The new Juneau-Douglas High School tennis team has been practicing for two years. But, other than a few local scrimmage tournaments, that's all it's been able to do.
This weekend, though, the Crimson Bears will see their first real action in team history as they head to the Alyeska Pipeline/Fairbanks High Schools Tennis Invitational. The tournament takes place this Friday and Saturday at two locations in Fairbanks.
The dozen Crimson Bears making the trip will join about 74 players on five new Fairbanks-area teams from Lathrop, West Valley, North Pole, Monroe Catholic and Eielson in the tournament. There also will be at least one player from Chugiak in the tournament.
"This is something we've worked for a long time," said Juneau senior Naomi Sadighi, one of eight players who were on Juneau's tennis team last year. This season, 22 players have been regulars at practice although not all of them are traveling to Fairbanks. "It's really nice to have a tennis team."
The Crimson Bears are coached by Amy Skilbred, a former high school player in New Jersey and Massachusetts who said her first job in Juneau was teaching tennis back in 1988-89. She is being assisted by Bev Smith, who coached tennis in Washington state in the 1970s. John McConnochie is handling team logistics, such as arranging regular court time and monitoring grades, while parents Julia Smith-Kibby and Matt Knutson are doing volunteer work with the squad.
"It's a sport for life," Skilbred said. "We've had a range of players, with some who have been playing for years and several kids who had to borrow racquets. It's a really good group of kids."
"This is history," McConnochie said. "This will be the first time a Juneau tennis team has been to a tournament."
On Saturday, Sept. 25, the JDHS tennis team will host a mixed doubles mixer and art auction as a fund-raiser at the Mendenhall Valley location of JRC/The Alaska Club. The mixed doubles mixer takes place from 2-5 p.m., with the art auction from 5-6 p.m. More details are in Sports in Juneau on Page B2.
High school tennis has been around in Alaska for about 25-30 years in Anchorage. But it's only expanded into the rest of the state the past two years. The Fairbanks schools are new to tennis this season, and their teams have been playing dual meets against each other for a couple of weeks. Lathrop has a 5-0 record and West Valley is 5-1 in their dual meets.
The Juneau team is hoping to be able to play against some of the Anchorage teams later this season, but at this point it's not appearing likely.
The Anchorage schools hold what they call a state tournament in mid-October, but it's never had any players from outside of Anchorage. At this point, Anchorage's regional/state tournament still is being limited to Anchorage players, Skilbred said. A season extension from the Alaska School Activities Association is needed if coaches want to create a state invitational tournament this year that would have players from Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.
Sadighi is one of the more experienced tennis players on Juneau's team. She played her way to the top of the girls team's ladder last weekend, meaning she will be Juneau's top female seed in the Fairbanks tournament. Sophomore Laura Knapp was second on the ladder earlier this week, while freshman Lyndsey Kelly was third, sophomore Ashley Calvo was fourth and sophomore Corinna Felkl was fifth.
"I've been playing eight years, but you wouldn't know it by watching," Sadighi said. "It's really nice to have a team where we can challenge each other. And it's nice to be able to say on our college applications that we played tennis in high school."
While the tennis team didn't exist when her older brother, Alex Sadighi, attended JDHS, he did go on to play college tennis. Alex Sadighi is a sophomore for the Gustavus Adolphus College team in Minnesota.
Other recent JDHS students to play college tennis are Emily Cotter, who is now a senior at Emerson College in Boston and played tennis as a freshman and sophomore, and Seva Iwinski, a junior on the tennis team at Texas A&M who spent three years at JDHS before graduating from the Walker School of Marietta, Ga.
The boys ladder was in a state of flux earlier this week, because senior exchange student Max Mueller of Worms, Germany (just south of Frankfurt), missed the challenge matches last weekend.
Sophomore Bryan Crowder was the top player after the ladder was posted, with junior Devon Kibby second, sophomore Kaelen Knutson-Lombardo third, sophomore Zak Kirkpatrick fourth and junior Gerry Carrillo fifth. But Mueller - whose shoes are stained with red clay and show the worn drag mark of an experienced right-handed player dragging his foot as he slides to make forehand return shots - was playing challenge matches against the team leaders this week and is expected to work his way into one of the top two or three spots.
"I was on the tennis club and I play for my school," said Mueller, who said he's been playing tennis since he was 5 years old. "This is actually quite cool. It's nice to be able to play tennis for the school. I didn't know I'd be able to do that when I came here."
Knutson-Lombardo is another returning player from last year's team, and teammates Crowder and Kirkpatrick both said he was the one who got them playing again after long absences from the sport. All three played last year.
"There's more of a structure this year," said Knutson-Lombardo, who said he's been playing tennis nine or 10 years, pretty much year-round. "Last year it didn't feel like people were into it as much."
Crowder said his parents made him take some lessons when he was younger, and he played a bit before quitting. Kirkpatrick said he took lessons in the sixth grade, then went to other sports like baseball.
"I've been playing for a long time, on and off," Crowder said. "But I took an eight-year break."
"I didn't play for a while, and then Kaelen said he could beat me," Kirkpatrick said. "Getting the team is great. It gives a lot more for those of us who want to improve themselves. If you're just taking lessons, there's nothing to aim for. But if there's a team there's tournaments and travel."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.