The Crimson Bears have enjoyed a big brother, little brother relationship with Sitka for as long as most of their current players can remember. In fact, the Bears have noogied their way to season sweeps of the Wolves in every year since 2001.
That could all change this weekend, though, with a new class discrepancy adding to the potential embarrassment of a loss.
The Juneau-Douglas High School boys basketball team will host Sitka tonight and Saturday for the first time in recent memory as non-conference foes. The Wolves dropped to 3A for the current school year, leaving JDHS and Ketchikan as the lone members of the 4A Southeast Conference.
The move cut into the number of 4A games the Crimson Bears (12-5 overall, 0-2 SEC) were able to pick up this season. Juneau-Douglas is hoping little else has changed in the schools' relationship.
The Wolves (13-5 overall) have already experienced plenty of change after their drop to 3A, and it has all been on the positive side, according to fourth-year coach Andy Lee.
"I think, at some point, we had to say we are who we are. Our school is 340 students strong - that doesn't even make us the largest 3A school in the conference," Lee said. "The community and kids are really responding to the change. We could have been successful every four years at the 4A level. Now every morning every kid can wake up thinking about playing for a state title in every sport."
The Sitka players have taken their new-found enthusiasm to the court this season and currently sit at second in the SEC's 3A standings. Their wins include a dramatic late comeback that toppled 4A North Pole on the road. The Wolves trailed by 16 in the second half of that game before a wild, late swing helped them win by seven.
"We wanted to be challenged by still playing at the 4A level. North Pole played well in that game, but we stuck with it. It was a game we might not have won a year or two ago," Lee said. "We're more mature now. We've had to play a lot of young guys in the past and our guys have the mental toughness and skill level to win those games.
Sitka still regularly plays a sophomore and a freshman, but their 10-man rotation is led by five seniors and three juniors. At the front of that rotation is 6-foot-3 senior point guard Ryan Peters - already a two-time All-SEC Team member. He is currently leading the Wolves with roughly 17 points and six assists per game.
"You could call him the focal point of our offense. He just makes the players around him better," Lee said. "Ryan's always been lanky and had tremendous instincts for the game, now his vision has increased with his size. He can really see things over the top and finish stronger."
Sitka will be playing without their second star senior this weekend in 6-foot-3 center Ross Venneberg and his 15 points per game. The All-American trumpeter is away at the All-America Festival in South Dakota over the weekend and still healing from a sprained ankle that has already kept him out of four games.
Their secondary scorer against JDHS is expected to be 6-foot-3 senior Connor Dunlap. The lanky forward is pumping in 10 points per contest and leads the team with five rebounds per game.
The Wolves actually missed three of their bigger starters for a four-game stretch when Dunlap and 6-foot-3 junior forward David Reynolds joined Venneberg on the sidelines when both fell ill with the flue.
The squad's freshman - 6-foot-4 Nik Potrzuski - stepped into the middle during the trio's absence and has kept his spot in the rotation after raising a few eyebrows from the coaching staff.
"He's given us that size and scoring we need with the other guys out," Lee said. "He really helped us keep going without missing a beat."
Lee actually credits the down time given to his starters for helping to build the depth that his attacking style of play needs to run at full speed. Sitka has still managed to hang an average of 67 points per game on their opponents this season, while surrendering an average of just 56.
The objective of Lee's coaching is to get his kids in space and score off a variety of defensive looks. The aggressive style of play has helped push eight different Wolves into double-digit scoring efforts this season.
Players on both sides say that the rivalry runs as deep as always despite the class difference, and still anticipate the game with regional bragging rights on their minds. Unfortunately, the Sitka contingent in the stands this year will be smaller than usual for a different reason.
"There was a large group of people I know who were going to go down on the fast ferry before it got re-routed to Petersburg," Lee said. "Now those folks just can't afford to come. It's very disappointing not be able to count on the marine highway for these school activities anymore. It's the difference between paying 40 dollars to bring your car down or 250 bucks to get there with no transportation."
Both of the weekend's games tip off at 8 p.m. at the JDHS main gym.
The Crimson Bears are off next weekend, but will host Ketchikan Feb. 27-28 to end their SEC regular-season schedule. The best-of-three SEC championship series will be held in Ketchikan March 6-7.
The JDHS girls basketball team is idle this weekend, but will host Ketchikan next week.
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