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After losing all but four players off its state championship team last year, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Juneau-Douglas High School boys soccer team.
But it turned out to be a reloading season, as the defending champion Crimson Bears enter this weekend's state tournament as the tourney's only unbeaten and top-seeded team.
With only Kiel Urata, Alex Newton, Dylan Ashe and Cameron Mitchell left from last year's state tournament team, the Crimson Bears are a completely different squad. But the Juneau players know their opponents will be looking at a program that's been in all four state title games since the Alaska School Activities Association sanctioned a state tournament, winning two championships in the past three years.
"I think we'll have a target on our back," said Urata, a senior center-midfielder. "But if we go up and feel like a target, and think of last year, we won't win."
"We just take one game at a time and work as hard as we can," said Newton, also a senior center-midfielder. "We'll be pretty well prepared."
The Crimson Bears (15-0-2) open tournament play at noon today against the eighth-seeded West Anchorage Eagles (4-5-2) at Wasilla High School. The Juneau-West winner plays the winner of today's game between fourth-seeded Dimond (8-3-0) and fifth-seeded Skyview (9-1-0) at 4 p.m. Friday at Wasilla.
In the other half of the bracket is second-seeded Service (9-1-2), which takes on seventh-seeded Colony (5-2-3), while third-seeded Grace Christian School (5-1-2) plays sixth-seeded Chugiak (5-7-2) in today's other first-round games.
The state championship game is at 7 p.m. Saturday at Wasilla; some of the other tournament games are at Colony High School.
"We're really looking forward to it," said Ashe, a sophomore forward who scored the only goal of last year's state championship game victory over Service. "We're feeling pretty good. It's a hard bracket and we want to do well."
"I think we've got a mature bunch of kids and everyone will be focused," Urata said.
With all the turnover, the Crimson Bears didn't know what to expect this season. But the only minor blemishes on their record are a 1-1 tie against Mead of Spokane, Wash., and a 2-2 tie against Chugiak.
"So far I've been very impressed with the maturity of the young guys," Newton said. "I can't be more impressed by the defense. We've got three juniors back there and Rich (Isett)."
"We've come together and I think we surprised Gary (Lehnhart, Juneau's head coach) the most," Ashe said. "We've got a really solid program."
Even though Juneau has the top seed in the tournament - this is the first year it's been seeded - the Crimson Bears didn't end up with a patsy in the first round.
West is led by Gabe Shaddy-Farnsworth, who won this year's Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year award for boys soccer, and by goalkeeper Joe Quinn. The Eagles tied Region IV champion Service twice this season, 3-3 and 2-2. Those two ties and a 1-0 loss to Juneau are the only blemishes in Service's record this year. In the 2-2 tie between West and Service, seven players received yellow cards.
"It'll be good playing West in the first round. They're a good team," Urata said. "A couple of lucky turns for them and they could be a top seed."
"They're underrated. They shouldn't be eighth," senior defender Erik Olmsted said. "It's a dangerous team, but it'll be good for us to play them."
One worry the Crimson Bears had as the season wound down was their scoring. The Juneau players were creating lots of offensive opportunities, but the Crimson Bears struggled to finish off the plays.
The scoring problem was addressed on Friday, when the Crimson Bears beat the Ketchikan Kings 13-0. Juneau struggled a little bit in Saturday's rematch as the Crimson Bears started several players who won't make the trip to state, and Ketchikan played a much better game. But Juneau still turned on the offense enough to claim a 4-2 victory. The Crimson Bears hope their offense can rekindle Friday's fire.
"The way we played on Friday, we've never finished like that," Newton said.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Boys state tourney
Today's opening-round games:
Noon: Juneau-Douglas vs. West Anchorage, at Wasilla
2 p.m.: Dimond vs. Skyview, at Colony
4 p.m.: Grace Christian vs. Chugiak, at Wasilla
6 p.m.: Service vs. Colony, at Colony