One year after taking perennial power Service to a double-overtime shootout in the championship game of the Tournament Formerly Known as the State Invitational (the TFKATSI), the Juneau-Douglas High School girls soccer team will be a big unknown.
The Crimson Bears, who open their season at 5 p.m. today and at 3 p.m. Saturday at Walker Field in Ketchikan, lost nine seniors from last year's team and coach Sandi Wagner said this year's squad only has three players with significant varsity experience - senior defender Hannah Slotnick, senior midfielder Nobu Koch and senior forward Krystle Llanto. After those three players, and five or six others with some varsity time, everything else is unknown.
``I have no idea how we'll stack up,'' Wagner said. ``I see strengths and weaknesses. As far as the varsity level, not a lot of the players have that experience.''
Even though Juneau's girls team doesn't have a lot of players with loads of varsity experience, there will be more players to choose from than ever before. Wagner said there are 44 players who have been out for the team since practices started March 13, which is about nine to 10 players more than in a typical year. Many of the players have a lot of youth soccer experience, but Wagner said the short, intense high school season will be an adjustment for them.
``It's not the same,'' Wagner said. ``The high school season is very intense for a short period of time. It's two months of having to be at practice every day for sometimes two or 2 hours a day, while club teams may practice just once a week. Physical skills are one thing, but this is more of a mental adjustment.''
Besides the three seniors, Wagner said she expects four other players to make major contributions early in the season. She said senior defender Annie Heffern is solid on defense, and senior Adrianne Gordon will help anchor the midfield row. Two freshmen - midfielder-forward Liza Slotnick and defender-midfielder Dani Choquette - are younger players who could step up, Wagner said.
``We've got a lot of young talent coming up,'' Wagner said. ``We can run three full teams. The kids who are going to Ketchikan are not necessarily all varsity players. You'll probably see a lot of movement up and down before the year is out.''
Wagner will share coaching duties with Noel Shima, a new co-coach who took part of
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the team to Ketchikan on the Thursday morning ferry, and by longtime assistant Joanne Quigg, who stayed in Juneau this weekend with Wagner to work with the rest of the team. Shima is new to the high school team, but has helped coach many of the players in his five years in Juneau's youth soccer program.
The Crimson Bears sent 19 girls players to Ketchikan to chart some new territory. Ketchikan, which is coached by Melissa Virtue and has 18-19 players out this year, has never had a varsity girls team before. This will be the first Southeast competition for most of Juneau's soccer players, which used to only play teams from Anchorage and the Mat-Su valley schools. Juneau's boys JV team also went to Ketchikan for games Friday and Saturday against the Kings' varsity team.
``I have no idea what they'll have,'' Wagner said of Ketchikan. ``They wanted us to only bring the JV team, but many of our seniors wanted to go because they'd never been to Ketchikan for a game before. Besides, these games count in determining who gets the Southeast berth at the state tournament. We don't want to blow them out, but we don't want to lose either.''
Another thing that's new this year is a true state tournament.
In past years, when only the six Anchorage teams, three Mat-Su teams and Juneau were the main spring soccer schools, the TFKATSI served as the state's unofficial playoffs. But last year several teams from the Kenai Peninsula entered the picture, which made it harder for Juneau to schedule games and forced the end of the TFKATSI as the season-ending tournament. The TFKATSI was replaced by the Service-Dimond Invitational last year, and Juneau took four-year unbeaten Service to a double-overtime shootout before losing in the championship game. Service lost the next week to Bartlett in the Region IV tournament, but that game was anticlimactic after the Juneau game.
This year's eight-team state tournament will be held at Skyview High School in Soldotna May 25-27. It will take place after all the region tournaments, ending last year's weird practice of having the region tourneys after the TFKATSI.
``I've felt for years we've needed a designated state tournament,'' Wagner said. ``Last year was a mess.''