ANCHORAGE -- Missing pitchers will make it difficult for the defending state champion Juneau-Douglas softball team to make a fourth straight appearance in the title game this weekend.
Juneau (16-4) meets North Pole (15-3) at 1 p.m. today in the first round of the double-elimination state tournament at the Cartee Softball Complex in Anchorage.
The Crimson Bears were already missing junior ace Nicole Adair, who hasn't stepped on the mound all season due to shoulder surgery last fall. Then, coaches learned Wednesday morning that junior Aubrey Alt won't make the trip due to grades.
Adair, whose poise on the mound helped Juneau through tough spots in winning its first state championship last year, might be available for spot innings, coach Dave Massey said.
``We'll see. Maybe an inning or two here or there,'' Massey said. ``But I don't see any way she could pitch a whole game.''
That leaves Juneau with one experienced pitcher for its first-round game today against the Patriots. Sophomore Andrea (Rae) Walker stepped onto the varsity team last year and pitched well.
The other two Juneau pitchers are freshmen Talley Israelson and Stephanie Heard. Both picked up wins in their varsity debuts last weekend against Ketchikan, and many Crimson Bears players said they were impressed with their efforts on the mound.
Heard allowed three hits and struck out three batters in out-dueling Ketchikan ace Aleisha Filyaw 6-1. Israelson allowed just two hits with one strikeout in another 6-1 victory.
``They did a lot better than people give them credit for,'' center fielder Angie Kemp said.
Also, the team made a conscious effort to step up on defense.
``At first I was real nervous,'' Kemp said. ``But I've never seen us play defense like that before. If one of us made a little error another would be right there to cover it.''
Players said it can be tough adjusting to new pitchers, especially after getting used to speedy hurlers like Adair and Alt, who cause hitters to make predictable and easy-to-field hits.
``(Adair) is so fast that everybody pulls the ball to right field,'' catcher Suzanne Parr said. ``Then we just shift over.''
``You get used to the pitchers you play with,'' second baseman MaryAnn Moffet said. ``You know where to stand and stuff. But I thought it was really good. We didn't make any errors on defense. They did a really good job last week. They stepped it up.''
North Pole emerged from the competitive Mid-Alaska Conference along with Lathrop (13-4) and West Valley (14-4). The Patriots feature strong pitching in Marie Szendrey, who compiled an 8-2 record with a 2.89 ERA this season.
Kemp played with Szendrey and catcher Sheena Cummings for Team Alaska at the National Softball Tournament in Texas last July.
``They were decent,'' said Kemp, who made the trip with several Crimson Bears teammates. ``They were good players. They just needed playing time.''
Three of Juneau's four losses are to Anchorage teams. Juneau fell to No. 1 seed Service, No. 2 seed Chugiak, East Anchorage and Ketchikan.
Unbeaten Service (16-0) received a first-round bye and plays Saturday. Other first-round games today are: No. 8 Dimond vs. No. 9 Kodiak, No. 3 West Valley vs. No. 6 Lathrop, and Chugiak (14-3) vs. No. 7 Colony (12-6). Juneau drew the No. 5 seed while North Pole was seeded fourth.
Ketchikan, which had a 9-7 record good enough to qualify for the state tournament, declined an invitation because of travel expense.
Last year the Crimson Bears didn't lose a game until Service forced an if-necessary contest for the championship. In previous years early losses forced Juneau to play extra games while trudging through the losers' bracket.
That's what happened in championship-game losses to Service in 1997 and Chugiak in 1998. The teams have time for little more than a drink of water in between games, and by the end of the evening fatigue can set in.
``A cough, maybe enough time to choke down a bagel,'' said Massey, when asked how much time is allowed between games.
``It's hard,'' said Parr, whose twin sister Kari plays shortstop. ``You gotta play one game and keep your mind on winning that one instead of worrying about the next one.''
But Juneau could have an advantage over other teams, having played several doubleheaders this season.
``We've played doubleheaders and the other teams have kind of cherry-picked along and played singles,'' Massey said.
Another advantage is the draw. Last year Juneau met Service in the first round. This year Juneau would meet the Cougars at 10 a.m. on Saturday if both teams won.
``This is by far the best draw I've ever had,'' Massey said. ``Usually we have to play Service or Chugiak.''