The 2001 high school baseball season finally begins today for the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears when they take on Ketchikan in the first of five games to be played in Sitka throughout the next four days.
Juneau plays Ketchikan at 3 p.m. today, Thursday and Friday and it plays Sitka at 6 p.m. Thursday and 12:30 p.m. on Saturday.
The Crimson Bears lost 10 seniors from last year's squad that claimed second-place at the first official state baseball tournament, losing to East Anchorage 3-1 in the championship game. But head coach Jim Ayers, in his second year as the Crimson Bears' skipper, says his team will be as competitive as any team in the state again this year.
"We got a great group of guys," Jim Ayers said. "These guys are a team in every sense of the word. Last year's team set the foundation and now we have a great program going here."
Last year, the Crimson Bears began their season at home and finished the last two weeks on the road in the short, three-week regular season. This year, the schedule is reversed with Juneau starting the season on the road for two weeks before coming home for the season finale May 17-19. That last weekend will likely determine who will represent Southeast at the state tournament.
"We're not as big or experienced as Ketchikan and Sitka, who have a lot of returning players," Jim Ayers said. "We don't have the 250-pound guys who knock it out of the park, but we're fast and can play the game. Ketchikan played us a tough as anyone last year and have a lot of seniors back. Sitka has five good seniors and they beat us last year here at home. I have a lot of respect for their programs and they are tough ball clubs.
"Our goals are to play baseball at the top of our game and compete in the Southeast at a high level. The first series will tell us where we're at."
Pitching looks to be a strong point for Juneau despite a lack of left-handed pitching. Senior right-hander Will Nicholas, junior right-hander Dylan Hickey and junior right-hander and co-captain Brett Fairchild will anchor this year's staff. Sophomore Evan Scandling, who will also see significant playing time at first base, is Juneau's only lefty and sophomore Zach Kohan will likely round out the starting rotation.
Juniors Greg Smith, Bruno Del Olmo and Kalen Meek will also add depth for the Bears in the pitching department.
"You never know what to think of left-handers to start with," Jim Ayers said "We got Dylan (Hickey) and Will (Nicholas) who pitched great against East last year in the state finals. I think they will be tough. All these guys go 80 (mph) with good location and mix up pitches real well."
"Our pitching is really strong," co-captain Hickey said. "I'm going to do a lot more pitching this year, stay focused and get in a lot of innings."
Juneau's infield features four starting sophomores, led by shortstop Joe Ayers who started as a freshman last year and will be the Bears lead-off hitter in the lineup. Matt Freeman will start at second base and Kohan and Scandling will play third and first, respectively when they are not pitching.
Senior Brian Thatcher is the team's No. 1 catcher, but will sit out this week's games due to an injured finger. Sophomore Bud Baun will take his place and senior Reed Willis will also see playing time as catcher this year.
"I'd be concerned about our infield if they weren't sophomore phenoms," co-captain Nicholas said. "We like to call them the Fab Four. They are all fundamentally sound and Bud's (Baun) got a great arm to second base."
Joe Ayers, Freeman and Scandling were all honored as rookie all-Americans at the Baseball Factory's all-American Weekend on Jan. 12-14 at DodgerTown in Vero Beach, Fla.
The outfield looks strong with junior Jake Dutton in center field, Mike Rader in left field and Fairchild in right field when not pitching. Seniors Jesse Blackwell and Bryson Buck, as well as junior C.J. Corso and sophomore Dave Coogan look to be solid back-ups for the Crimson Bear outfield.
"We want to have the toughest defense in the state," Jim Ayers said. "Our strengths are our speed and knowing the game. I'm not yelling at these guys that there are runners at first and third with nobody out. They know what to do and love playing baseball. We're ready to go to Sitka."
"I just want to win state," Nicholas said. "That's the goal no matter what it takes. If our team plays like we can, it'll be no problem."
As of this morning, KINY-AM 800 is scheduled to broadcast just Thursday's 3 p.m. game against Ketchikan, although more broadcasts could possibly be announced this afternoon, according to KINY program director Guy Jones.
Jeff Kasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.