For Juneau-Douglas High School boys basketball coach George Houston, taking the court at Anchorage's Sullivan Arena in the state tournament isn't a brand new experience.
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However, the majority of the Crimson Bears will be making their state debut at 9:40 a.m. Thursday against Chugiak in the quarterfinal round.
"I'm stoked," JDHS forward Will Egolf said. "It's going to be awesome. I've never been to state before. It's about time."
Despite Juneau-Douglas' storied hardwood history, only three players on the current JDHS roster have experienced the hoopla of Alaska's March Madness.
Senior captains Luke Miller and Tres Saldivar sat on the sidelines in street clothes as they watched the Crimson Bears take third place in 2003.
Senior guard Scott Lesh played for Skagway as a freshman as the Glacier Bears placed sixth in the Class 2A state tournament.
"(Class) 2A compared to 4A is huge," Lesh said. "I think this will be a bigger environment."
In addition to the bright lights and postseason pressure, Juneau-Douglas (21-3) will be tussling with a formidable opponent in Chugiak.
The Mustangs (16-11) are a strong, bulky team that has played its best ball late in the season. In its last game, Chugiak battled with top-seeded juggernaut, West Anchorage, before losing 71-59 on March 11.
"I know they're big," Miller said. "They're big guys. The guy I'll be guarding will probably be a lot bigger than me. Hopefully, we can out-tempo them and use our quickness to our advantage."
Miller is one of the big reasons why Juneau-Douglas is playing in the state tournament. He scored 21 points in Crimson Bears' 81-68 Southeast Conference-clinching victory over host Ketchikan on March 10.
In the win, JDHS struck the perfect balance of interior toughness and outside scoring. Lesh scored 16 points and knocked down four 3-pointers while Egolf racked up 15 points inside.
"We were just playing our game," Egolf said. "We shared the ball, had good shots and worked hard on D. Everything we could've done well, we did."
Continuing that kind of balanced offensive production will be crucial for Juneau-Douglas if its hopes to extend its season.
In addition to scoring, Houston knows that keeping the muscular Mustangs off the glass will be key.
Egolf currently leads the team in rebounding at 8.8 boards per game. Clae Baker ranks second at 7.6 rebounds. Two more Crimson Bears who may be called upon to provide strong interior presence are reserve forwards Faifo Levale and Cameron Cook.
Also in the mix is senior forward Ryan Fagerstrom. He has been among coach Houston's steadiest contributors, averaging nine points and three rebounds per game while ranking third on the team in offensive rebounds.
"Chugiak is pretty big," Houston said. "They have some big kids and attack the glass pretty hard. We have to do the job defensively in terms of blocking out and holding them to just one shot at the basket."
In preparation for Thursday's early tip-off time, Houston will hold 6 a.m. practices prior to the game starting today.
The Crimson Bears have won seven straight games and 16 of their last 17 en route to sealing a second-seed.
All those statistics will mean nothing Thursday morning, though.
After JDHS handled the torrent of a packed house at Ketchikan High School, how the Bears handle playing on Alaska's biggest stage may determine the team's fate.
"Bright lights, the big show," Miller said. "It's a little different than Ketchikan, Alaska. We're playing in an arena. It means a lot more now."
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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