Juneau-Douglas came up short in its bid for back-to-back state softball championships last year after winning it all in 2008, but the Crimson Bears are back with an experienced team and state title dreams for 2010.
And it doesn't hurt to have the reigning state Gatorade Player of the Year, senior Brittany Fenumiai, back in the fold once again for her fourth season on the varsity, along with a host of talented juniors.
"We have mainly juniors and only three seniors this year, so it's kind of similar to our basketball season," Fenumiai said, comparing the softball team's depth and balance with the girls' basketball Bears, which she helped lead to the state title in March. "We've all been playing the game for so long, and lots of the girls work really well together. We have good chemistry."
With so much depth returning, the Bears will hit the field running. And the championship quest begins today at Ketchikan.
"Our plan is pretty much set. We have most of our kids back," manager Dave Massey said. "We don't have any holes."
The Bears return third baseman Gabby Saldivar, who Massey said is "solid as a rock" at the hot corner. There will likely be a three-girl platoon at shortstop, with Kalea Chapman getting the nod most of the time, Massey said.
"We do have to replace our starter from last year at short, but we have three potentials there in Krista (Barril), though I'd prefer to have her in the outfield because of her speed and amazing arm," Massey said. "And we also have Kalea Chapman and Megan Mauseth. Kalea is probably going to get most of our shortstop work this year, but she's also our backup catcher.
"We're blessed to have kids that have played there and I feel comfortable no matter who comes in (at short)."
Fenumiai and Jennifer Nelson will rotate between the pitching rubber and second base, and Haley Pusich is a newcomer at first.
"I have to look up to her. She's the new Stretch," Massey said of Pusich, referring to her great height, which is perfect for a first baseman. "She's doing a great job, has gotten a little more aggressive and is a nice target over there. She's hitting the ball real well, so she's a great fit."
Calling the game from behind the plate will be Kaci Hansen.
"She's a junior and this is her third year on varsity," Massey said. "She started every other game most of last year, although we had an All-State catcher. Kaci did a great job when she caught, and she's looking a lot better even than she did last year. She's a great receiver."
Barril's superb athleticism and speed will allow her to cover a lot of ground in the outfield, where she will mostly start alongside Mauseth and junior Taylor Larson.
"Taylor is really strong and can play first base, but she has really good wheels and runs really well, so (the outfield's) a good place for her," Massey said. "We'll have three girls in the outfield that run well and throw well, so we'll be really solid."
Fenumiai is entrenched in the No. 3 hole in the lineup as the team's most well-rounded hitter, while the Bears have interchangeable parts at nearly every other spot in the order.
"We're still working out lots of options," Massey said of the lineup. "We have to see how it fits - in different trips it will fit differently depending on who's injured. But we have a lot of flexibility and kids can fit in different roles. Brittany is a classic No. 3 hitter - high batting average with great power and good wheels. After that, it depends on how kids are doing.
"In general, once we set the lineup, it has a tendency to stay unless we have injuries or kids are putting too much pressure on themselves."
Massey said he considers all of his kids equally valuable at the plate because he has a bevy of good hitters, and it doesn't much matter who bats first, second or ninth.
"The first inning is the only time it really makes a whole lot of difference," Massey said of the top of the order. "Other than that, I expect them all to hit. Most of the time, our rallies are started by someone other than our leadoff hitter."
One of the key components of having a good lineup in fastpitch softball is having girls who can bunt and move runners over. Massey said Chapman will be counted on in that capacity with her ability to put the ball in play and great speed to reach base.
Massey assumes Lathrop will be the Bears' top threat in the Railbelt Conference, which also includes West Valley, North Pole and Colony. Palmer has just a JV team this year, and will return to varsity play next year.
Massey said the Bears have a solid schedule with a full compliment of 22 games, including traditional matchups with Southeast schools Ketchikan and Sitka, who are in a different conference in softball.
Fenumiai said the key to the Bears getting back to the top of the heap is consistency.
"We need to finish every game and not let up," she said. "And we need to play our game in the box and not let the pitcher play us. Last year, we struggled at state to hit. So, hopefully, this year we can make those changes and adjustments to hit throughout the whole game and not just a couple of innings."
Massey agreed that maintaining focus is a primary concern.
"The keys for us is practicing better and trying to get better individually. We want to have fun because this is not a mandatory requirement that they do this," he said. "And we need to focus. Baseball and softball are strange sports where there is a lot of free (time), and then a two- or three-second focus point. You need to be able to pull yourself into that focus point and accomplish what it is you want to accomplish. We need to be able to snap into our focus, then release it and laugh and have fun.
"We're learning to do that, and have a good group of girls with a lot of talent. It's going to be a great year."