Stretch run rings final bell for 8 seniors

Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2011

It may seem as such for this season’s edition of Crimson Bears girls’ basketball, but no matter how dominant a team is, winning is never certain.

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Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

At the highest level, nothing is given.

There is only one certainty: Soon, this year’s celebrated senior class, win or lose, will take the court together representing Juneau-Douglas High School for the last time.

As they see it, they’ll go to Anchorage’s Sullivan Center and come back to Alaska’s capital city on top.

Again.

“Yes, it’s going to happen,” two-time All-State point guard Karli Brakes confidently said as senior classmates Taylor Larson and Nani Ostrom agreed.

It’s rare for one school to have such stellar back-to-back groups of seniors, but JDHS has had just that.

One year after graduating five — including four that were either All-State or All-State Tournament selections — eight more will take part in one last run in crimson and black.

It’s almost a stunning embarrassment of riches, but there’s nothing embarrassing about being the best.

And it’s been a long time coming.

Not for the Juneau-Douglas program, which has been in four of the last seven state title games, but for this year’s group of twelfth-graders who have played together for so long.

“We’ve all been on random teams together since middle school, and we all played with or against each other,” Brakes said. “There were A, B and C teams and we were all on different levels at that time. Finally, in eighth grade, it was me, Hannah (Swofford), Taylor, Maria (Weyhrauch) and Nani against basically Olivia (Henderson) and (Sarah) Tarver (in middle school).

“We loved HoopTime because then we could actually play with each other.”

They said they knew they had a chance to be eventual state contenders early in their prep careers.

“We started off really young because we didn’t have many upperclassmen, so we knew we were going to get the experience that a lot of younger girls wouldn’t get,” Brakes said. “Freshman year I had no idea what state competition was like. I had only played in Southeast and not up north, but it was a good experience as a young player.”

“I think it was sophomore year when we had no seniors,” Larson added. “Freshman year we only had one senior so we knew we were going to stay talented at least until we were juniors because last year’s seniors would graduate.

“But I still think we’re a pretty strong and talented team.”

There have been 13 seniors in two years and each member of this gargantuan group, including this year’s eight — some teams don’t have half that many kids who can really play let alone eight seniors — has contributed.

Basketball’s a team game, and these two teams have had all the players and talent a coach could dream of.

Tarver, Brakes and Larson were recently announced as All-State first- and second-teamers, Brakes and Larson for the second year in a row.

That statewide level of recognition pretty much says it all as far as their talent and contributions to their program and its 25-1 overall record this year.

Ostrom quickly emerged as the Bears’ most-improved player when the girls made their home debut in December. When Brakes went down with a nasty ankle sprain during the Capital City Classic, JDHS barely missed a beat.

Of course, Monica Ashenfelter and sophomore Marissa Brakes stepped up, too, but Ostrom’s steadying senior hands were the glue that held it all together in the backcourt.

Larson said it’s just been a matter of the girls taking advantage of opportunities when their numbers have been called.

“Some people stepped up to fill in,” she said. “Brittany (Fenumiai) was our strongest shooter last year and now Nani and Esra (Siddeek) are doing a lot of our shooting, and Karli has stepped up and done more shooting than she has in years before.

“Everybody is stepping up in their own way to better the team.”

Ashenfelter, in her own words on senior night, said she was surprised when she made the varsity squad for the loaded and defending state champs. But she also has “stepped up” and provided quality minutes and shooting off the bench this season.

Players always have a chance to make an impression upon others’ graduation but, unfortunately, sometimes injury brings necessity.

Senior guard Olivia Henderson was a candidate to start before the season began but went down after tearing her meniscus and ACL. Henderson will take Kristin Dierick’s 2010-state-tourney role as player turned coach. She now contributes from the bench, pointing out things she sees while offering up encouragement.

Luckily for JDHS, Ostrom has helped to fill the void at off guard.

“I spent extra time shooting, working on free throws and opening up different parts of my game,” Ostrom said of how she was able to make such an impact this season. “Olivia’s a really good defender so that’s what I also tried to do is become more of a defensive player, because she was one of our best defenders.”

Swofford and Weyhrauch, the 6-foot-plus twin towers, have also seen their roles increased this season. Swofford has been a presence down low with a virtually unstoppable jump hook, and Weyhrauch has shown the ability and mobility to either get out on the floor and defend, or go down low to rebound and score.

Whatever’s been asked of them — which has been a lot — they’ve done it.

But they’ll quickly and freely admit, it’s all been worth it.

Though staying focused when winning by such large margins hasn’t always been easy.

“The whip,” coach Lesslie Knight joked about how she’s been able to keep the team’s attention.

“We just want to win,” Ostrom and Larson added.

The team also has played some games against a group of former players in Juneau who affectionately refer to themselves as “The Hasbeens.” Thunder Mountain coach Tanya Nizich and assistant Danielle Larson, along with Mary Rehfeld and others make up the group, all of whom played in college, five at the Division II level, Knight said.

“I think that really helps because they’re a talented group of women. They’re experienced and they know the game,” Larson said. “They’ve been playing longer than we have and it makes us go harder when we play them.”

The girls said the end of the line is tough to think about at this point, especially with big games still ahead.

“I’ve thought about it,” Larson said. “We were messing around at practice (Tuesday) talking about how it was our last practice on this floor (at JDHS). We can think about it and how sad it’s going to be to let go, but I don’t think it’s really going to hit us until it’s actually over.”

Brakes said it was starting to dawn on her.

“It just kind of hit me right now while Taylor was talking and it’s overwhelming,” she said before telling Knight not to look at her so she wouldn’t tear up. “Now I’m just thinking about all of the ridiculous jokes and fun we had in all of those middle school games and high school trips. These girls, we’ve been practically living with each other for months on end.

“We’re all friends and just thinking about not coming back to it is overwhelming.”



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