 12 players to graduation over the previous two seasons. Juneau fell behind by 10 points in the first quarter and didn't get going until the second half, when the Crimson Bears erased a nine-point deficit to take a brief lead before finally losing to the Warriors 48-45.
Now it's a month later and the Crimson Bears will see if they've improved when they host the Warriors for a pair of games at 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday at the JDHS main gym.
"I know we've gotten better since then," Juneau senior guard Alex Heumann said. "But we've heard they've gotten better, too. We'll have no problems getting up for these games. They're too big for us not to."
When Juneau last played Wasilla, the Crimson Bears were completing a dismal 1-3 road trip. Since then the Crimson Bears won their 11th straight Capital City Classic title, improving to 4-3 on the season. Juneau's been off the last two weeks, so the players are anxious to play again.
"We're looking forward to it, we just need to step it up from the beginning," senior swingman Rob Carte said. "I totally think we're ready."
"I can't wait. I'm itching to play," sophomore forward Josh Monagle said.
While Juneau has won its last three games, Wasilla has been struggling to win. The Warriors went 2-1 in the Cougar Tip-Off tournament at Service, beating Juneau in the fifth-sixth place game, but they haven't won since. Wasilla (2-5 overall) lost all three of its games at a holiday tournament in Gillette, Wyo., then got blown out by Bartlett last weekend, losing 86-59 in a rematch of last year's state championship game.
Still, the Crimson Bears are wary of the Warriors.
Last year, Wasilla beat Juneau three times - 57-50 at the Alaska Prep Shootout, 66-41 at Wasilla and again 45-43 in the Class 4A state tournament semifinals. Add in the game last month, and Wasilla has beaten Juneau the last four times they've played.
"I think we'll do better," junior forward Mychal Hutcherson said. "We'll see who's come the farthest at this point in the season. We want to beat them, since they took us out of the playoffs last year."
Wasilla lost four of its five starters from last year's second-place team to graduation, returning just 6-foot-7 junior center Luke Schafer. Wasilla's main guards are young, with 6-0 sophomore Brad Hobbs and 5-9 freshman Jesse Bean running the point and 6-2 junior Robbie Champion as the main outside threat.
The Warriors' front court features a tall group of juniors and seniors - eight players are at least 6-2 and five are at least 6-4. Matt Crane, a 6-5 junior, is a banger, while 6-5 senior Ben Neher can shoot 3-pointers. But Juneau coach George Houston said the player that hurt the Crimson Bears most the last time they played was 6-4 junior David Williams, a lefty forward who likes to drive to his right and scored 14 points.
"I think we have two teams with a great deal of similarity," Houston said. "We both lost a lot to graduation, and we're still learning. When I watched the tape, we're running the same basic offense. We're in the same boat, both of us, and we have some question marks. But it's been a month since we've played and we can see what the progression's been for both of us."
Wasilla is not bringing its junior varsity team, so the Crimson Bears JV and C teams will play against a group of JDHS athletes from other sports. The JV team will play at 6:15 p.m. tonight against a group of JDHS seniors and juniors, while the C team will play at 6:15 p.m. Saturday against JDHS freshmen and sophomores.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.