The Juneau-Douglas High School baseball team's season kicks into high gear this weekend with a pair of big doubleheaders.
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The Crimson Bears (3-0) will travel south to face two-time defending state champions, Sitka, and East Anchorage on Friday and Saturday.
Despite sweeping a three-game series against Wrangell on April 12-14, in many respects the Bears' season gets started in earnest this weekend. After winter's historic snowfall, JDHS finally practiced outside on Monday after weeks of being confined to a gym.
"It's nice to get out in the field and everyone's happy when you're out on the field," JDHS senior pitcher Ryan Beason said. "I didn't think it was coming for a while. I thought we'd be in the gym all year. It's well overdue to be out here."
Due in part to the lack of practice, the Crimson Bears can't wait to see what they can do against one of Alaska's top programs - Sitka.
With a strong senior class featuring pitchers Andrew Hall, Clae Baker and Beason, along with catcher Nano Jacobson, JDHS figures to be competitive in every game it plays. However, the team is eager to see what it can do against real-live competition.
"I think wins can wait," Jacobson said. "We want to see what our team is like. ... I'd say wins are definitely important, but I'd like to see the team succeed out there."
Of all the Crimson Bears, none are probably more eager to face Sitka than Baker.
The 6-foot-6 pitcher with a mid-80s fastball was forced to watch the Wolves celebrate a Southeast Conference championship last season after yielding a walk-off, three-run home run to E.B. Crow.
Baker will start the first game against the Wolves.
"I want to face all those guys over again," Baker said. "I'm glad I have the first game."
Throughout the decade, Juneau-Douglas and Sitka butted heads for region and state supremacy. The Bears and Wolves won four of the last five state titles, with JDHS winning 2002 and 2003 and Sitka taking the 2005 and 2006 championships.
In recent years Sitka held the upper hand on the Crimson Bears, ending Juneau's season each of the last two years.
Hall believes, however, last year's defeat in the regional title game may have been a blessing in disguise.
"I'm almost, in a way, glad we lost because it made us a better team," Hall said. "If we would've won that state championship that'd have been great. Losing it kind of lit a fire under all these guys. We've all gained so much playing summer ball. Our whole program took a step forward after that game."
This year's version of the Crimson Bears boasts depth at nearly every position.
On the hill, JDHS has a number of pitchers able to eat up innings. Baker, Hall and junior Joe Kohan are experienced starters while Beason has been an effective relief pitcher throughout his high school tenure.
"Experience is everything," Beason said. "Once the pitcher has been there, they know what it's like and how to handle the pressure."
In addition to a strong returning senior class, a number of underclassmen are poised to make their mark.
Freshmen Jamie Daniel, Dylan Baker, Aaron Cohen and Torey Franzen all enjoyed big performances against Wrangell.
"It's kind of intimidating because you were the big dog and best in the league and then you come here and you're just a little freshman and everyone's better than we are," Cohen said of moving up from Little League to high school baseball. "It really gives you something to work for, like that's what I want to be when I'm a senior."
Cohen hit three home runs in three games while sophomores Corey Mahar and Sean Bavard also went deep.
Another bat to watch out for is junior Shane Rud. The infielder logged lots of minutes last year and figures to play an important role in Juneau's fortunes this season.
This year, the road to the state championships became easier as the state tournament expanded from four to eight teams. This means two teams from the Southeast Conference will advance to Fairbanks.
The journey starts this weekend, though. While the team may still be figuring out who can do what, the Crimson Bears are also having a good time practicing and playing.
"We're really comic and like to have fun," Jacobson said. "We have a lot of jokesters on the team. ... We're coming together and we'll find out next week what we have."
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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