What a difference five years make.
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When Juneau-Douglas High School launched its tennis program in 2002, about 10 kids showed up ready to play. Now there are almost more players than room on the courts, and an official state championship to go after.
"I think for the more advanced and experienced players it's great because they feel like it's something to aim for," JDHS coach Amy Skilbred said of a state championship. "The season is pretty short, but having that goal is really terrific. It gives the kids that really want to compete a boost."
The Alaska School Activities Association authorized the inaugural state tennis championships on April 30. The tournament will be held Oct. 12-13 in Anchorage.
In previous years, an unofficial state championships took place in Anchorage with players from throughout the state competing for pride.
This year, however, the stakes will be raised significantly.
"It's the real deal now," Juneau senior Dream Suchitbaharabitya said. "I think it gives the players pressure. No more goofing off or 'we'll be back next year.' It's not. Now we have to do our best."
Suchitbaharabitya will be among an experienced corps of girls returning for the Crimson Bears.
The senior, originally from Thailand, reached the girls championship match of the year-end Alaska State High School Invitational in Anchorage last year before falling to South Anchorage High School's Emma Lewis.
"We're trying to get ready for the season," Suchitbaharabitya said. "I went to Thailand and took a private lesson there. I try to keep playing to keep myself in shape. We have a really short season, three to four months, and me and my friends every other day would play after school."
Another Juneau-Douglas senior ready to make her mark is Lyndsey Kelly.
Kelly teamed with Suchitbaharabitya to place second in the girls' doubles unofficial state title in 2005 and finished second in mixed doubles last year.
She said she's "definitely" excited about the prospects of playing for a state title.
"Football and basketball have their big grand finales, and tennis doesn't really have that," she said. "Now we actually have something to work towards. ... It means we have to work harder."
Kelly represents where hard work can get a player in the JDHS system.
She arrived to the team as a freshman who thought it'd be fun to play tennis. Now she said she's looking to play tennis in college.
"My freshman year I just joined to be involved in something and meet new people," Kelly said. "But now I actually realize I really love the sport and may do something with it and continue with it."
Joelle Ballam-Schwan, Lauren Thompson, Mallory Story, Katie Stromme, Laurel Messerschmidt, Merijke Coenrad and Becca Freer also bring experience to the team.
For the boys, Steffan Wilcox and Nathan Graves and Brian Vandor boast the most high school experience.
With no seniors on the team, it'll be up to the returning players to provide leadership and provide positive feedback to the newcomers.
"I've been a tennis player and I haven't had that much recent experience, but I guess I've had more experience relative to everyone else playing," Wilcox said. "I hope that I'll be able to help, especially because I want a military career, so I better start leading."
Leading and helping the newcomers has been a hallmark of the team since it started.
In five years, the Crimson Bears developed an positive atmosphere about the team that attracts would-be players of all athletic types and experiences.
"The mix is always good," JDHS assistant coach and JRC/The Alaska Club tennis pro Garold LaRue said. "Players who have experience, they'll naturally teach players with less experience. They get to see growth and people playing from a lower level to a higher level, they see that and want to achieve that. That's always a good thing."
Juneau's tennis community also has thrown its support around the team.
The JRC/The Alaska Club offers its courts free of charge to the tennis team. Also, the high school athletes frequently play the adults to gain much needed on-court experience.
"They raise each others' game," LaRue said. "The adults don't want to lose to a kid, and the kid wants to beat the adult."
Most importantly, however, is how Skilbred has created a team ethic that involves all her players, no matter the skill set.
While a state title is possible, just being active and spending time with friends is equally as rewarding.
"We have fun and we incorporate other people," Ballam-Schwan said. "It's always fun because you get to play people your own level."
Players who are interested in joining the team are welcomed to join. Contact coach Skilbred at 780-4649 for more information. Players of all abilities and beginners are welcome.
Contact sports editor Tim Nichols at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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