The Juneau-Douglas High School boys soccer team has been going to Spokane, Wash., for six years now to open the season.
This weekend, one of the Spokane teams will be in Juneau for the first time in what is believed to be the first visit to Alaska by a Lower 48 squad since high school soccer began in the mid-1980s.
The Crimson Bears will host the Ferris Saxons varsity and junior varsity teams on Friday and Saturday. The varsity teams play at 8 p.m. on Friday (JV game at 4:30 p.m.) at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park, with the Saturday's varsity game at 5 p.m. (JV at 3 p.m.).
"Everyone's getting excited, especially since they're our first home games," Juneau senior center midfielder Robert Lossett said. "I think we'll do well. We're both really good teams."
"They've always been a powerhouse," Juneau senior wing Travis Croteau said. "It will definitely be the toughest competition we'll see."
The Saxons improved to 11-0-0 on the season with a 4-3 overtime shootout victory over Shadle Park on Wednesday, giving up nearly as many goals in that game as they'd allowed all season (four until Wednesday). Ferris is ranked 15th in the Student Sports Inc. magazine's spring soccer Fab 50 national rankings released on Tuesday.
The Saxons finished second in last year's Washington state tournament, losing the title game 2-1 to Decatur High of Federal Way when Decatur scored with 30 seconds left in the second overtime period.
"Ferris is the one team we've never beat when we've gone to Spokane," Juneau coach Gary Lehnhart said. "This will probably be the greatest pair of soccer matches this town has ever seen."
While Ferris brings national rankings to Juneau, the Crimson Bears are very familiar with the Saxons. When Juneau lost to Ferris 4-2 last year, the Crimson Bears scored the first two goals Ferris had given up in eight games. In its previous trips to Spokane, Juneau lost 2-0 to Ferris in 2000, 1-0 in 1999, 2-0 in 1998 and 3-2 in an overtime shootout in 1997 when Ferris was missing several key players.
The defending Alaska state champion Crimson Bears (6-0-0 overall) aren't ranked in the Student Sports poll, but Ferris coach Robin Crain said he believes Juneau will be ranked when the first National Soccer Coaches Association of America spring poll is released on Sunday. Juneau became the first Alaska team to be included in the NSCAA's West Region rankings last season, reaching the ninth spot. Ferris is ranked third in the Student Sports rankings for the West Region.
"I watched three of Juneau's four games when they were in Spokane," Crain said. "This is the best team they've had so far, even better than last year. They would be one of the top teams in our league."
When Juneau made its annual pilgrimage to Spokane two weekends ago, the Crimson Bears beat Lewis and Clark 4-0, University 1-0, Mount Spokane 5-1 and Mead 1-0. Since then, Juneau swept a pair of games in Ketchikan, winning 9-0 and 3-1 last weekend when some Juneau players felt they played down to their competition. Juneau scored eight goals in the second half of the first Ketchikan game, otherwise the scores were close.
"Hopefully we'll play this weekend better than we did against Ketchikan," Juneau senior center midfielder Jon Rue said. "We didn't play well in the first half of the first game and the whole second game. We didn't play the way we did in Spokane. If we play these games like we did in Ketchikan, we're in for a long weekend."
Ferris and Juneau play similar styles of soccer, with strong team defense pushing the ball forward to offenses with several scoring weapons. Ferris has had 10 different players score goals this season, while Juneau has had eight scorers.
Ferris is led in scoring by Derek Mulgrew, Ian O'Neill and Cody Wilson. O'Neill and sweeper Steve Keppel are Ferris' two captains. Keppel is helped on defense by Dan Munhall, Blake Shigeno and Austin Washington. Starting goalkeeper David Crawford has a deep thigh bruise and probably won't play this weekend, although he is making the trip, Crain said.
Some of the similarities can be traced to the long relationship between Crain and Lehnhart.
When the two coaches were in college in the early 1980s, Lehnhart was a defender at Whitworth College and he had to mark Crain, who was a forward at Western Washington. Later Crain and Lehnhart were assistant soccer coaches together at Whitworth and they were high school basketball coaches together at St. George's Academy in Spokane.
For more than 10 summers, Crain has come to Alaska to help out when Lehnhart has run his Thunder Mountain Sports Camp program in Juneau. Crain said he remembered having former Juneau player Justin Dorn, who is now playing for Gonzaga University, in one of his Thunder Mountain groups when Dorn was 6 years old.
"Robin has been one the biggest supporters of our program in Juneau," Lehnhart said. "We're really excited about our games and we're hoping we have a big turnout."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.