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Earlier this month, the Juneau-Douglas High School girls basketball team improved its conditioning with three weeks of practices and scrimmages.
Last weekend, the Crimson Bears built up their confidence with a pair of challenging - but ultimately comfortable - wins over the Dimond Lynx.
This week, the Juneau girls will need every bit of that endurance and confidence as they play four road games in four days against three of the best girls' basketball programs in the state.
The Crimson Bears (5-3) will play the Chugiak Mustangs this evening, and then head to the East Anchorage T-Bird Classic. There are only three teams in the tourney, so Juneau will play the Colony Knights on Thursday and Friday evening, and conclude its trip with a game against the three-time defending state champion East Thunderbirds on Saturday night.
Chugiak is a familiar foe to Juneau, since the Mustangs handed the Crimson Bears one of their two losses at last year's state tournament. In that game, Juneau could not get any offense going and lost 38-30. Chugiak went on to finish third.
The Mustangs are off to a 6-0 start this season, and are led by 6-foot-1 senior Erica Putnam. Putnam has played post most of her career, but this season Chugiak coach Jon Schroeder has moved her to the guard position.
Crimson Bear sophomore Ashley Larson said she expects Juneau and Chugiak to play fairly even, with her older sister, senior Danielle, taking on Putnam.
"I think Dan will match up well with Putnam," she said.
The Crimson Bears finished second at last year's T-Bird Classic, beating Colony, losing to East and then defeating Bartlett to round out play.
Colony (5-4), which finished fifth at state last season, defeated archrival Palmer last Friday as 6-0 junior Kristina Klapperich scored 26 points. On Saturday, the Knights fell to Chugiak, 57-32.
Last season, the Crimson Bears went 2-1 against the Knights, splitting with Colony in Juneau a few weeks after their East tourney win.
East is 5-4 this season, but the record is deceptive. All four losses came on the road to Outside teams at December tournaments in California and Arizona.
In their first in-state game on Jan. 4, East crushed West Anchorage 70-11.
The T-Birds lost last year's Alaska Player of the Year, Natalie Jones, to graduation. This year's squad is led by 5-foot-10 senior forward Ashley Mickens, who has been the team's leading scorer and rebounder in every game this season.
Mickens has surpassed 40 points twice this season, and scored 37 in the win against West. Team stats show Mickens with 30 rebounds in one of the California games.
Knight said the Crimson Bears will focus on Mickens defensively, and on offense they will try to draw fouls. The T-Birds traditionally keep a short bench - this season's varsity roster only lists seven players - so fouls can be costly.
"Whenever you get them in foul trouble, they're beatable," Knight said.
And Juneau is hoping to poke holes in the air of confidence East brings into each game.
"They have a big intimidation (factor) with their competition," Danielle Larson said. "They come out expecting to win; they have that confidence. ... But they can be beaten this year, so we need to have that confidence also."
In two games last season in Juneau, the T-Birds posted a pair of easy victories over the Crimson Bears, winning 60-37 and 55-36.
Knight said the team will be looking to work on a few key areas this weekend, including breaking through press defense, avoiding giving up easy layups and successfully running set plays on offense.
"We have really good awareness of our teammates (on the floor, and sometimes) it just happens naturally," Knight said. "But when it's not, you want to be able to set up a play."
And while they are certainly looking to pick up wins, the Crimson Bears are hoping this weekend's trip - regardless of results - will give them a sense of where they stand in the state.
"We're looking forward to playing up there and seeing our competition," junior Heather Dillon said. "(We'll be) seeing what we need to do for the future, and what we have down."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.