A few of the Juneau-Douglas High School softball players may have chips on their shoulders about an unexpected seventh seed for this weekend's state tournament in Fairbanks.
But the official line was the Crimson Bears won't let the low seeding affect them.
"We'll decide our seeds on the field," Juneau coach Dave Massey said before the team boarded its flight for Fairbanks early Thursday morning.
The Crimson Bears (17-4 overall, 15-1 in Alaska) open state play at 10 a.m. today against 10th-seeded West Valley (11-5) at Hez Ray Softball Complex, with the winner of that game taking on second-seeded East Anchorage (13-9) at noon in the double-elimination tournament.
Even though the seventh seed was a shock, Massey felt the Crimson Bears really weren't hurt when the brackets were announced on Tuesday. Juneau, which won the state title in 1999 and 2002, is one of just three teams to win state championships since the tournament was created in 1995. Service has won four times and defending champion Chugiak has won the other two titles.
"Those four teams are probably the favorites," Massey said of Juneau, Chugiak, Service and Lathrop. "Lathrop is young like us, and will play at home. Service has pitching and tradition. And Chugiak is obviously on top and is playing three girls with (NCAA) Division I scholarships."
The two-day, 14-team tournament will have a twist compared to past years.
The state softball tournament's format changed to become more like the one used for the NCAA World Series. In previous years, the tourney featured one double-elimination bracket. The tournament now features two double-elimination brackets that will play down to a pair of bracket champions who will play a single, all-or-nothing, championship game.
Chugiak (21-0), which hasn't lost since the 2002 state tournament, was an obvious top seed and the Mustangs will anchor the top bracket.
But the second seed and the tournament's other first-round bye went to East Anchorage (13-9) and not the defending state runner-up Crimson Bears, who return all but two players from last year's squad. East is missing its top pitcher, Kyanna Cape, to torn thumb ligaments and has struggled since her injury.
One reason Juneau was seeded so low this year was the team's only non-Southeast games came in a March tournament in Arizona that featured nationally ranked teams, and not against other Alaska teams.
The third seed went to four-time state champion Service (15-7), which plays 14th-seeded Seward (9-6) at 8 a.m. Sixth-seeded Bartlett (12-9) plays 11th-seeded Monroe Catholic (13-9) at 8 a.m. to round out the other first-round matchup in the bottom bracket, which includes Juneau.
The other Southeast team in the field, Sitka (14-7), was seeded eighth and will play ninth-seeded Colony (15-6) at 10 a.m. today, with the winner taking on Chugiak at noon. The other top bracket matchups feature fifth-seeded Dimond (13-8) vs. Wasilla (10-10) and fourth-seeded Lathrop (18-4) vs. 13th-seeded Homer (8-6), both at 8 a.m.
The two bracket champions will play for the title at 3 p.m. on Saturday. The Crimson Bears would like to make their third straight trip to the championship game, and this year they want to reclaim the crown.
"We're really excited. It would be nice to finish off as champion," said outfielder-third baseman Rachel Barril, one of two seniors on Juneau's sophomore- and junior-laden roster. "I have no idea (about the non-Southeast teams) because we didn't get to play them. But it works both ways and they don't know what to expect from us."
"I think we've improved a lot since the start of the season," junior pitcher-first baseman Ashley Larson said. "We know Service and Chugiak are strong, and Dimond and Lathrop are tough this year. It helps us a lot (that) they haven't seen us this year."
After going 2-3 in the Arizona tournament, Juneau went 2-1 in its first series in Sitka. Since then the Crimson Bears have won all their games, and they closed out the season with three straight shutouts over the Wolves.
"I think we're ready," junior third baseman Ilea Belcourt said. "Last year we had a lot of new players and we still got second. We were just hoping to win a few games. This year we've got everybody back and we have more experience."
"For the freshmen (last year), they were really nervous," Barril said of the current sophomores. "But they went to state last year and now they know what to expect."
When Juneau went to state last year, the Crimson Bears carried just 12 players on the roster and sophomore utility player Torie Powers hurt her leg and saw minimal action at the tournament. This year, the Crimson Bears have 14 players on their state roster and the only injury is to sophomore center fielder Alycia Cox's non-throwing shoulder. Cox was able to do fielding drills earlier this week, but she might not be able to hit this weekend.
"I'll be able to play," Cox said, adding that the team is driven to win the state title. "We know we can do it. I think we could take it."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.
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