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It might be a rebuilding year for the proud Juneau-Douglas wrestling program, but with a new coach at the helm for a new season the outlook is bright.
"It sounds like they've been up and down every year, so I'm just trying to bring balance here," first-year head coach John Smith said. "This is a good bunch of kids."
At this early juncture in the season, Smith said his roster is not totally filled as there are still athletes from other sports yet to report to the wrestling team. And while Smith said he is looking forward to bringing more wrestlers in, he's focusing on the group he has in front of him now.
"We're building a family here," he said. "I'm not just teaching them wrestling, but I'm teaching them life skills and they're learning how to become a new family.
"The big thing right now is getting them comfortable with each other and learning a little bit about each other."
Smith said he liked the camaraderie his team showcased two weekends ago in Kake in a round-robin tournament, and he feels this squad is off on the right foot for the new season.
"They wrestled a lot; it was a good experience for all of them," he said. "That's where they learn the most is when they're wrestling.
"We're just getting started, but so far so good. Everyone is very dedicated."
Smith, originally from Hoonah, has a wrestling background that includes three straight state tournament appearances for the Braves. He said it's just good to get back into the sport as a coach.
"I think this team will do very well. I'm not looking for state champions necessarily, but if they end up that way that's great," Smith said. "All I can do is be there for them and give instruction, but they have to push themselves. I'm not the one that gets on the mat.
"But that's why I'm here. My body is pretty clubbed up, but I can still get out here and help them out and show them enough."
While the team is still finding its identity and gaining new wrestlers by the day, Smith said he likes what he has. He identified the heavyweights and upper weight classes as a group in which he sees significant potential.
Eric Ashenfelter and Gary Speck - a state qualifier as a freshman last year at Thunder Mountain - make up the heavyweight class for the upcoming season, although Smith said he expects to get more kids from the football team in the near future. But for now he said he's happy with what he's seen, especially in Ashenfelter, who took first place in Kake.
"He's turning out to be a pretty good wrestler," he said. "He's really slimmed down and is very agile and smooth for a big guy. It's fun working with him because he's going to be a good technician."
Smith said brothers Andrew and Ben Hoch represented well in the first meet of the season at the 140- and 130-pound weight classes, respectively. Andrew took second place at Kake while brother Ben placed second in his weight class.
Other Crimson Bears wrestlers include 171-pounders Cameron Cunningham and Henry Dalton, 130-pound Sam Adams, 145-pounders Jon McDonald and Kyle Barry, 120-pound Arturo Gonzales, 112-pound Jamie Paddock and 103-pound David Dumesnil.
The Bears are back at it for the season's second tournament beginning today in Ketchikan.