Savor the moment

Posted: Friday, March 19, 2010

Karli Brakes jumped up into the arms of one teammate after another, thrusting her index finger high above the gathering mass of bouncing Crimson Bears near center court.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

Juneau-Douglas had finally put the ultimate of exclamation points on the most memorable of seasons, holding off a pesky - and BIG in the middle - Warriors team, 41-35, in front of a large contingent of nearby Wassila's fans in Sullivan Arena to win the 4A girls' basketball state championship.

A season of high expectations had just ended with, as coach Lesslie Knight put it afterward, the good guys winning.

And the super seniors went out in style, all contributing significant minutes and plays throughout the course of Alaska's biggest prep showcase.

Brittany Fenumiai scored 26 points in the first two games and had five rebounds. She went scoreless in the championship game but handled the ball without a turnover and had six big boards and three steals, still having a major impact without netting a point before taking her rightful spot on the All-Tournament Team as one of the state's premier players.

Joining her as an All-Tournament selection after shooting 8-for-15, pitching in 25 big points through the week and a title-game Bears' high 11, was Mahlet Tingley.

She also had seven steals and but one solitary turnover. She was as consistent and steady as can be each time out, whether starting or coming off the bench.

Annette Highley averaged seven points a game and had four steals in her usual, hard-hat-steady manner. Emily Johnson, who returned in late January just five months after major knee surgery, contributed big minutes at the defensive end of the court, and a pair of long arms for Brakes to jump into after the final horn sounded.

And Kristen Dierick contributed in other ways from her seat on the bench as an assistant coach, happy to make the trip after not starting the season on the roster. When Dierick rejoined the Bears early this season, she agreed not to take the spot of any player already on the then-12-man roster, which is all that can suit up during the state tournament.

And the juniors more than carried their weight.

All-Tournament selection Taylor Larson will be one of the early favorites to win state player of the year in 2011. It's that simple.

Brakes, the diminutive defensive dynamo who had 11 steals and countless deflections in the tourney, will again be considered one of the top point guards in Alaska. I have no idea where she gets that boundless supply of energy. At times, she's a blur she's so quick and she never stops coming at you.

And few have more untapped potential to be truly great than Sarah Tarver, who already does so many things well and has the type of size that causes matchup nightmares. Tarver should follow Larson's lead and find a go-to move in the post and perfect it. With that and a consistent mid-range jump shot, she, too, would then be virtually unstoppable.

Maria Weyhrauch and Hannah Swofford saw quality minutes and gained valuable experience. Both big 6-plus-footers will play key roles in giving JDHS a top-tier front line next year.

Wasilla's 6-foot-5 Kelsey Cottle delivered a beautiful high-low pass for an easy bucket during the title game. Weyhrauch and Swofford should study that play because they could make a killing off of it with their height.

Olivia Henderson and Nani Ostrom will both see increased roles in replacing the graduating Tingley, and freshman Esra Siddeek will be counted on to help ease the loss of Fenumiai's invaluable shooting stroke.

Those will be big, big shoes to fill for the soon-to-be sophomore, but she is talented and she won't go it alone. JDHS was, and will be, an incredibly deep team.

The supremely balanced Bears, who only trailed twice in the whole tournament early in two games, and won by an average of better than 20 points, have done it all year long with a team-first, defensive attitude where everyone looks for each other on offense, and they feed the hot hand.

For them to win the state championship game with their All-State first-teamer and best shooter not scoring is further proof positive of that fact.

For Knight, it was another crowing achievement with her beloved alma mater, where she won a state championship as a player in 1983, one as an assistant coach in 1996, and this, her second as head coach, the first coming in 2005.

Personally, it's the teams that win championships through the years that stick out the most, creating memories for myself that I'll always look back on with great fondness.

I've now had the tremendous fortune of covering three straight girls' basketball state title-winning teams, with the Buffalo Gap Bison of Swoope, Va., winning two straight in 2008 and 2009.

This Juneau team shares many traits with those two Bison teams: Competitive fire, great passion for the game and each other, a willingness to share the basketball and play defense, coaches that demand a lot while inspiring confidence, great players and role players; gutsy players who did the little things and were willing to sacrifice personal glory for the good of the team, and were always quick to defer credit.

Combined with natural talent, patience and execution, that's the perfect recipe for a special team. And they don't come along every year.

Sometimes, they never come along.

After Gap won in 2008, attention immediately turned to the next year, when several top players were returning with a great shot to repeat. It put a lot of pressure on them, so much so that they seemed almost joyless after winning the second because it was more of a relief to win than anything else.

The Crimson Bears will no doubt be in the hunt again next year. But let's think about what could lie ahead tomorrow.

Let's enjoy today.

WASILLA - Apangalook 1-3 0-0 2, Imoe 4-9 0-0 9, Dinkel 1-3 0-0 2, Nuss 2-5 0-0 4, Naczi 2-7 0-2 4, Brown 0-0 0-0 0, Bialka 0-0 0-0 0, Colgrove 0-2 2-2 2, Troisi 0-0 0-0 0, Cottle 4-9 4-10 12. TOTALS 14-38 6-14 35.

JDHS - Johnson 0-0 0-0 0, Henderson 0-1 0-1 0, Tingley 2-4 6-6 11, Fenumiai 0-6 0-0 0, Brakes 1-3 2-4 4, Ostrom 0-0 0-0 0, Tarver 2-7 0-2 4, Highley 1-3 8-11 10, Larson 5-8 0-0 10, Weyhrauch 0-0 0-0 0, Swofford 0-1 2-2 2. TOTALS 11-33 18-25 41.

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