With bricks of height and heart, and mortar of time, four Juneau-Douglas High School senior boys have built a defensive wall on the soccer field this season.
Defenders Kirk Mearig, Joe Stendahl and Kyle Thibodeau, along with goalkeeper Colin Conerton, have helped the Crimson Bears post five shutouts this year. Going into the last games of the regular season - a pair of home matches against Ketchikan this weekend - Juneau's defense has allowed just 10 goals in 13 games.
"Defense wins games" has been a common phrase among the Crimson Bears this season, and the back-line quartet epitomizes that motto.
"Our future is in their hands," Juneau coach Gary Lehnhart said, "and I'm glad it's in their hands."
The Juneau varsity (9-3-1) plays Ketchikan (3-5) at 6:15 p.m. tonight and 8 p.m. on Saturday at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park. The JV teams played on Thursday night, and will face off again at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
The Crimson Bears and Kings varsity squads split their two-game set in Ketchikan earlier this season, meaning the Crimson Bears need to make a strong showing this weekend to win the season series and clinch the only Southeast berth in the state tournament. This year's state tourney will is in Wasilla on May 22-24.
Juneau's defenders are steeling themselves for a good performance against Ketchikan to make sure the Crimson Bears make it to Wasilla.
"Our season comes down to two games," Conerton said. "If we don't win these, we stay here. ... We need to rise to the occasion."
They don't need to rise very far. Conerton, Mearig and Thibodeau are well over 6 feet tall; Stendahl is a few inches shorter - but with a big heart, his teammates said - and he excels in cleaning up anything that slips by his taller teammates. That's why Stendahl carries the nickname "Janitor," while Mearig and Thibodeau have taken the monikers "Killer" and "Crusher" - aimed at the scoring hopes of other teams.
"The names aren't meant to inspire fear in opponents, but more to give us something to live up to," Thibodeau said.
And there is a lot to live up to. Collin Daugherty, who graduated last year, was a rock in the center of the defensive lines of Juneau teams that won and finished second in the state tournament the past two years. Zuriel Ebron, who also graduated after last season, was a dominant goalkeeper for those teams.
This season, Conerton moved into a full-time starting role, and Lehnhart redesigned the defensive line from a four-man to a three-man front.
"I didn't think it was going to turn out as well as it did," Mearig said. "Losing Collin and having to switch to a different style of defending was hard to get at the beginning. ... Colin (Conerton) is a big help. He likes to talk in the back, and helps us figure things out."
"As the season went on, we've started to be more of a cohesive unit - overlapping, switching off ... a whole array of different arrangements during the game," Thibodeau said.
The four have known each other for years, and this is the second season they've all played at the varsity level, so they are very familiar with each other's playing style.
While their primary duty is putting the kibosh on opposing teams' scoring chances - a role they relish - Mearig, Stendahl and Thibodeau also have some opportunities to move up and contribute to Juneau's scoring.
"I like to not just stop people, but once they're stopped, transition into a quick counterattack," Thibodeau said.
"We're not limited to just defense," Stendahl said. "We've all got skills we can use on our offensive attack."
And each defender - except for Conerton, who must stay back to guard the goal - has scored at least one goal this season.
The defenders take a rather low-key approach to their accomplishments as individuals or as a unit, which fits in well with this year's team.
"We don't have any superstars this year," Mearig said. "We're more of a scrappy, play-together team. Either that, or we're all superstars."
"We want to be the team that's known as 'the team' - one, cohesive unit," Conerton said.
This weekend, "the team" will face a Kings squad that is coming off a 1-3 road trip to the Kenai Peninsula and Mat-Su Valleys. Ketchikan coach Wayne Kinunen told the Ketchikan Daily News that the team will be without Jens Jorgensen, a Danish exchange student who is the Kings' leading scorer; Jorgensen has a prior commitment.
No matter who the Crimson Bears play, Lehnhart said he's glad to have the four senior defenders - the "wall" - helping lead the way.
"From having coached them for four years, you couldn't ask for four better people," he said. "They're good students, good citizens, good teammates and good players. From a coach's standpoint, they're everything you could ask for."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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