Call them the Crimson Bears A.S. - After Spokane.
The Juneau-Douglas High School boys soccer team began practicing this season with a near-complete turnover from the starting lineup that won a state championship last year.
Offensive stars like Alex Thibodeau and Lee Sullivan, and the defensive line that carried Juneau to the title - Colin Conerton, Kirk Mearig, Joe Stendahl and Kyle Thibodeau - all were lost to graduation.
But this year's Crimson Bears - an assemblage of upperclassmen who have paid their dues and developed their skills on junior varsity and the varsity bench, along with some talented sophomores - emerged from their annual season-opening trip to Spokane, Wash., with a 3-0-1 record against high-quality opponents.
And more than wins, last week's road success gave the Juneau players a shot of confidence as they return for their in-state schedule.
"I was a bit skeptical," senior midfielder and co-captain Kiel Urata said of his mindset before the trip. "I knew we had quite a bit of speed and some playmakers, but the question I had was, 'Can we mold together, play as a team?'"
And after Spokane?
"I thought everybody really stepped it up. ... After those games, we're really excited to play. We want to work harder."
"We didn't play great soccer and still got results," senior midfielder and co-captain Alex Newton said. "We got results, and we can play four times, five times better than that. It showed us how great we can be."
The invigorated Crimson Bears open their home season on Friday night against the Palmer Moose in the inaugural Spring Fever series, which also includes Chugiak. Friday's game begins at 8 p.m. at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park; for more information on Spring Fever, see the accompanying story.
Coach Gary Lehnhart said he expected his team to struggle in Spokane. But rather than playing with the sense of invincibility that can accompany a state title, the Bears played with a sense of vulnerability that kept them focused.
"We played the right way," Lehnhart said. "If we play like we could lose, we'll do well. If we play like we're entitled, last week will be a distant memory."
Urata said the team has the drive to make sure that doesn't happen.
"Everyone on the team is willing to work, to leave everything on the field," Urata said. "It's that kind of mentality that will help us get to where we need to be."
Urata and Newton will help control the games from their midfield spots - the duo is "the heart of it," Lehnhart said - and they were able to prevent breakaways and keep opponents' offenses in check in Spokane. Seniors Nathan Schroeder and Patrick Hoke and junior Cheyenne Sanchez will see time in a defensive midfield role.
Senior Cameron Mitchell, junior Nick Ellenbecker and sophomores Jamaal Bailey, Dylan Ashe and Kabil Seesan will be playing up front for the Crimson Bears.
Juniors Ian Brinkman, Dan Hernandez and Matt Kern have taken over on the defensive back line for Juneau, aided by senior Richard Isett. They performed well in Spokane.
"That was the biggest surprise for me last week, how successful they were," Lehnhart said.
Juneau is deep in goalkeeper prospects, but sophomore Matthew Walton had strong games in Spokane and emerged as the leading candidate to replace Conerton.
While the Crimson Bears were limited on how many players they could take to Spokane, Lehnhart said he plans to give additional players a look in this weekend's games.
Though the season is young, Lehnhart said the varsity's success so far is a credit to the JV work his assistants - Colin Barton and Matt Dusenberry - have done the past few years.
"When you look at it, it says a lot about what (they're) doing with the JV," Lehnhart said. "(Players) are getting trained, getting opportunities at that level that gets them prepared."
"We didn't have a lot of experience, but we had great JV coaches and we were ready to step up (in Spokane)," Kern said. Kern added that the many varsity openings this season spurred players to improve their games, so they could earn a varsity spot.
The Crimson Bears have a busy schedule after this weekend. Juneau will travel to Ketchikan for games on Monday and Tuesday, then return home for games against Service on April 23-24 - a rematch of last year's state title game. The Crimson Bears will head north April 28-30 for games at Wasilla, West Anchorage and Chugiak, and will make a second trip May 6-8 for matches at Palmer, Colony and Chugiak.
Juneau hosts Ketchikan on May 14-15 for its final regular-season games. The winner of the season's Juneau-Kayhi series earns a spot at the state tournament in Wasilla on May 20-22.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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