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In more ways than one, it's a new season for the Juneau-Douglas High School wrestling team.
As usual, the Crimson Bears have spent the last few weeks rolling out the mats in the Marie Drake Middle School gym, working to get to competition weight and getting physically and mentally prepared for the road ahead.
What isn't so usual at the dawn of this season is that the season itself has changed.
This winter, for the first time since the 1999-2000 school year, the Crimson Bears will get to face competitors from the Class 4A Anchorage, Fairbanks and Mat-Su schools. The change comes after the Alaska School Activities Association voted last May to eliminate a much-maligned split-season format.
After two years of grappling with the split season, Juneau wrestling coach Bob Mahon is glad to see a return to the past.
"It's a pride thing," he said. "Big schools should be wrestling big schools. It's good to be back where we need to be.
"It will knock us back a couple spots," Mahon said of facing tougher competition, "but we'll work into it. I think we'll be just fine."
Under the split-season format, large Southeast and Kenai Peninsula schools - including Juneau - wrestled together with most of the state's small schools in an unclassified fall season. The large Anchorage, Fairbanks and Mat-Su schools wrestled in the spring.
Under the new schedule, the class system will return. Class 1A-2A-3A schools started their season in mid-September, and the state's Class 4A schools are just starting their seasons. The later start is to avoid conflict with the larger schools' football programs.
Juneau's first meet of the 2002-03 season is this weekend at Mount Edgecumbe, where Sitka and Hoonah will also be participating. The Crimson Bears are getting anxious for their first taste of competition this year.
"We're psyched," senior Robert Vicario said at Tuesday's practice. "We're ready to get out there. We're ready for what comes."
Vicario, who finished fourth in the state at the 189-pound weight class, is one of several seniors who will be leading what is a very young squad. The Crimson Bear roster includes seven freshmen, nine sophomores, two juniors and three seniors.
Mahon said this season's turnout is a bit lower than recent years. But thanks to the off-season Juneau Tornadoes wrestling club, the high school squad is seeing an influx of well-prepared young wrestlers.
"We're low in numbers, but as far as quality, we've got some really good kids out," Mahon said.
"Since they come from the club, it's different from getting (inexperienced) freshmen," Vicario said of the younger Crimson Bears. "Most of them are good at the basics."
Mahon said the Crimson Bears will have wrestlers covering all 14 weight classes, with strong coverage in nine or 10 of those classes. Besides Vicario, who will be wrestling at either 189 or 215 this season, this year's Juneau squad features two returning top-four state finishers in senior Isaac Cadiente (second place, 140 pounds) and sophomore Sungie Musarra (fourth place, 103 pounds). Cadiente will be wrestling at 145 pounds and Musarra at 112 this year.
Other wrestlers expected to make an impact this season include freshmen Cody Wolf and Gerry Carillo at 103 pounds, senior David Liliedahl at 135 or 140 and freshman Justin Behrends at 189.
Senior Austen Clair (171) and sophomore Alika Bradley (275) join the squad after playing football this fall, along with sophomore teammate Jake Ritter (189).
"He has really improved over the summer," Mahon said of Ritter. "We're looking for him to step up and do well this year."
The Crimson Bears have tripled the number of home meets this year, after hosting only one home event last season. The Brandon Pilot Invitational will be held on Nov. 22-23, Juneau will host a tri-meet with Sitka and Ketchikan on Dec. 13-14 and the Crimson Bears will defend their region title at home with the Region V Tournament on Jan. 31-Feb. 1.
Juneau wrestlers who qualify for state will also benefit from familiar turf, since Ketchikan is hosting the Class 4A tourney Feb. 7-8. It will be the first state wrestling tournament held in Southeast since 1983, and the first Southeast state meet in any sport since 1991.
Vicario, Liliedahl and Cadiente are the captains of this year's squad, which is without several of last season's key wrestlers. State champions Anthony Manacio IV (112) and Jerrod Harvey (275), who helped Juneau place third at last year's fall-season state meet, both have graduated.
"It's a young team and a building year, but we'll do all right and hold our own," Cadiente said.
Cadiente had some mixed emotions about the season change - he'll have to forego snowboarding this winter - but overall, he said he's glad to see the switch.
"I'm happy, because we get to wrestle with the bigger schools and get to go up north more," he said.
"Everyone is excited to get on the mats and get some matches in," Cadiente said. "We've been working hard and we're looking forward to see what we can do."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.