When the Juneau-Douglas High School softball team took the field last year the Crimson Bears didn't know what to expect.
Juneau won the 2002 state championship, but had done it with a senior-laden team that didn't leave many returners for the 2003 season. With a squad where more than 75 percent of the players were freshmen and sophomores, the Crimson Bears were able to reach the state championship game last year, losing 7-1 to a senior-dominated Chugiak team.
Now, expectations are high as the Crimson Bears prepare to open the Alaska portion of their 2004 schedule. Juneau is still a young squad - only two seniors, and one's new to the team - but the 10 of the 12 Crimson Bears on the roster played in last year's title game.
"I think it's going to be an awesome season," junior catcher Nicole Bavard said. "Last year we had a slow start, but we picked up a lot during the season. This year we're going to try and do it from the beginning."
"Everyone's a year older and our expectations have moved up," said junior pitcher/first baseman Ashley Larson, who joins sophomore shortstop/pitcher Hannah Barril as returning all-state tournament players for the Crimson Bears. "Last year we were happy to make the title game. We weren't expecting to do what we did."
The Crimson Bears, who normally take a preseason trip to Arizona as part of the Midnight Suns Fastpitch Softball Association, did something different this year. Instead of taking part in a lot of clinics and having one or two Midnight Suns games, the Crimson Bears played five games as a high school team against teams from Arizona and Oregon. The Crimson Bears posted a 2-3 record at the Horizon Invitational on March 24-27, a 12-team tournament hosted by Horizon High School of Scottsdale, Ariz., that usually features a couple of nationally ranked teams.
Juneau opened the tournament a day later than most of the teams - because the Crimson Bears hadn't been able to get their 10 practices in before starting the season - so that meant playing three games in one day to catch up. Exact scores weren't available, but Juneau lost its opener to Horizon, beat Peoria (Ariz.) and then lost to Lake Oswego (Ore.) on the first day. Juneau then beat Aloha (Beaverton, Ore.) before losing to Cactus (Glendale, Ariz.).
"We finished in the top six," Juneau coach Dave Massey said. "We got knocked out of the tourney by Cactus High School, which has been ranked fifth in the country. We were tied 1-1 in the fifth before Jordan (Johnston) was injured and we gave up eight runs.
"I was pretty happy to be able to go into a city of 3 million people and hold our own. Basically we were going in our first games against teams that had already played 8-10 games and been practicing for a month. We brought up four freshmen (from the junior varsity) and we were able to get them into some games, so winning the tournament wasn't our top priority."
Juneau opens the Alaska portion of its schedule with three games on Friday and Saturday in Sitka, which made its first trip to the state tournament last year. The Crimson Bear varsity team will be idle the next two weekends, while the JV team will make an Anchorage trip April 28-May 1. The varsity hosts Prince of Wales on May 7-8 and Ketchikan on May 10-11. Juneau goes to POW on May 14-15 and Ketchikan on May 17-18, then hosts Sitka on May 21-22 to close out the regular season. The state tournament is June 4-5 at Hez Ray Fields in Fairbanks.
Rachel Barril, an outfielder/ third baseman, is Juneau's only returning senior from last year's team. Senior outfielder/second baseman Ashley Troutt, who grew up in Juneau but played varsity softball for Washington, D.C.'s Sherwood High School last year, rejoins her old Midnight Suns teammates. Troutt did not play high school softball her freshman and sophomore years - she was on Juneau's dance/drill team instead - but is a veteran of several Midnight Suns teams.
"We're just comfortable with each other," Rachel Barril said. "We know how we work."
"I feel pretty comfortable since I've played ball with these girls since I was 8 years old," Troutt said. "I'm not worried."
Besides Bavard and Larson, the other juniors on the team are third baseman/outfielder Ilea Belcourt, shortstop/rightfielder Jordan Johnston and second baseman/outfielder Melissa White.
"We're feeling pretty good," White said. "We're stronger in some ways than last year, and we've been practicing a lot. And we've been bonding."
"We just want to do really good," Belcourt added. "In the past our defense has been our mainstay, but our offense is getting pretty good."
There also are five sophomores on the squad - Hannah Barril, pitcher/ outfielder/first baseman/ second baseman Torie Powers, centerfielder Alycia Cox, pitcher/outfielder Alicia Maryott and outfielder/first baseman Sara Manning. Manning is the other player new to the varsity, but she played JV ball last year and was on the varsity during a road trip to Prince of Wales when other varsity players weren't available.
One of the keys to last year's success was the development of Juneau's young pitching staff. Despite being one of the state's top three teams for most of the last decade, the Crimson Bear pitchers had never thrown a no-hitter until last season. Then they had a no-hit weekend where the pitchers combined for three of them (Larson and Hannah Barril had complete-game no-hitters, while Powers and Maryott combined on the other). Larson also had another no-hitter and a couple of one-hitters.
"I believe we'll do really well," Johnston said. "It'll be pretty intense, but I think we'll do pretty well. ... We're feeling pretty comfortable. We've got the same team, just two extra people is all."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.