As the World Cup rages on halfway around the world, a group of Juneau youths will be embarking on its own soccer odyssey starting Friday.
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The Juneau Jambaars, an Under-13 boys soccer team with the Juneau Soccer Club, will represent Alaska at the United States Youth Soccer Region IV Championships in Boise, Idaho. The tournament features 14 state champions two wild-card teams from throughout the West Coast. Pool play starts Monday, but the Jambaars will take on the Idaho state champs today and Friday in a pair of friendly, or exhibition, matches.
"I am really excited because I've been looking forward to it ever since we won state," the Jambaars' Nathan Fosket said. "I've been working really hard and getting in good shape."
Fosket, along with 13 of his teammates, coach Moctar Diouf and manager Paul Bertholl, left for Boise on Wednesday to acclimate themselves to Boise's hot weather.
Juneau will take on Montana, Oregon and Wyoming in its pool. Just like the World Cup, the top two teams from each pool will advance to a single-elimination tournament. The regional champion will then advance to the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, in late July.
"It's something new to us," said Diouf, the state and Region IV youth coach of the year. "We haven't played at that level. Every team will be a state champion. ... The level is elevated but the boys are ready. They've been talking about playing California, which is set to be one of the best teams in the region. That says a lot about their character, wanting to play one of the best teams immediately. That says a lot about their determination."
The Jambaars - "warriors" in Diouf's native tongue of Wolof - will be in a unique situation in the regional tournament.
While the other teams in competition won their state tournaments a month or so ago, the Jambaars have waited nine long months to get to Boise.
Juneau captured the Alaska State Cup in Fairbanks last August after scoring 22 goals while conceding just six.
Since then, the Jambaars played in a smattering of tournaments but mostly practiced and competed against older teams in town.
"To stay sharp in practice, we do a lot of playing," said Diouf, a native of Dakar, Senegal. "We're told the games there are very fast-paced. We do a lot of skills of play and defensive work."
While the Jambaars may be a little rusty heading into the competition, the team is prepared.
After practicing twice a week during the winter and three to four times a week once the snow melted, the Jambaars should be ready to compete.
Also, the Jambaars will bring their unique defensive system.
While most teams employ a zone defense, the Jambaars play a full man-to-man defense. Called a "1v1" defense, every single Jambaars player will defend a individual from the other team when they have possession.
This high-energy style can disrupt an opponents attack and helps Juneau gain a tactical edge.
"For the game to have flow, you have to have space and open players to anticipate what's coming," Diouf said. "We don't let them have that anticipation."
Going up against the West Coast's premier youth teams will be difficult, but the Jambaars have been preparing for this tournament for nearly a year.
"This time we're going into unfamiliar territory so our primary goal is to make it out of our group and take it one game at a time," Diouf said. "We're not just going for the experience. We feel we have a chance to do something and we're a state champion just like everyone else."
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.