Going to the state tournament is nothing new for the seniors on this Juneau-Douglas girls' basketball team, but a chance to end a five-year title drought is something special.
This group of five twelth-graders plans to take full advantage of this final opportunity.
"I didn't want to start track yet, so I'm pretty happy about it," said forward Annette Highley.
She, along with the other seniors, voiced her disappointment in not reaching the state tournament last season, but thinks the Crimson Bears will represent their school well this year. The true test begins Monday at 11:30 a.m. against Kodiak at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
"Last year, it felt pretty bad going to something else when you really wanted to be at state," Highley said. "We've known all the juniors since they were in sixth grade, so we've all been pretty close for six years now. And the fact that we were able to put it all together this year to beat Ketchikan and make it to state is a big deal.
"We are really excited to be going and, hopefully, we can do some damage up there."
As Highley mentioned, this team is comprised of a tight-knit group of girls, especially the upperclassmen. One of the seniors, guard Kristen Dierick, initially decided she didn't want to play basketball during her final year at JDHS. She said she immediately regreted that decision as soon as she saw her then former teammates run out on the floor during opening weekend.
"I actually came back after the first Thunder Mountain games because I hated watching them run out and me not be a part of it," she said. "I don't get a lot of playing time, but I've been with these girls for a long time and I missed them. I'm definitely glad I came back - it was a mistake for me to quit.
"Everybody on this team is like family and I'm back in it again."
By rule, only 12 players can suit up at the state tournament, and when Dierick returned to the team, Crimson Bears coach Lesslie Knight promised nobody would be bumped from the varsity roster as a result. While Dierick will travel to Anchorage, she will not be able to play. Instead, she has taken on the duties of assistant coach.
"I wish I could suit up but I can't, so I'm going to sit at the front of the bench with the coaches and I guess I'm helping them critique people," she said smiling. "I'm excited and it'll definitely be a good experience, but I'm just bummed I'm not playing."
Though she is disappointed, Dierick said she looks forward to being with her teammates at the state tournament. After all, this bunch has been together for support and motivation through just about every obstacle that has come their way, including several injuries to key players.
"I wasn't the only one that dedicated myself to getting rehabilitated and getting back on the court; my team motivated me," said senior wing Brittany Fenumiai, who missed three games after having early-season knee surgery. "They mean a lot to me and I didn't want to let them down. Having them there behind me every day motivating me to do my exercises helps a lot, honestly."
Another Crimson Bear, senior wing Emily Johnson, spent much of the early season recuperating from a torn ACL suffered during an AAU game in July. Through all the hard work, Johnson said it feels good to be where the team is today - at the top of the bracket as the No. 1 seed in the state tournament.
"Being No. 1 obviously puts a little pressure on us, but we don't see it that way," she said. "We know that we're going in there to play with the top teams in the state and we know we can play with them. We just have to keep a cool head and kind of ignore the standings because that's just beside the point.
"We need to go in there, play how we play and not do anything different."
Team chemistry is one of the many reasons the Bears have built themselves into the top-ranked team in Alaska. It also helps that they've been to the state tournament three out of four years as a senior class, something that actually irks Fenumiai - kind of.
"Making state three out of four years is a great thing, but I wish it would have been four of four," she said. "But three out of four is good for me."
Senior point guard Mahlet Tingley said the team's composure has only been elevated since its Southeast Conference tournament victory over archrival Ketchikan, the state's second-rated team in the Winning Percentage Index formula, which is used to determine final seeding.
"I think it will be exciting, but it's nothing new - you just want to start strong and finish strong," she said. "I think we improved a lot over the weekend at regions. The rivalry between Ketchikan and us definitely got us ready for state, and I think we'll do well."
One of the many reasons to believe in this group is their aforementioned team chemistry, which Tingley said is crucial.
"Chemistry is huge. You want to get along with your teammates on and off the court, and the fact that we're very familiar with each other and the way we play, it helps a tremendous amount," she said. "When we get mad, frustrated, happy - you go through it all, and we've been through it all.
"That's just something other teams don't have. We have a very tight team and our coaches are close to us," she continued. "It's not just about basketball. We're a group of friends that have been together a long time. And it's not just our age, the juniors have always been just as close. It's going to be hard to say bye to it."
One person who has been with this group through thick and thin is their head coach, and Knight is thankful for her seniors because of their play on the court, as well as their leadership off.
"You know, it's a really nice group of kids. Academically, they're very focused and sports-wise, they're 100 percent committed," she said. "The really nice thing going into the state tournament (is that) I know they're determined and focused, and I don't have to worry about entertaining them and keeping them distracted.
"A lot of times at the state tournament, you have extra time and there's a lot of hoopla going on," she continued. "But with this group, I don't have to play games.
"They are there for one purpose only and they have one last opportunity."
While making the state tournament is nothing new to this bunch, winning that elusive 4A title would be. Something new and special.
Matthew Tynan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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