JUNEAU - The Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears tennis teams' main focus in preparing for the upcoming season is performing at a high level when the bright lights come on the big stage - the state championships.
"We are getting the kids used to pressure because being out there, we can practice all the time feeding them balls and them hitting back, but if there's not the pressure of them having to do something at a certain time, then you won't be able to (overcome) it. You don't feel it, you don't know how to react to it and you can't execute," assistant coach and Juneau Racquet Club pro Garold LaRue said. "Knowing what pressure feels like, you can say 'Hey, I can execute what I want to do.'
"That's the big difference between coming out and hitting some balls," he continued. "You can bang it all you want, but under pressure is when you really test your mental and physical state. Something has to be on the line to really know where you stand. They all can hit the ball, so it comes down to who cracks first."
LaRue said both the boys' and girls' teams will be strong, with plenty of experience Nos. 1-4 on the ladder.
For the girls' team, senior Laurel Messerschmedt tops the ladder at No. 1.
"She's our No. 1 girl, and she surprises the two higher boys," LaRue said. "She'll definitely crack some balls, and they're amazed by what she can do because she really attacks the ball, and that's a lot of fun."
At No. 2 is senior Rachel Donahoe, followed by juniors Sammy Alex and Sage Davenport. Several players are in the mix at Nos. 5 and 6.
Messerschmedt and Donahoe reached the state quarterfinals as a doubles pair last year, and both expect to be back in contention.
"They won a couple rounds at state, and they'll be participating at state again this year," LaRue said. "They'll be a returning force to deal with."
Messerschmedt said she's been working on her game over the off-season in anticipation of taking over as the team's No. 1 player.
"I like to hang around the baseline," she said, "and I've been working on being more aggressive. I'd like to win state, but we'll see what happens. I'll see where I stand after competing against the out-of-town kids."
Senior Nathan Graves will play at No. 1 for the boys' team, followed by senior Brian Vandor at No. 2 and doubles partner and classmate Aaron Cohen at No. 3. Junior Forrest Wilcox takes over at No. 4, and several players are vying for the fifth and sixth spots.
Wilcox said this weekend's matches in Fairbanks will be a good test to see where everyone stands.
"It's going to be a good experience for the Anchorage trips coming up, and for state," he said. "Anchorage has some really good players."
Vandor said everything is coming together, and he and Cohen are planning on returning to the doubles finals for the second straight year with hopes of winning the state championship.
"I'm hopeful to start winning some matches and tournaments up North," he said. "I've been working on my serve and volley, mainly, and consistency. I'm trying to be more smooth with my swing. I'll do my best, and hopefully we'll prove a point."
LaRue said the team also has a few young up-and-comers that could make some noise, including sophomore Matt Vandor and freshman Evan Carnahan.
"We have a younger group coming up of freshmen and sophomores that are promising future stars as soon as this year, maybe next year," he said. "We have a whole bunch of kids coming in who have a chance to really step it up. If they practice and put some effort into it, we can definitely continue a solid showing at state every year."