This season's Juneau-Douglas High School diving squad is enjoying something it never had in Southeast last fall - opponents.
After spending last season diving against themselves in region meets, the Crimson Bears now have a squad from Petersburg as competition. But with 11 divers on the team - the most in recent memory - Juneau is still the dominant force in Region V.
"We have a lot of depth this year," Crimson Bear diving coach Cathy Tide said. "It's nice to actually have kids to compete against."
Three Juneau divers will be among the 20-member Crimson Bear swimming and diving contingent heading to Valdez this weekend for one of the largest high school swimming meets in the state.
Juneau and Valdez will compete in a dual meet on Thursday, and then both schools - along with 10 others - will participate in the Valdez Invitational on Friday and Saturday. The competition will feature nearly every large school from Fairbanks, the Mat-Su Valley and the Kenai Peninsula.
"The kids are looking forward to this trip as a new adventure," Juneau swimming coach John Wray said. "We get to see some new faces."
Juneau's diving squad features a mix of new and returning faces, and is led by returning Region V champs Ryan Stidolph, a senior, and Marnita Coenraad, a sophomore. Junior Gabe Kelley is returning for his third season of diving.
"We've got some really strong new people," Tide said. "Lexy Wagoner, a freshman, and Gwen Miller, a sophomore, show a lot of promise. So does Nathan Schroeder, a junior."
At last weekend's Sitka meet, Stidolph won the boys diving event on Friday and Schroeder won on Saturday. Miller and Tanya Trucano swapped second and third places behind Petersburg's Susie Henderson in the girls event. At the Petersburg meet on Sept. 6-7, Coenraad and Wagoner finished 1-2 both days, and Kelley won the boys event both days.
While it is exciting to have such a big squad - "It's like we have an actual team," Coenraad said - the downside is that travel costs mean each diver is very limited in the number of meets they can attend. For example, the three divers from the Petersburg meet didn't go to Sitka. The team is handling that well.
"We do get less board time," Wagoner said, but noted that "you also have more friends."
Tide said she hopes to bring as many divers as possible to the Region V meet in Petersburg on Nov. 1-2.
"I'm really excited for regionals," she said. "I'd like to send seven, which would be the biggest Juneau-Douglas diving show ever."
Newcomers, like Wagoner, are already having an impact this season. Wagoner said she chose to try diving because she likes the performance aspect, as well as the element of danger.
"I like how its a risk sport, but it's a safe risk," she said. "There's a danger factor that makes it exciting."
She said her first high school meet, at Petersburg earlier this month, was a little different than she anticipated.
"I expected it to be really noisy, but the diving meet was really quiet," she said. "Everyone was watching the board."
Coenraad said meets up north, like the Valdez Invite this weekend, have a different atmosphere than the congenial, everyone-knows-everyone Southeast meets. She said they provide good practice for the state meet.
"It's like a preview of going up there for other (meets)," she said. "It's a lot more competitive. Here (in Southeast) we're all friends, and there we don't know them at all."
Wray said the Valdez meet should provide a good test for the Crimson Bears.
"We're going to see some really stiff competition. Both Lathrop and North Pole boys are very strong, and Lathrop's girls are very strong," Wray said. "You put (the schools at the meet) all together, and there will be very competitive races every time the gun goes off."
Soldotna also looks to challenge for the Valdez meet titles, with a number of swimmers among the top 16 in the state in various events. A complete listing of the top 16 swimmers and times can be found on the Scoreboard on Page 14.
After returning from Valdez, Juneau hosts its only home meet of the season next weekend.