ANCHORAGE - While the Juneau-Douglas High School tennis team wanted to do well in the inaugural Alaska State Invitational High School Tennis Team, there was a more important goal for the Crimson Bears.
The second-year Crimson Bears wanted to come out of the tennis tournament as better players.
"We're here to learn," said freshman Lauren Hobson, who was paired with freshman Lyndsey Kelly in the girls doubles event. "After Fairbanks (a trip last month for Juneau's first competition at the high school level), our playing improved so much. We got to play a lot of matches."
"It (the tournament) helps us improve tremendously," said sophomore Kaelen Knutson-Lombardo, who was paired with Zak Kirkpatrik in the boys doubles event.
The state invitational was the first meeting between the new tennis programs in Juneau and Fairbanks with the long-established program in Anchorage. Team scores weren't kept for the two-day tournament held Friday and Saturday, but there was competition in singles at The Alaska Club-East and doubles at The Alaska Club-North locations in Anchorage.
The Crimson Bears had a slow start Friday, as all three of their doubles teams lost their opening matches and most of their singles players also dropped into the consolation bracket. But they rallied later in the tournament as sophomore boys singles player Bryan Crowder reached the semifinals before losing and three other Crimson Bears won the consolation titles in their brackets - senior Max Mueller in boys singles, senior Naomi Sadighi in girls singles and the mixed doubles team of senior Ben Cotter and freshman Dream Suchitbharabitya.
"I'm happy," Sadighi said. "Even the match I lost was really good. That's a big part of it, the tournament experience. I lost the first set, then on the second set I saved four match points before winning three straight games to take the set and force a tiebreaker. I lost to her (Lathrop's Angela Smith) really bad in Fairbanks. This was a whole different environment."
"He was really good," Crowder said of top-seeded Hendrik Teuffer of Service, who won the final after handing Crowder his only loss of the tournament. "I was double-faulting, but I'm happy. I hope we can do better next year."
For Juneau, coached by Amy Skilbred, the matches were especially critical for the development of its program. There are seven schools in the Anchorage program, which has been around for more than 25 years, and there are six schools competing in the first-year program in Fairbanks. Those teams see regular action in local leagues, where they get at least one or two matches a week.
Juneau is in its second year, but this tournament was just the second batch of matches against other teams for the Crimson Bears. They didn't get any competition outside of intrasquad matches and a tournament with local adults last year. This year, Juneau's had the trip to Fairbanks last month and a regional tournament that was all-Juneau last weekend. Three of Juneau's six doubles players didn't make the trip to Fairbanks, so these were their first matches.
"This competition is more competitive than what we saw in Fairbanks," said senior Laura Knapp, who played girls singles and was one of eight players on the team last year. "We're still kind of rough. It's hard to do that (improve) when you keep playing the same people. We're learning a lot."
"We've really improved, to have come this far in just our second year," Hobson said. "Most of these kids (points to a couple of Anchorage players) have been playing since they were 8 or 9. I didn't realize tennis was that big of a sport up here. Where a lot of the kids get their improvement is from the tournaments."
While some of the 11 Crimson Bears struggled, especially in their opening matches, there also were some bright spots as every singles player and two of the three doubles teams won at least one match.
"I could have made it to the finals," Mueller said of his hopes to play fellow German exchange student Teuffer in the finals. Mueller's only loss was to second-seeded William Brown of South Anchorage in the quarterfinals, then he rallied to win the consolation title even though he said his right forearm had been injured and was hurting.
In the consolation bracket, Mueller had to eliminate teammate Devon Kibby, a junior who was one of the initial players on last year's team.
"It was totally the luck of the draw," said Kibby, who was paired against Teuffer in the opening round. "You'd be playing a tough player, and on the court next to you were a couple of weaker players. But it was fun."
For the Cotter-Suchitbharabitya pairing, the duo was able to gain some revenge for its first-round loss to Justin Stuller and Dong-Chu Chang of Monroe Catholic. The Juneau pair, which didn't make the trip to Fairbanks last month, beat the Monroe duo in the consolation final.
"I had just eaten and Ben was still sleeping," Suchitbharabitya said of the early loss. "We played six matches, and lost one."
"We had a good time, we were joking with each other," Cotter said of the consolation final. "We had a better day today."
Results for Juneau players can be found on the Scoreboard on Page B2.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.