When the Juneau-Douglas High School boys soccer team went to the state tournament last year, the Crimson Bears were a team trying to earn a little respect.
When the Crimson Bears arrive here to defend their state championship this weekend, Juneau will be the team the other schools are watching. Not only will Juneau be the defending state champion, but the Crimson Bears have earned national rankings in two different polls this season.
Juneau (14-1-1 overall) is ranked sixth nationally and first in Region 5 (Alaska, Washington and California) in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America dated April 22, which is the most current poll on that organization's Web site. The Crimson Bears are also in the unranked second-25 portion of the Student Sports Inc. Spring Soccer Fab 50 Rankings. Despite an unexpected tie with Ketchikan last weekend, Juneau jumped from seventh to fourth in the West Region (Alaska, Washington and Utah) rankings released Tuesday by Student Sports Inc.
The Crimson Bears have the respect they wanted, but did it come at a price?
"The other teams will definitely be gunning for us," Juneau junior flank Kyle Thibodeau said. "As long as we work hard and play our game, we should be OK. At the tournament, you've got to be ready for anything."
"We can win it if we can play the way we've been playing lately," Juneau senior central midfielder Jon Rue said. "We've got to go to the goal and play as a team. What would be the most disappointing is to lose if we're playing badly. Now, if we lose, we're done."
The Crimson Bears open the state tournament at noon on Thursday when they play the East Anchorage Thunderbirds (4-5-3 overall) at Wasilla High School. In Thursday's other opening-round games, the Service Cougars play the Kenai Kardinals at 2 p.m. at Colony High School, the Soldotna Stars play the West Anchorage Eagles at 4 p.m. at Wasilla, and the Dimond Lynx play the Colony Knights at 6 p.m. at Colony.
If Juneau wins on Thursday, it plays the Service-Kenai winner at 4 p.m. Friday at Wasilla. If Juneau loses, it plays the Service-Kenai loser at noon Friday at Colony. On Saturday the fourth-place game is 9 a.m. at Wasilla, the third-place game is 11 a.m. at Colony and the state championship game is 5 p.m. at Wasilla.
While East has given Juneau trouble the past couple of years, the Crimson Bears said it didn't really matter who they played in the first round. East is the third-seeded team from Region IV after upsetting West 4-2 in that region tournament's consolation game.
"We don't really follow the other teams, we just play our game," Juneau junior defender Kirk Mearig said.
"It really doesn't matter, they're all pretty close," Juneau junior striker Lee Sullivan said. "It doesn't make a big difference who we play, but we've never played West before."
Last season, East was the only Alaska team to beat Juneau, a 3-2 victory during the regular season. The Crimson Bears won the rematch 7-3 in the state tournament semifinals, but East was leading 3-2 at halftime. Earlier this year, Juneau beat East 3-2 on a last-minute goal by Travis Croteau.
"It's a different East team between this year and last year," Juneau coach Gary Lehnhart said, referring to East's dependence last year on two players (Jevon Miller and Tom Marriage, who have both graduated). "This year they play more as a team. They don't really have that superstar."
If Juneau wins on Thursday, it will most likely play Service (10-1-0), which is the top-seeded team from Region IV, in Friday's semifinals. Kenai is the third-seeded team in Region III. Juneau handed Service its only loss of the season, a 3-1 decision on May 11.
In the other part of the bracket, Juneau hasn't played Region III champion Soldotna or West in the last two years (or more). Juneau beat 2000 state champion Colony 3-0 on May 10 (the Crimson Bears lost to Colony 3-2 in the 2000 state title game), while Juneau beat Dimond 1-0 in last year's state championship game. The only team to beat Juneau this year - Chugiak, which beat the Crimson Bears 1-0 in a game where Juneau outshot the Mustangs 23-2 - didn't qualify for the state tournament.
The Crimson Bears clinched the lone Region V berth in the state tournament by beating Ketchikan twice early in the season, then tying the Kings 1-1 on Friday and blanking them 8-0 on Saturday. Juneau had several chances to win Friday's game, but Ketchikan's Jon Demmert played one of the best games by a high school goalkeeper Lehnhart said he'd ever seen.
"We definitely need what we got on Saturday, to see that Friday was an anomaly," Lehnhart said. "I'd be worried if we went to state and hadn't faced any adversity. We've only been losing twice this season, to Service and East, but we managed to win those games. In the tie, I think there was the pressure from the community, which thought we'd score a lot of goals. We made a few minor adjustments. The tie was a different form of adversity. There was no reason for them to feel down. I thought the energy and desire were pretty good, we just needed to be more on the edge."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.