It's been an offseason of change for the Juneau-Douglas High School wrestling team.
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The Crimson Bears welcomed in new assistant coaches and a host of freshmen to the squad. The Alaska School Activities Association also changed the team's schedule, combining the large and small school seasons together. The move significantly shortened the season to just two months.
The team even changed the way it opens the season. Instead of immediately starting with intense cardiovascular work, coach Kris Mercer is opting to work on technique.
Not to worry, though. The intense work is coming.
"Typically in the first week we hammer them, but then we lose some," Mercer said. "After Hoonah, though, we'll have some serious cardio."
JDHS starts the season this weekend with the Hoonah Invitational.
The team currently boasts about 20 wrestlers. The number should increase slightly when football season ends later this month.
Juneau-Douglas graduated a host of seniors last season, many of whom spent all four years rolling around on the mat. While the majority of the team lacks high school experience, there are a few Crimson Bears eager to make their mark.
One senior who can't wait for the season to come is 152-160 pounds Steven Dyer.
Last season, Dyer spent most of his time working with Matt Barry at 152 pounds. Barry finished second in the state last season.
Despite Barry winning the majority of wrestle-offs last season for the top 152-pound spot, Dyer never lost heart or his dedication. He spent most of last season ranked in the top five in his weight class and won two matches at the state tournament.
"Matt Barry is one of the toughest wrestlers I've ever met," Dyer said. "I had the best practice partner in the state."
This season, however, the spotlight is all Dyer's.
Dyer attended a technique camp at Boston University over the summer to hone his skills and plans on wrestling in college next year.
"This year, I can't describe how important it is," Dyer said. "The is the last chance to win a state title. I've put in a lot of extra time."
Another senior to watch for is lightweight Ian Otness. The 119-pounder won two matches at last year's state tournament and could be poised for a breakout year.
"I would definitely say that this sport taught me to keep going and not quit," Otness said. "It teaches you how to work. Physically, it builds you up. And it helps with your mental stability and toughness. After wrestling, I don't think anything can break you down."
With the new schedule, Otness will be getting plenty of work against a variety of competition. In previous years, JDHS could only wrestle Ketchikan and Sitka most weekends because the small school season ended.
This year, however, all of Southeast Alaska's smaller schools are ready to go.
"There's a lot of 2A and 3A schools to wrestle and that's good," Otness said. "They bring variety, different styles and techniques."
Heavyweight Ramiro Lamas also returns. The defending state champion could see action at 215 pounds as well this year. Lamas, who's won matches at a state tournament, will be working with fellow big man Ross Lietz in practice.
"Lamas is moral and sound," Mercer said. "He's strong, knows right from wrong and is hard-working."
Among the other returning wrestlers, junior Bryce Saviers is poised to make an impact at lightweight.
Saviers won two matches at the state tournament last season and is among the Bears' strongest grapplers.
Juniors Lester Hunt and Ben Roemeling return, as does 160-pounder Kurt Barry and 103-pounders Whitney Parks and Sabrina Story. Jufer Librando, a 112-pounder, also returns to the mat.
The biggest change with the team, however, is the influx of underclassmen.
Freshmen Cameron Fronimos, Tyler McMichael, Kevin Dyer, and Cole Bossio wrestled in middle school while Sven Savland, Kevin Barry, Sam Cordero, Eddie Zerbach and Ben Rupe are ready to go.
Middle school state champion Ben Hotch may join the team following the conclusion of football.
"It's nice to see new people in the sport," Otness said. "Sometimes when you see less people, it's like wrestling is going under. It's great to see them because it gives you a sense that it'll continue on and I can pass it on."
Contact sports editor Tim Nichols at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.