The Juneau-Douglas boys' soccer team is nearly two years removed from its 2008 state title, but now, with the tournament in Juneau, the Crimson Bears are looking to keep the trophy in Alaska's capital city.
The first step toward that goal is today as the third-seeded Crimson Bears (19-1-3) open tournament play against No. 6 Wasilla (12-4-1), a team they already beat 4-2 this year while playing short-handed.
Playing at less than full strength is something JDHS has grown accustomed to after most starters have spent at least some time off the field nursing various injuries. Because of that, many of the players have spent quite a bit of time playing out of position.
Bears coach Gary Lehnhart said his wish would have been for the team to have had more time together as a whole to practice on the pitch.
"We've had guys playing all over the field that haven't been able to settle in and figure out one position," he said. "Soccer is all about combinations and relationships with players to each other on the field, so that's the bad part."
Even with all the injuries to key players throughout the season, Lehnhart said there is a positive aspect to the situation.
"I suppose the good part is we have some guys that are not beat up now and they've been sitting for a while," he said. "As long as they're healthy and they can go - we're certainly healthier than we've been in the last month. But we won't know until they lace them up whether or not they can go."
As for the matchup with Wasilla, Lehnhart said the Warriors' style of play resembles that of a team the Bears saw plenty of in Southeast Conference competition: the Ketchikan Kings.
"In many respects, (Wasilla is) much like Ketchikan. They have a good central midfielder and you know you're in a game with them," he said. "They play hard for 80 minutes, they don't quit and they are capable of beating anyone, us included."
But the Bears fared well against the Kings this season, going 3-0-1, and playing at home in the ASAA/First National Bank Alaska State Soccer Championships for the first time in the history of the program will have its advantages.
"We're excited to play at home. I think there's a lot of enthusiasm, and this is going to be a unique thing for us because we've always been the out-of-town team," Lehnhart said. "We're hoping to have a good-sized crowd, and we're hoping to get this thing started the right way."
While being at home is preferable, Lehnhart said he enjoys the routine of the road trip.
"I'm actually going to miss that because I like being on the road with the guys," he said. "I like the camaraderie it builds, and I enjoy being able to lay the day out, but now it's going to be interesting for these guys because they're going to have to go to school."
With all the in-town festivities, there will be plenty of distractions facing the players.
"With the seniors getting ready to graduate, this weekend is going to have a whole different feel to it," Lehnhart said. "In some respects, it's going to be more complicated for them, which may end up being a challenge. There are certain to be some distractions, whereas on the road we're able to (ignore) those distractions."
But Lehnhart said he has confidence in his veteran squad and the experience his players have shown throughout the year.
Junior Max Smith, who was among those who missed time due to injury, said having the tournament in Juneau is exciting for everyone involved.
"I'm really looking forward to it, and I really feel like we have a good enough team to win it this year. I really do," he said. "It's a good time right now with people coming back from injuries. Some people may not be 100 percent, but the team is back strong. It's good to have people back out there, even if it's just for a morale boost or to just have that presence out there on the field."
In recent years, the battle for the state title has been between No. 1 South Anchorage (14-0-5) and the Crimson Bears. And with South earning the tournament's top seed, the two sides could be heading on another collision course in this year's championship.
Smith said while the team is focused on the game at hand versus Wasilla, it's difficult not to look forward to a potential matchup with South down the road.
The only loss this season for Juneau-Douglas came at the hands of the Wolverines, 1-0 on April 28 in Anchorage.
"... they're the team you always want to play," Smith said. "This year, personally, I got injured in the first two minutes against them. I really want to play against them because we definitely deserved to win that game."
If the two squads do end up meeting again during Saturday's championship, Smith said there is one thing on the team's mind: "Revenge will be sweet."
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