After a long, late spring practicing inside and 10 straight road games around the state, the Crimson Bears are finally coming home to play - all weekend long.
The Juneau-Douglas High School baseball team will cram six Southeast Conference games into four days at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park beginning Thursday, giving their five seniors a lengthy - and tough - final homestand in front of parents and friends.
The first-place Crimson Bears (7-3 overall, 6-2 SEC) found out just how tough two of their opponents - Sitka and Ketchikan - can be last weekend, when the teams split the pleasure of handing JDHS its first two conference losses of the season. Sitka packed a little more sting in their 7-1 trouncing of Juneau-Douglas, but have done little else on their way to a 1-5 SEC record to prove themselves a consistent threat. Still, Kissner said his team will be ready for a battle when the teams meet again in Thursday's 6 p.m. nightcap.
"(Sitka) just never gives up," Kissner said. "Regardless of if it's the first or seventh inning, they're pretty good offensively and they'll continue to battle. Most teams in Alaska can hit pretty well after practicing so much inside."
The Sitka matchup will follow the Bears' opener at 3 p.m. Thursday against Petersburg.
"They have a much smaller pool of kids to draw from and in the past they've had trouble fielding teams," Kissner said. "We don't know much about them, though. I'm not sure what they're going to bring."
JDHS has just one game Friday, when they get another crack at 6 p.m. against a KayHi team that nipped them 6-5 in an error-filled game last Friday.
"They're pretty young and, I think, when we lost to them we just beat ourselves," Kissner said. "I think our fate's in our control against most of these teams."
The Bears take on Sitka again at Noon on Saturday. The team will then host their Senior Night ceremonies at roughly 2:45 p.m., just before their schedule kickoff time of 3 p.m. against Ketchikan.
The schedule wraps up Sunday, when Juneau-Douglas takes on Wrangell at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.
The five senior Bears - Corey Mahar, Sean Bavard, Beau Damien, Dakotah Smith and Hunter Mallinger - all provide something different to this year's Crimson Bears squad, and JDHS head coach Jaime Kissner knows how much the team needs them for the stretch run.
"They've all grown up here and been friends for a long time, so they know how to play together and motivate each other," Kissner said. "That carries over. They're pretty easy-going and they like to have fun, but all five definitely play for us and we'll miss their abilities when the time comes."
The Bears are hoping the group's leadership can help them secure the conference's top seed heading into the regional tournament at Ketchikan May 28-30. The top seed receives a bye in the opening round, and Kissner wants the advantage of rested arms and weary opponents that bye brings.
"We'll just be a little bit fresher," Kissner said. "Everything helps us do what we need to do to advance to the state tournament. It puts pressure on the other teams or takes pressure off us, however you want to look at it."
Second-place Ketchikan is within striking distance entering the weekend, though, with a 5-2 SEC mark.
One of the team's seniors, Mahar, entered the season with plenty of buzz around the state, and has resumed his role as the steady, rangy hand in center field for Juneau-Douglas.
"Corey's just a great athlete and I think the other coaches in the conference would consider him a gamer," Kissner said. "That means he shows up and does whatever is within his power, wherever he is playing, to win the game and pick his teammates up at the same time."
Another senior, Bavard, is considered by many to be one of the state's top pitchers, but Kissner sees him offering plenty more.
"He's very athletic and competitive," Kissner said. "He can play any position in the field, as well. He's one of our strongest players at any of the three infield positions."
Smith leads more by example than volume, but his coach credits him for keeping himself and his teammates accountable.
"Dakotah's a bulldog. You put him in a battle and he'll do whatever he can," Kissner said. "If our team loses, he's the type that will take it back to the hotel with him. He leaves everything on the field."
Damien has had to work hard for all the minutes he has received this season, but Kissner said he also helps the team balance out when it gets too serious.
"Beau's another goofball, he likes to have fun out there," Kissner said. "He wasn't on the varsity last year, but he worked his tail off in the offseason and earned his starting spot in the rotation. He's a guy that the players and coaches really enjoy to have around."
Mallinger also leads by example, but in more places than just the outfield and practice gym, according to Kissner.
"Hunter is the hardest working individual on this team," Kissner said. "He flat-out gives 100 percent day in and day out, whether it's lifting weights at 6 a.m. or still hitting at the field house at 10 p.m. He is a role model for every kid in Juneau."
While the senior leadership will certainly be key in the players' final home games, the coach also wants his entire team to protect their home field with respect.
"I use the analogy with the kids of being dogs," Kissner said. "This is our yard. This is our home park. You can't let another dog come into your park and win. If you watch all the good teams in athletics, they all win at home. I think that's the next step to being a good team. We need to win these games at home."
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