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It took all year for the Crimson Bears to sprint, tweak and crunch their legs into Mid-Alaska Conference shape during the team's first 4A season. Now they face yet another level of speed and physicality that none of them have seen, or felt, quite so close.
The Juneau-Douglas High School hockey team surprised even their coach with a 14-8 overall record and 2-6 mark in the MAC during just the program's second year playing fellow 4A squads and its fourth season overall. The Bears also surprised many by qualifying as the fourth seed in the MAC Championships, during their first eligible season, that kick off at North Pole today. Unfortunately, JDHS will need to pull another whopping "tah-dah" out of its baggy sleeve to get past top-seeded Lathrop (20-2 overall, 8-0 MAC) in tonight's 7:30 p.m. showdown.
"If you asked me at the beginning of the year if we would have a 14-8 record right now, I would have laughed out loud," JDHS coach Dave McKenna said. "Growth can be painful, but we're looking forward to another improved performance up there. These kids have a lot to be proud of not matter what happens."
The Bears may have gotten a preview of that painful growth on the weekend of Dec. 5-6, when Lathrop pounded out 8-0 and 7-1 wins at Treadwell Arena. Those scores proved to be no fluke, as the Malemutes finished the season with a perfect conference record and two players who totaled more than 50 points each.
Those top scorers for Lathrop, sophomore forward Tayler Munson and junior forward Alec Hajdukovich, finished the season with 62 and 53 points, respectively. In other words, Munson is averaging exactly three points per game and Hajdukovich is piling up 2.48 per contest.
"When you watch them play, (Munson and Hajdukovich) don't even really stand out," McKenna said. "They're so balanced and all-around talented that they're all smart with the puck."
By comparison, Juneau-Douglas managed just two total points overall in their four conference losses last week. Goals may be yet even harder to come by in this weekend's playoff atmosphere.
"Juneau is a good team that works hard, and they're not traveling up there to lose. We can't overlook them," Lathrop coach Shawn Lundgren said. "At the same time, we're anticipating that our guys have the mindset that every shift could be their last and they'll bring a lot more energy in this game. That kind of intensity is the chemistry for a good game."
The Bears will yet again look to the leadership of their six seniors - Nolin Ainsworth, John Carlson, Andreas Keller, Chris Klawonn, Josh Mayer and Albert Svensson - as they take on their season's biggest challenge. A win would put JDHS in Saturday's championship game and earn them an automatic berth to the First National Cup State Hockey Championships in Wasilla Feb. 12-14. A victory, however, could come from simply displaying the grit that has already helped them elbow out a deserving spot in the MAC's present and future.
"It's a big accomplishment for us to make the playoffs our first year in the league," McKenna said. "It's been a long season of long practices and we're more than ready to give (Lathrop) our best shot."
Lundgren agreed that the season has already been a success for the upstart Bears.
"I'm very impressed with the Juneau hockey team," he said. "I know some of the scores against the bigger schools in the region don't nearly reflect the effort those kids are putting forth. They are definitely a group the community should be proud of."
Second-seeded North Pole (18-4 overall, 6-2 MAC) and third-seeded West Valley (9-10 overall, 3-4 MAC) will meet in the other semifinal game prior to JDHS' contest Friday. The Bears will stay in North Pole for Saturday's final, regardless of Friday's results.