Last fall, Juneau-Douglas High School senior Rory Fletcher traveled to Anchorage to tell the Alaska School Activities Association's board of directors that it was high time Alaska had a state soccer tournament.
This weekend, Fletcher will join his teammates on Juneau's boys soccer team, the Juneau girls team and players from other schools in the first ASAA-sanctioned state tournament at Skyview High School in Soldotna. The tournament opens play at noon Thursday afternoon, and runs through Saturday's girls championship game at 2 p.m. and boys title game at 4:30 p.m.
``I'm looking forward to it,'' Fletcher said as he warmed up for Juneau's practice Tuesday night at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park. ``If we win, it's the opportunity to come back as a true state champion. And if we don't, it's something to shoot for the next year.''
In past years the Anchorage schools hosted what used to be known as the State Invitational, which served as the championship of the former 10-team league that included the six Anchorage schools, the three larger Mat-Su Valley schools and Juneau.
But last year new teams came on line in the Kenai Peninsula, which made it harder for Juneau to find games. It also changed the State Invitational to the Service-Dimond Invitational, making it seem like a mid-season tournament. And the invitational was moved so it came before the Region III and Region IV tournaments, stealing away some of its championship luster.
Coaches had been lobbying for years to get a state tournament. And several of the state's coaches said one of the major keys in ASAA's decision to finally sanction a state tournament was Fletcher's attending the ASAA board meeting on his own dime so he could testify about the need for an end-of-season championship.
``Having something to shoot for, it's great,'' Fletcher said.
The Juneau boys (8-4-2) open play at 6 p.m. Thursday against East Anchorage (7-5-2), a team that beat Juneau 3-2 three weeks ago when Juneau accidentally scored an own-goal.
Thursday's other boys firstround games feature Chugiak (7-4-2) against Kenai (7-4-1) at 4 p.m., Dimond (11-1-1) vs. Palmer (12-2-0) at noon, and Service (6-4-3) vs. Colony (13-1-0) at 2 p.m. Earlier this season Juneau tied Chugiak 4-4, lost to Dimond 3-1, beat Service 2-1 and lost to Colony 3-1 in a game decided by two controversial penalty kicks.
Dimond had been undefeated until Saturday, when Chugiak upset the Lynx in the championship game of the Region IV tournament. Colony's only loss this season came by forfeit to Wasilla, after several players were held out of a game for missing school.
``I think we've got a good chance,'' said Fletcher, who lobbied for the state tournament as part of his senior project for the Phoenix Program. ``As long as we play our best, the potential is there. We've got a really strong senior class.''
Juneau will be led by junior Justin Dorn, who scored 26 goals during the regular season to more than double Juneau's previous team record of 10 goals by current Gonzaga University senior Michael Janes. Other top scorers for Juneau include Matt Wetzstein, Robert Lossett, Travis Croteau and Luke Knowles. Troy Choquette, who two weeks ago thought his season might be over because of a knee injury, will play this weekend and anchors Juneau's defense. Zuriel `Z' Ebron is Juneau's goalkeeper.
``It's a step up,'' Wetzstein said of finally having an official state tournament. ``I think we'll play a lot harder. I think we can take them (the East Thunderbirds) with better field conditions. We know what they bring.''
``My knee's OK,'' said Choquette, who practiced Tuesday without a brace. ``I got it drained last week. It was pretty swollen.''
The Juneau girls (6-6-2) will also open their half of the state tournament against East (8-4-1), a team that beat Juneau 2-0 three weeks ago. Juneau and East play at 2 p.m. Thursday (the state tournament will use side-by-side fields).
Thursday's other first-round girls games include Service (13-1-1) vs. Kenai (10-2-0) at noon, West Anchorage (7-5-1) vs. Colony (13-2-1) at 4 p.m. and Bartlett (3-9-3) vs. Palmer (9-2-3) at 7:30 p.m. Earlier this season Juneau lost to Colony twice (3-2 and 4-2) and tied the Knights once (2-2), and the Crimson Bears lost to Service 4-2 in a game that was tied with four minutes left to play.
Even though the Juneau girls have had an up-and-down season, going from 6-1-1 at one point to 6-6-2, senior Krystle Llanto said she thinks the Crimson Bears are ready to get back on the winning track. Juneau reached the championship game in the old invitational the past two years, losing to Service after a double-overtime shootout last season.
``We're trying to get it together,'' Llanto said. ``We want to play hard and show Anchorage we deserve to be in there. If we stay focused and play as hard as we can, I think we'll do OK.''
Llanto leads Juneau in scoring, with Ella Magallanes, Liza Slotnick, Chelsea Walden and Adrienne Gordon adding scoring punch. Nobu Koch and Michael Kohan anchor Juneau's midfield, while Hannah Slotnick and Annie Heffern lead Juneau's defense with Amanda Krafft playing goalkeeper.
``It's hard to say how we'll do,'' senior Hannah Slotnick said. ``Our first game with East, there was no reason for us to lose like that. We know we can pull it off. I think we're all pretty even. I think we can do better than we've shown in recent weeks. I don't want to lose in the first game.''
Juneau girls co-coach Noel Shima said Service is probably the favorite, but the Cougars aren't as formidable as they've been in the past when they've had two different 75-game-plus unbeaten streaks over the past decade. Colony would be another favorite - it handed Service its only loss of the season - except Palmer upset the Knights in the Region III tournament after losing to Colony 11-0 earlier in the year.
``Service is still probably the favorite, but there are some chinks in their armor,'' Shima said. ``The key for us is playing 80 minutes of good soccer. We can't just play 75 minutes. Whether those (bad) minutes come at the end or the middle of the game, they can still hurt us. This new tournament gives the season more credibility.''