It took a roster full of savvy, experienced seniors for the Crimson Bears to finish the 2008 season undefeated at 15-0-2 and knock off the two-time defending state champs from South Anchorage. So what is to be expected from a 2009 roster full of seniors who learned how to win last year - mostly from the bench?
"We've had a pretty consistent run since 2000," Juneau-Douglas High School boy soccer coach Gary Lehnhart said. "Eight of the last 9 years we've been in the final game, so most of the time I had a pretty good idea what to expect from players I had returning. In that sense, this year is a little different."
A deep, talented senior class from a year ago gutted the Crimson Bears' core, with five players heading into collegiate programs. As Lehnhart and company circle the wagons indoors amid a muddy, slushy spring, he returns only a pair of full-time starters from a year ago to immediately plug into his lineup - seniors Joe Slagle and Joe Croteau. The good news is that "the Joes" are part of a deep, talented senior class themselves. The bad news is that few others bring varsity experience.
Seniors Aaron Badilla and Ky Clark, along with juniors Jace Mason and Victor Wilson, round out the short list of players that Lehnhart labeled as having played "meaningful minutes" in 2008. That group might work for this year's spring practices, which have been limited to indoor 6-on-6 drills by soggy conditions, but that experienced look thins when spread 11-across during regulation games.
JDHS learned just how different this season could be last week during their annual "spring training" trip to Spokane, Wash. to face a handful of their top local teams. The Bears had enjoyed extended success against their out-of-state hosts in recent years, but were held to a pair of losses and a tie during their rain-shortened trip this year. While Lehnhart was concerned by the outcome of those games, he pointed to the opportunity to watch the Gonzaga University mens soccer team's rough, vocal practice style as a great learning tool.
"Given what transpired last weekend ... we're not used to that," Lehnhart said. "I was pleased that, in the last couple of days, we've shown a completely different level of focus and intensity in practice - especially from the group of players who need to lead this year. That chance to watch Gonzaga might be the most lingering, positive thing from that trip. We've already had a good change from a tough week."
The Bears will have an extra weekend to hone that intensity after their scheduled home-openers against Ketchikan this weekend were rubbed from the schedule due to poor field conditions. Anxious to get out in the fresh air, the team will hold their first outdoor practice today at the downtown turf field at JDHS. A junior varsity contest against the newly-started Sitka varsity boys team will then test out the local field conditions April 17-18. If all goes according to plan, the JDHS teams will be set to host their annual "Spring Fling" tournament, which has been renamed the Don Ashe Memorial Tournament, April 24-25.
Lehnhart is confident that he can field a competitive team out of the roughly 50 players who annually compete in the JDHS system, but said the lack of experience and tight grouping of ability will likely extend the process of setting a varsity roster.
"It's a good problem in a way," Lehnhart said. "We'll have even more kids involved. I'm excited to bring back a group of kids who know what success looks like. Actually, the younger players coming into the program are strong and the older players are being pushed. Practices are very competitive."
The upcoming season is also expected to be rebuilding year for the Bears' recent rivals in the state tournament - South Anchorage. The rise and maturation of other programs has convinced Lehnhart that the upcoming season will show more depth and potential title contenders from all parts of the state.
"Colony's going to be good, Dimond has a chance to be the best Anchorage team, Service is improving, Soldotna has gotten better and better every year," Lehnhart said. "This is the third year now since Fairbanks has started competing in the state tournament. Nobody knows. I think it's going to be exciting year."