Seven years ago, Juneau-Douglas High School boys soccer coach Gary Lehnhart received a favor from his coaching friends in Spokane, Wash.
Those friends - who headed up some of Washington state's top high school teams - agreed to allot some of their limited preseason game slots to the Crimson Bears to give the developing Juneau program a look at new competition.
The first few years, Juneau started out facing mixed varsity-junior varsity squads and were no match for the talented Spokane teams.
How times have changed.
The Crimson Bears depart on their annual Spokane swing today as a marked team, after going 4-0 on last year's trip and subsequently beating a fifth Spokane school twice in Juneau (the first time one of the Spokane teams has come to Alaska).
"The last few years, we've been much more competitive," Lehnhart said after Tuesday's practice. "You can see how, as they have gotten closer and closer, the nature of the games has changed."
"They know we're coming, and I've told the guys they can expect much more focus from the teams and the Spokane community."
Juneau (1-1 overall), coming off a split with Ketchikan last weekend, opens the trip against University High School (6-1) tonight, followed by Ferris (6-1) on Thursday, Mount Spokane (6-1) on Friday and concluding on Saturday with Mead High School (4-3), where Lehnhart used to coach.
On last year's trip, the Crimson Bears beat University, 1-0; Mount Spokane, 5-1; and Mead, 1-0, and also beat Lewis and Clark High School, 4-0. Then they hosted - and beat - Ferris in a pair of matches, 2-0 and 3-0, en route to an eventual second-place finish in the state tourney.
Those six victories over the Spokane teams helped land Juneau in two sets of national rankings, where they finished the season even after their 1-0 loss to Dimond in the state championship game.
But this year's Juneau squad features a different mix of players facing off with the tough - and eager - Spokane competition.
"We have a lot of players coming back, but it's a new lineup on the field," senior Lee Sullivan said.
Sullivan said in last weekend's games in Ketchikan, the players had trouble playing together as a team in Friday's 1-0 loss to the Kings. But the Crimson Bears worked together more effectively in Saturday's 4-1 win - something they look to improve this week.
Senior Axel Thibodeau said the Crimson Bears were also lacking in emotion in the Ketchikan loss.
"We definitely feel we have to play with a sense of urgency," he said. "It was obvious, the difference between the times we played with passion and the times we played without anything in the emotional bank account."
As Juneau looks to recharge that account and bond as a team on the trip, Lehnhart is thankful that the Spokane teams give this opportunity to his team.
"It's a big sacrifice on their part," he said. "They're only given a certain amount of games each year. It's a tremendous opportunity for us."
No matter how the Crimson Bears do on the scoreboard this week, Lehnhart said the true test of success will be in how they develop as a team against tough opponents.
"It will be interesting to see how we handle the level of play and the speed of play," he said. "I've never worried about wins and losses, especially in Spokane. I'm concerned with are we getting better, are we progressing so we'll be at the top of our game in May."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.
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