The Juneau-Douglas High School boys soccer team practiced Tuesday in heavy rain on a field partially covered by snow, and it was clear that the team is on a mission.
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The Crimson Bears are determined to improve on last year's third-place finish at the state tournament. JDHS missed the state finals for the first time in seven seasons.
The Bears open their home schedule at 2:30 p.m. today against West Valley, followed by a 7:45 p.m. game with Ketchikan.
"No one was happy with the finish last year," JDHS coach Gary Lehnhart said. "We return this year with the desire not to let that kind of season happen again."
It takes a successful program to consider third-best in the state a disappointment. Things were much different not all that long ago, Lehnhart said.
"Even in Alaska, we were still a second-tier team even in the late 90's," Lehnhart said. "Now, we've become year in and year out one of the best teams in Alaska."
Lehnhart's dedication, along with healthy community support, helped bring the team to regional prominence. With success, however, comes heightened expectations.
The Bears recently returned from a trip to Spokane, Wash., where they played against some tough competition. The team went 2-1-1, scoring 10 goals.
"We play every year in Spokane," Lehnhart said. "We played four games in four days, including games against two of the best teams in Spokane. I was very pleased with the way we played in Spokane. I was pleasantly surprised with our play at this point."
The team's play in Spokane has become something of a measuring board, with the team growing stronger each season. This year, Lehnhart said Juneau-Douglas returns a strong team to the field.
On offense, the Crimson Bears should be especially potent.
"We have a strong returning front line, so that should be a particular strength since I think that we are going to be able to score goals, and in soccer that is the most difficult thing to do," Lehnhart said. "Jamaal Bailey and Dylan Ashe will really give us a lot of punch up there.
"Kabil Seesan is a senior who will bring in a lot of experience. He'll play along with Colin Flynn and Dom Smith who are both very talented young players, in fact some of the most talented players on the West Coast."
Bailey, a JDHS midfielder and forward, agreed with his coach's assessment.
"Our team should be really strong offensively and we've got a lot of depth at every position," Bailey said. "Not many other programs can really say that they have our kind of depth."
In midfield, the Crimson Bears will be anchored by senior captain Eric Gullufsen.
"He's got to be the bridge between our offense and defense," Lehnhart said of Gullufsen.
Defensively, the team will have new players in the back. Coach and players alike expressed optimism about the fullbacks' abilities.
"This season I really feel that we'll be able to hold people to low scores and win the one-goal games, which is very important in soccer," Lehnhart said.
"Carlo Ebron will anchor and Rob Sylvester will be new to the starting role. Ely Wray will be our goalkeeper. He's a senior and has definitely earned it."
Senior defender Matt Walton shares his coach's sentiments about the Bears' defense this year. Walton currently leads the team with five assists.
"I think we will hold our own on defense really well this year," Walton said. "We do get back in position on defense pretty quick. We're really just a strong team all-around."
Overall, the Bears have high expectations for themselves. Success is nothing short of a title.
"Our mindset is simply to win state this year," Walton said. "For us seniors, we haven't won. We've only been runner-up. This year we'd like to take home something and the younger guys are helping us out with that."
Bailey added, "Ultimately, our goal is to win a state championships. We definitely have a lot of potential if everyone wants it bad enough. But we'll take that game by game and practice by practice all the way to the end."