It's time to see what the Juneau-Douglas High School softball team can do for an encore.
The two-time defending state champions begin their drive for an unprecedented third-straight state title today by traveling to defending small-school state champion Sitka for a pair of games.
"We're looking real good," junior pitcher Andrea Doerflinger said. "We're returning a lot of players from last year and only lost a couple. The people coming up and replacing them are pretty good."
After demolishing nearly everything in their path last season, the Crimson Bears appear poised for another deep run in the postseason.
The team loses five seniors from last season's squad, but returns a healthy core full of speed and power.
"I think one of our hurdles this year will be to make sure the girls don't obsess over the strength of five seniors we lost from last year's team that all went to play college somewhere and feel that they may not be as good," JDHS coach Dave Massey said. "But I have talked to them a couple of times. I think they have the chance to be every bit as good a team as last year but in a different way."
The team should be particularly strong in the middle of the field.
Doerflinger is a powerful hitter and will be expected to be a shutdown pitcher this season. She may also play some first base
Playing behind Doerflinger are two players who have already committed to NCAA Division I programs: shortstop Torie Powers and second baseman Hannah Barril.
Roaming center field will be senior Alycia Cox, who brings blazing speed and a clutch bat to Massey's lineup.
"She has lots of speed and is one of the best clutch hitters I ever had," Massey said of Cox. "She's maybe her most dangerous when she's 0-for-3. One time she looked bad against Sitka for three at-bats, then knocked in three runs to win the ball game. That's typical of Alycia. She's always dangerous when she has to do it."
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The outfield also features speedsters Madison Massey and Tara Hansen.
Massey proved a solid contributor as an outfielder and a pitcher. Dave Massey praised Hansen's hustle.
"She has lots of speed and she gets dirty when she plays and I love that," Massey said of Hansen.
In the infield, sophomore power hitter Nicole Fenumiai figures to log innings at third base, while Sara Manning brings terrific defensive instincts to first base.
Behind home plate, junior Kayla Janelle steps into the large shoes left behind by the graduated Nicole Bavard.
Though Janelle missed last season with an arm injury, the team and her coaching staff expressed confidence in the Crimson Bears' new catcher.
"She's quick, strong and gets along with the pitchers and does a really good job," Massey said.
Janelle will be receiving the majority of work behind the plate, but the Bears do have depth at the position. Junior Ashliegh Wilwert played well with the junior varsity last season, and freshman backstops Darby Brown and Annie Hegar are the future of the position.
At the pitcher position, sisters Carrie and Katie Laliberte will both throw plenty of in innings.
The Laliberte sisters will also play throughout the field, giving Massey the versatility and depth he covets.
"It does a couple of different things," Massey said of having versatile players. "It makes for a more heads-up ball player because they're aware of what the positions do, so they're more aware and thinking out there. The other is that when you have injuries or, God forbid, an attitude problem, you have the ability to take someone out and put someone in."
Rounding out the team is senior Chelsy Rivera, whom Massey described as a hard worker and great influence on her teammates, along with versatile junior Taelyn Coffee and sophomore Cortney Wagner.
In addition to the new faces on the team, the Crimson Bears will also be taking on new competition.
After playing last year against exclusively Southeast Conference competition, JDHS will be hosting games against Colony and state runner-up Lathrop and will go on the road to face West Valley, North Pole, Wasilla and Palmer.
The Crimson Bears will also take on traditional rivals Sitka, Ketchikan and Prince of Wales.
"I'm very excited," Barril said. "It's really good to get new faces and new teams down here. It's a little more respect for us, so that's good."
By playing against the Mat-Su valleys teams and Fairbanks squads, the Crimson Bears will receiving more recognition state-wide and give the Alaska School Activities Association more criteria for state seeding.
Last season, JDHS outscored its opponents 152-22 in an undefeated regular season but received just a modest four-seed by the Alaska School Activities Association due to the competition.
Not that it mattered much, as JDHS went on to win the state title and fellow Southeast Conference member Sitka won the small-school championships.
"On the average I don't think our schedule will be any harder because our Southeast teams play high-quality ball compared to the rest of the state," Massey said.
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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