The Juneau-Douglas High School softball team enters this season a little differently than previous years.
Being called defending state champions has a way of putting the upcoming season into a different light.
"We've never been a favorite before," Crimson Bears coach Dave Massey said. " I think people look at us as a favorite. I still don't think we're a favorite. I still think the Anchorage teams are the favorites. That's the way we'll approach things."
The JDHS varsity opens defense of its title today and tomorrow at Southeast rival Ketchikan with a pair of doubleheaders.
With a strong senior core and a number of interchangeable parts, JDHS appears poised to make another title run. Senior pitcher Ashley Larson knows, however, that only hard work makes a champion.
"People might think you're cocky or arrogant because you won but to me it shows we have to prove ourselves again," Larson said. "I know up north there are some good teams. ... We really need to work that much harder to prove we should be there again."
An important lesson learned in last year's championship run was the power of focus. The Bears couldn't afford to look past a team or even a play during the 2004 state tournament. JDHS fought out of the losers' bracket and won four games in one day to capture the title.
By focusing on the moment, the Bears will try to maintain their edge.
"Our attitude is that we just don't think about it," senior third baseman Ilea Belcourt said. "If it's a team like Ketchikan or Sitka, we don't think about whether we can beat them, we think play to play and take it as it goes."
Besides focus, another key for Juneau is versatility.
The Bears will carry 12 players on the varsity and nearly every player plays multiple positions. JDHS also boasts five different players who can pitch, giving coach Massey different ways to plan for opponents and prepare his team.
"One of the things we look for is versatility because we can't have much non-versatility," Massey said. "Everybody has to be able to play outfield and everyone has to have an infield position and they all do."
Being multifaceted not only helps defensively, but also at the plate.
Senior right fielder Jordan Johnston brings power, speed and the ability to produce anywhere in the lineup.
"Last year it was Jordan Johnston in the one-or-two spot," Larson said. "She's a big girl so she could hit three, four, or five and she's aggressive on the basepaths. It throws people off to see her hit one or two."
This season also marks the last hurrah for a senior class that played together since middle school.
After years of sweat, memories, wins and losses, a second-straight state title would be an amazing ending to an already stellar career.
"We're just a stronger team, emotionally and physically," Belcourt said. "We've been playing together since we were 11. This summer is our last trip. Our last home game will be emotional."
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