After sweeping five games in Ketchikan to open the season April 18-20, the Juneau-Douglas High School girls softball team is feeling good about its chances to win a state championship.
The Crimson Bears took third place in last year's state tournament, the closest they've come since winning it all in 1999. With 11 returners on its 14-player roster, including six seniors, the Crimson Bears feel they've got as good a chance as anyone to win state.
"I feel like we've got a lot of experience in going to state," senior pitcher-outfielder Rae Walker said. "We've been there and we know what it takes mentally. We just need to see what Anchorage has."
"We've got good bats, really good bats," added senior Krista Staveland, who plays centerfield. "We had really good defense, and a lot of returners. People did good on defense and it was good to see what they've got in Ketchikan and Sitka."
Last weekend, Juneau had only been outside for three practices before it opened its season with a 2-1 non-Region V victory over Ketchikan and a 4-1 Region V victory over Sitka on Thursday. But that was just the warm-up, as the Crimson Bears stepped things up over the next two days. Juneau crushed Ketchikan 9-1 in a Region V counter on Friday, then the Crimson Bears blanked Sitka 13-0 and Ketchikan 7-0 in Saturday's Region V games.
"It seems like we made better contact this year than at the same time last year," Juneau head coach Kari Monagle said.
For the weekend, Juneau outscored the other two Region V varsity teams 35-3. The Crimson Bears hit over .400 and only committed three errors. Juneau's pitchers allowed just 27 hits (with three doubles the only extra-base hits allowed) and walked four batters, while striking out 25 hitters in 31 innings. Juneau's hitters connected for 57 hits (including 12 doubles and two triples) and walked 12 times, while striking out just eight times.
"We looked really sharp," senior third baseman Kynde Baun said. "We just had to get warmed up. I don't think we're behind."
"It looks really good," senior shortstop Kari Parr said. "Offensively, we're crushing the ball. We're younger than last year, but I think we'll do well. We played in some real games and we have a batting cage now."
Juneau's six seniors are catcher Suzanne Parr, Kari Parr, Walker, Baun, Staveland and first baseman-outfielder Caroline Levale. Also back are three juniors -- first baseman-outfielder Danielle Larson, pitcher-infielder-outfielder Stephanie Heard and pitcher-leftfielder-second baseman Tally Israelson. Two sophomores return after they played varsity ball last year -- second baseman Julie Heard and rightfielder-third baseman Rachel Barril. Plus three freshmen made the varsity team -- pitcher-first baseman Ashley Larson, pitcher-first baseman-outfielder Erika Lindsey and utility player Jordan Johnston.
One of the season's early surprises has been how quickly the freshmen pitchers have fit into the team. Ashley Larson won twice on the mound in Ketchikan, with Lindsey picking up a win and three saves.
"We'd seen them play, but we never got to play with them," said Walker, who also won two games last weekend. "It's not very often freshmen can cut it like that."
"I was impressed by our pitching and they way our freshmen are stepping in," Suzanne Parr said. "We'd seen them in camps, but we'd always been coaching them. We want to make them feel accepted, and we didn't really know how good they were."
The Crimson Bears are off this weekend, but next week they'll get to see how they fare against the six Anchorage teams.
Juneau heads north to play Chugiak and Dimond on Wednesday, May 1. The Crimson Bears play Service and East Anchorage on Thursday, followed by Bartlett and Chugiak on Friday.
The Crimson Bears lost their chance to play the Anchorage teams last year, when a freak late-April snowstorm turned Juneau's road trip into a shopping junket. And that left the Crimson Bears a little unsure about what to expect when they got to the state tournament. Juneau lost 1-0 in its opener against Dimond, then won four losers' bracket games before falling 3-0 to eventual runner-up Chugiak. Chugiak beat Service to force an if-necessary game, but Service won its second straight title with an 8-7 victory.
"Service and Chugiak are the teams we've always got to watch for," Suzanne Parr said.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.