It was four games into the season and Juneau-Douglas High School boys soccer coach Gary Lehnhart wasn't sure about his Crimson Bears.
The Juneau boys had been to the state championship game the past three years, winning the 2001 title, but Lehnhart was wondering if this year's team could live up to the tradition established by his previous squads. The Crimson Bears had graduated more than 20 seniors the past two years and, even though this year's team is again dominated by upperclassmen, Lehnhart worried the graduation losses might be taking their toll.
"We didn't have a good start to the season," Lehnhart said Monday as his team prepared for this weekend's state tournament at Wasilla High School and Colony High School. "We were one-and-three, and we'd only scored in one of those games. Since then we've been playing a lot better, and that coincides with moving Axel Thibodeau up top."
The Crimson Bears (11-3-1 overall) split their season-opening series with Ketchikan, then dropped the first two games of their four-game road trip in Spokane, Wash., before Lehnhart moved Thibodeau from midfield or flank to center striker. Since then, Juneau has gone 10-0-1 with a tie against Chugiak the only blemish on the record.
The Crimson Bears open the state tournament at 6 p.m. today when they take on the East Anchorage Thunderbirds at Colony High School in Palmer.
Thibodeau, a senior, isn't a prolific goal-scorer like former Crimson Bear captains Justin Dorn and Robert Lossett - two players who won the state Gatorade Player of the Year award and moved on to play NCAA Division I soccer. But he gets his share of goals while settling down Juneau's offensive attack.
"It was kind of our coaching staff (that made the difference)," Thibodeau said. "It kind of shows the progression of the program. Almost all the goals we score are team goals, not someone scoring because of an individual effort. We've been playing together for a lot of years. I always knew we'd be good."
"What the move did was it directed our offense," Lehnhart said. "It set up the run of the play. A lot of times on a breakaway, we're in a one-on-three, and we need someone who's able to hold onto the ball while the rest of the offense catches up. That really turned our fortunes around."
The other Crimson Bears have noticed the difference since the move. Thibodeau said the turnover has been high, but he's been helped by several other Crimson Bears with at least two years of state tournament experience - namely Kirk Mearig, Kalon Wright and Lee Sullivan.
"Moving Axel really helped," senior Phil Dierking said. "He's a smart player and it gives us someone who can set up the offense. At the beginning of the year I wasn't quite sure how good we were. But I think we have a good shot (to win state)."
"It gave us a leader up front," senior Alex Sadighi said. "It gave us a confident leader, someone who knows how to set up the play."
Depending on how Juneau does today against East Anchorage, the Crimson Bears will play the winner of today's West Anchorage-Wasilla game in Friday's 6 p.m. semifinal at Wasilla if they win, or they play the loser of the West-Wasilla game in a consolation game at 2 p.m. on Friday at Colony if East wins. The state championship game is at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Wasilla.
Juneau hasn't played East (5-7-2) this season, but last year the Crimson Bears beat the T-Birds 5-1 in the first round of the state tournament and 3-2 during the regular season. Two years ago the Thunderbirds handed Juneau its only loss in Alaska, but the Crimson Bears avenged that loss en route to claiming their only state championship.
"They're definitely a dangerous team," Thibodeau said. "We watched them play Chugiak, but you can't judge them necessarily until you're on the field with them."
"You can never take them for granted," Dierking said.
The Crimson Bears haven't played as many Alaska teams as they have in past years, but they did score a 2-1 victory over the Service Cougars, who won the Region IV title. That was Service's only loss this season. The only other games Juneau had with teams in the state tournament were a 2-0 victory over Wasilla and a 4-0 victory over Colony, with both games played on the state-tournament fields.
"If you believe the records, Service is the best team up north and we beat Service," Lehnhart said. "The other coaches say we're the team to beat, but it's hard to base everything on one game. In any tournament, we've got as good a chance as anybody, especially when it's single elimination."
"We still have to win, no matter who you get," Thibodeau said. "We still have to win, or it doesn't matter."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BOYS STATE SOCCER TOURNAMENT BRACKET
The bracket for the boys 2003 Alaska state high school soccer tournament that takes place today through Sunday at Wasilla High School and Colony High School.
Game 1 - Service (10-1-1) vs. Grace Christian School (7-4-0), noon at Wasilla.
Game 2 - Colony (5-6-2) vs. Dimond (6-4-3), 2 p.m. at Colony.
Game 3 - West Anchorage (6-4-2) vs. Wasilla (8-3-2), 4 p.m. at Wasilla.
Game 4 - Juneau-Douglas (11-3-1) vs. East Anchorage (5-7-2), 6 p.m. at Colony.
Game 5 - Consolation bracket: Service-Grace Christian School loser vs. Colony-Dimond loser, noon at Colony, loser eliminated.
Game 6 - Consolation bracket: West Anchorage-Wasilla loser vs. Juneau-Douglas-East Anchorage loser, 2 p.m. at Colony, loser eliminated.
Game 7 - Championship semifinal: Service-Grace Christian School winner vs. Colony-Dimond winner, 4 p.m. at Wasilla.
Game 8 - Championship semifinal: West Anchorage-Wasilla winner vs. Juneau-Douglas-East Anchorage winner, 6 p.m. at Wasilla.
Game 9 - Fourth-sixth place game: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 9 a.m. at Wasilla.
Game 10 - Third-fifth place game: Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 loser, 11 a.m. at Wasilla.
Game 11 - Championship game: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 4:30 p.m. at Wasilla.