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Three softball fields at Melvin Park emanated with the sounds of softballs smacking leather mitts during the Juneau-Douglas High School softball team's second day of outdoor practice Wednesday.
With 37 players in the program, nearly half of whom are freshmen, the Crimson Bears program has never been healthier or more robust. It can also make for a cramped practice inside a gym, which is where the Bears' held practice for the last couple of week prior to Tuesday.
"It was the biggest relief," senior third baseman Cortney Wagner said of getting outside.
The defending state champions and six-time title holders will open the season today in Sitka.
Coach Dave Massey pinpointed 10 athletes for the varsity squad and plans to use two to six more players throughout the season to fill out his roster. The majority of the varsity players boast significant high school experience and are no strangers to playing high-level softball.
The team's biggest strength figures to be its defense. Wagner, shortstop Nicole Fenumiai, first baseman Rachel Peyton and catcher Darby Brown have played varsity before while second baseman Brittany Fenumiai is no stranger to Massey's program.
The outfield features speedsters Krista Barril, Hannah Massey and freshman Megan Hart.
"Defensively, this team has a chance to be the best defensive team we've ever had," coach Massey said. "We have a lot of speed and a lot of people who can play defense. The infield is all upperclassmen, except for Brittany. If they stay focused, they should play defense really, really well."
An experienced infield should give the pitching staff plenty of confidence.
Senior Carrie Laliberte should start today's game while Brittany Fenumiai and Barril should log innings this season. Freshman Jennifer Nelson may also see some time on the rubber.
"(The defense) makes me feel very confident," Laliberte said. "I don't feel as much pressure on myself. It's comforting to know they're behind me and I don't have to strike everyone out."
Laliberte throws plenty of off-speed pitches, which should lead to plenty of ground-ball outs. Fenumiai, meanwhile, serves as more of a power pitcher.
"(Laliberte's) pitches tend to move a certain way and Brittany's move a different way," Dave Massey said. "They are different, but I think they complement each other."
Offensively, Juneau's team speed should create havoc for opposing defenses. Traditionally, Bears coaches preached aggression on the basepaths. Expect more of the same this season.
However, it won't be all bunts and infield singles for Juneau-Douglas.
"We always try to swing the bat hard, that's the way we do it," Massey said. "We'll probably introduce more short game because we have a lot more speed this year. But we also want to hit the ball hard."
While the varsity will feature mostly returning players, Juneau's freshman class will be intriguing to watch.
Page and Nelson should see varsity time. The remainder of the freshman class will also make an impact, if not this year, than in the seasons ahead.
The majority of the freshmen played together since they were eight and nine years old as the Midnight Suns youth team and in Little League.
Dave Massey said the talent level of the freshman class is "extremely high."
"If they continue to work," he said, "they could end up being one of the best classes we've ever had in terms of quantity and quality."
Contact sports editor Tim Nichols at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.