WASILLA - Their defense has been called the Bear-lin Wall, but nobody was able to tear it down.
The Juneau-Douglas High School boys soccer team's defense - led by seniors Kirk Mearig, Kyle Thibodeau, Joe Stendahl and goalkeeper Colin Conerton - pitched a shutout for the state tournament, as the Crimson Bears claimed their second state title in three years with a 1-0 victory over the Service Cougars on Saturday afternoon at Wasilla High School.
Juneau wasn't scored on during any of its three state tournament games, including a 3-0 semifinal victory over the Wasilla Warriors on Friday night and a 2-0 victory over the East Anchorage Thunderbirds in Thursday's first-round game at Colony High School in Palmer.
"If they can't score on us, they can't beat us," said Juneau senior Axel Thibodeau, whose move to center striker from the midfield four games into the season corresponded with the Crimson Bears' undefeated, once-tied record the rest of the year after a 1-3 start.
"Unbelievable, unbelievable, that's all I can say."
The Crimson Bears (14-3-1 overall) were last scored on six games ago, when they beat Service 2-1 on May 10 in Anchorage, and Juneau didn't allow a goal in seven of its last eight games. Shortly after that first Service game, the defense was dubbed the Bear-lin Wall in a newspaper headline.
"We remembered that Bear-lin Wall thing, and we said, 'That's it, we're allowing no more goals,'" said Kyle Thibodeau, who was Juneau's player of the game on Saturday.
"We kept it at zero, that was our goal," Stendahl added. "It's amazing. We put in a lot of work this (past) summer."
The Crimson Bears have played in the state title game in all four years there has been an official state tournament, losing to Colony 3-2 in 2000, beating Dimond 1-0 in 2001 and losing 1-0 to Dimond last year. The loss to Dimond last year was especially heart-breaking for the Crimson Bears, since they'd been nationally ranked much of the season.
This year's title was particularly satisfying because of the slow start to the season and the huge turnover of seniors the past few years.
Juneau beat Service 2-0 in last year's semifinals, and the Cougars (13-3-1 overall, with the non-Juneau loss coming in a forfeit) felt they should have won that game. That victory, coupled with Juneau's May 10 win, was prime fodder for a locker room bulletin-board quote in Saturday's Anchorage Daily News by Service coach Dan Rufner (who couldn't be found after the game for further comment).
"They took us out; we feel Juneau robbed us last year," Rufner told the Daily News about the Juneau vs. Service title-game match-up. "We really don't feel like we have to say much to each other to get ready."
"For the last several years, a lot of us have been playing together and going to the state cup (for club soccer)," senior forward Lee Sullivan said. "They (the Cougars) have had basically the same group of guys playing together as the Goldstrikers, and they'd beat us. It's nice to finally beat them for a state championship."
The Cougars dominated play in the early going, and it took a quick foot by Mearig to save a potential Service goal in the game's third minute. Conerton made a leaping save on a shot, but couldn't control the rebound. Service's Daniel Wilkins was behind Conerton when he kicked the ball toward the net, but Mearig was able to reach his foot out and stop the shot just before it crossed the line about waist high.
"These guys saved me a couple of times," Conerton said. "It's all about teamwork. We all played together, and we had our best game of the year."
"We keep telling Colin he should come out and challenge their shooters," Mearig said. "So when he does it, we've got to be there backing him up. It's a rush. We really came together. This feels great."
With Mearig keeping the game scoreless, two minutes later Juneau took the lead as freshman Dylan Ashe leaped high in the air to head in an indirect free kick from Sullivan. That gave Juneau a 1-0 lead five minutes into the game, even though the Crimson Bears were outshot by Service 6-2 in the first half and 10-3 for the game.
"I think I owed it to the seniors," Ashe said of his goal. "It was perfect placement. It was that perfect of a ball."
"He's got some hops," Sullivan said of Ashe, who is just 5 feet, 7 inches tall. "He's been doing this for us all season. He's been getting over guys who are 6-5. It's awesome."
Sullivan, Mearig, Conerton and Kyle Thibodeau were all named to the all-tournament team. Juneau head coach Gary Lehnhart said he thought Axel Thibodeau also should have been named to the all-tournament team. Lehnhart awarded Axel Thibodeau the team's lunch box award for outstanding play and hustle.
"I'll take the state title," Axel Thibodeau said.
The Crimson Bears reached their fourth straight state championship game by beating Wasilla on Friday. Juneau scored early and often to silence Wasilla's home crowd, which was celebrating the Warriors' first trip to the state tournament. The last time Wasilla went to the unofficial state invitational tournament was in 1994.
Juneau silenced the home crowd when the Crimson Bears took a 1-0 lead in the game's third minute as Kalon Wright scored an unassisted goal. Wright dribbled down the left side, then cut toward the center of the field before beating Wasilla goalkeeper Nathan Miller.
"Even though we've been in the (state title) game before, it's a lot different as a senior," said Wright, who was Juneau's player of the game on Friday. "It's the pinnacle."
The Crimson Bears made it 2-0 in the first minute of the second half as Ashe scored on an assist by Sullivan. Juneau made it 3-0 seven minutes later as Alex Sadighi scored an unassisted goal on a rebound of a shot by Chris Frank.
"If we don't have confidence in our defense, you won't have an offense," Sadighi said. "All season long, they've been doing the job."
Service reached the championship game by beating Colony 3-1 on Friday and the Cougars scored 12 goals in their three state tournament games.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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