Before they ever played a high school game, coach Colin Barton knew the seniors on this year's Juneau-Douglas girls soccer team were something special.
In middle school, they won Juneau's first-ever State Cup soccer title with the U14 Wave. They entered their prep careers playing with unity and showing great promise - promise that will culminate this season as they take their final shot at winning the program's first state title.
"I said four years ago, 'the 86ers, when they come of age, we'll have a good team,'" said Barton, referring to the seniors' 1986 birth dates. He'll be sharing coaching duties with Sandi Wagner.
"We've got very good seniors - a lot of experience, a lot of good soccer skills."
Juneau's senior leadership starts with co-captains Laura Flynn - an anchor on defense - and Greta Thibodeau, who will be counted on to provide a spark on offense.
"We've all played together since sixth grade, and the younger players are filling in nicely," Flynn said.
Juneau opens its season tonight against Pagosa Springs, Colo., in the first game of the inaugural Spring Fever series. The Crimson Bears and Pirates will face off at 7 p.m. at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park. For more on this weekend's games - which also feature Chugiak and Palmer - see the accompanying story.
The Crimson Bears are looking to improve on last year's fourth-place finish at state. Juneau went 12-0-1 in the regular season and lost in the first round at state before winning two consolation games to end the year.
Flynn heads a tall, all-senior defensive back line that also includes Alida Bus and Tasha McKoy - both fresh off a state runner-up finish with the girls basketball team. Barton said they are ably filling the shoes of graduated players like Liza Slotnick, Stephanie Orsi and Chelsea Farrington. Freshman Talisa Rhea, another basketball player, also may see some time on the defensive line.
Flynn was named Alaska's Gatorade Player of the Year prior to this season, and as captain she helped organize a regimen of off-season team workouts.
"She has a whole new dimension to her game this year," Barton said. "She communicates better. The leadership is there."
The back line will work to make life easier for junior Erin Cottingham and senior Julie Heard, who will be handling goalkeeping duties.
At midfield, sophomore Jessy Post - an all-state player last season - will take an attacking role. Senior Kendri Cesar is slotted for the defensive midfield role, but is recovering from an ankle injury. Junior Monica Daugherty has been playing at that position in Cesar's absence.
Thibodeau takes over as the team's offensive leader from all-state scorer Callan Janowiec, who graduated.
"One of our goals is to score a lot of goals, "We're hoping for good things from Greta," Barton said. "We've got others who can score, and plenty who can shoot - and shoot from distance. It's just getting them confident to do so."
Thibodeau will be joined up front by fellow senior and longtime teammate Nicole Lupro, and they said their familiarity with each other's game should lead to some offensive "magic" on the field.
Senior Crystal Barr, junior Theresa Badilla, sophomore Gretchen Dierking and freshman Sarah Christianson also will see time at midfield or up front.
The Crimson Bears have been hit by injuries - in addition to Cesar, freshman Lindsey Kato and sophomore Marita Rodriguez are sidelined. While the injuries are unwelcome, they have opened the door for other players.
"It's given a chance for other people to step up," Flynn said. "It's good that more people are getting to play" to provide game experience for later in the season.
For the Juneau players who are healthy, offseason workouts - like those organized by Flynn - are paying off.
"We've worked a lot harder this year," Thibodeau said.
"We're more conditioned," Lupro said. "Our (2-mile run) times were much better than last year."
Other players who may see varsity time this season include freshmen Brittany Lehnhart, Audrey Wagner and Jessica Waste; sophomores Jordan Cottingham, Cindy Eriksen, Rochele Rodman and Erin Thompson; and junior Lindsey Heumann.
Assisting Barton and Wagner on the sidelines this season will be Joann Quigg, Rod Flynn, Noel Shima and Krista Heard.
After this weekend's games, the Crimson Bears will have little rest before heading to Ketchikan for games on Monday and Tuesday. The tentative schedule for the rest of the season takes Juneau on the road April 28-30 for games at Wasilla, West Anchorage and Chugiak, and again on May 6-8 for games at Palmer, Colony and Bartlett. The Crimson Bears will finish the regular season at home on May 14-15 against Ketchikan.
The winner of the four-game Juneau-Kayhi series earns a trip to the state tournament, held May 20-22 at Wasilla.
"We have a pretty strong team," Post said. "Good leadership, and some younger players coming up that will contribute."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.