When the Juneau-Douglas High School girls soccer team headed to the state's season-ending tournament in past years, it was almost a foregone conclusion which team would win the title.
The Service Cougars -- who have run off two 75-plus-game unbeaten streaks over the past decade, with titles in seven of the last nine state invitational tournaments and the championship in last year's inaugural official state tourney -- have always been the team to beat. And most years nobody has beaten them.
But this year the defending state champion Cougars aren't as dominating as they have been in past years, especially after East Anchorage beat Service earlier this season. That's reason enough to give the Crimson Bears (9-4-1 overall) hope they can become the first team to knock off Service in the season-ending tournament since East won twice in the early 1990s.
"All the teams have been beating each other this year," Juneau senior midfielder Kristen Bressette said. "Anyone can win it."
Juneau will open play at 6 p.m. on Thursday, when the Crimson Bears play the Chugiak Mustangs at Anchorage Football Stadium. In other first-round games Thursday, Region IV champion Service plays the Palmer Moose at 10 a.m. at AFS, the Region III champion Colony Knights play the Dimond Lynx at 3 p.m. at Dimond High School and the East Anchorage Thunderbirds play the Kenai Kardinals at 5 p.m. at Dimond.
The tournament continues with the semifinals at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Friday night at AFS. The championship game is at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon at AFS.
Earlier this season Juneau tied East 3-3, which is one reason the Crimson Bears think they can play with the favorites. Juneau lost to Service 6-1 in a game with a close second half, edged Dimond 1-0 on a penalty kick and lost to Chugiak 3-1 two weekends ago. But earlier in the season Juneau split a two-game series with the defending state runners-up from Colony. In that series, Juneau lost the opener to the Knights 2-1 but came back to win the second game 5-0. Juneau hasn't played Kenai or Palmer.
"We know we can play with these teams," Bressette said. "We can play really good at certain things, but there are times when when we need to work on things like the mental aspects and being ready to play three games in a row. That loss (to Chugiak) showed us what we need to work on."
"We were kind of bummed out," Juneau senior striker Ella Magallanes said of the Chugiak loss. "We need to be way more aggressive."
The Crimson Bears felt like they were overmatched against Service in the first half of their game two weekends ago, as they fell behind 4-0. But the Bears thought they played much better in the second half, closing the margin to 4-1 before a couple of long shots late in the game gave the Cougars the five-goal victory. The Juneau players thought they were more focused in their victory over Dimond, but the next afternoon the Crimson Bears kind of ran out of gas against Chugiak.
Being able to sustain their momentum over a three-day period is something the Crimson Bears have been working on this past week, which Juneau had off. Last weekend Juneau played a couple of scrimmages against a local adult women's team, hoping the challenge against older, more-experienced players will help the young Crimson Bears lineup.
"I feel like we can do a lot better than we did two weeks ago," Juneau sophomore defender Liza Slotnick said. "I think no one was there mentally."
"It's pretty exciting," Juneau freshman forward Alida Bus said. "The upperclassmen have been teaching us a lot."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.