Juneau-Douglas High School wrestling coach Kris Mercer is taking a decidedly different approach to the upcoming season.
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After the Crimson Bears suffered a collective case of burnout at the end of last season, Mercer and his staff are preparing for the long haul with slightly less intense practices and a focused approach to the season.
"We haven't had anyone throwing up," said Mercer, who enters his fourth year with JDHS. "We haven't been beating them up this year. Even during this first week we only had one day where we really pushed them. We're taking it pretty easy."
In addition to the revamped practice regimen, six returning seniors and an experienced roster of wrestlers give reason for optimism as JDHS opens the season this weekend in Skagway.
"We've got incoming freshmen who seem to love the spot and they know what they're doing," JDHS senior Jake Mason said. "We just have a good solid group of seniors."
For Mason, his journey back to the mat should be especially gratifying.
Season schedule (home in BOLD)
Nov. 3-4 at Skagway Tournament
Nov. 10-11 at Sitka Tournament
Nov. 16 Colony/West Valley duals
Nov. 17-19 Pilot Tournament
Dec. 7 at Colony/Wasilla duals
Dec. 8-10 at South Dual Tournament
Dec. 15-16 at Ketchikan Duals
Dec. 28-29 at Northwest (Ore.) Duals
Jan. 4 at North Pole
Jan. 5-6 at West Valley Tournament
Jan. 12-13 Juneau Duals
Jan. 19-20 at Sitka Duals
Jan. 27 at Region V in Ketchikan
Feb. 2-3 at State Championships in Chugiak
On July 8, Mason accidentally cut off part of his left big toe while cutting wood.
The senior fought through the injury to put muscle onto his frame. Last year, Mason was an undersized 215-pounder who frequently gave 15-20 pounds to his opponents.
This season, Mason could be the one pushing people around.
"What I'd do is I'd have my one crutch and crutch around the gym and do my weightlifting," Mason said of his comeback. "I had to find a way to get big. My whole plan was to get big over the summer so when it comes to wrestling season I'd be solid."
Another senior wrestler rebounding from injury is middleweight Matt Barry.
Barry was the state's top-ranked 145-pounder last season before a broken collarbone prematurely ended his season in January.
This year, Barry went to a wrestling camp in Boston which focused solely on technical skills before the season and is looking to return to elite form.
"He's my leader," Mercer said of Barry, who is slated to wrestle at 152 pounds. "He's alpha man. He's the emotion of this team. Mason is the backbone, but Matt Barry is the heart of this team."
Barry said, "To me, my season hasn't ended. My season has continued from junior year to now."
Perhaps Juneau-Douglas best hope for a state title is senior Dante Santos at either 119-125 pounds.
Known for his high-energy style and diverse array of attacks, Santos can overwhelm opponents with his strength and speed. He reached the state finals last season.
"What I learned from last year going to the state finals is that it's pretty much all mental," Santos said. "I can't really explain it. You just have to believe you can beat anyone."
Seniors Samson Keeney (171 pounds) and Tyler Zimmerman (189) both qualified for state last season and will join forces with junior Ramiro Lamas, sophomore Tony Barril and freshman Ross Leitz to give JDHS serious strength and depths in the heavier weights.
This quality depth means spirited sparring in the practice room. The more they push each other, the more the entire team and each individual wrestler benefits.
"When you have good drilling partners, that's what makes a good wrestler," Mason said. "If you have someone who can go full-go with you and it's a good match, that's awesome. You don't want to be drilling some guy who just lets you have the move because otherwise you're not going to perfect anything."
The sixth senior is Joardan Savland (160), a two-time Southeast Region champ and returning state qualifier. Savland boasts significant strength and a killer instinct on the mat.
"He's probably got the best qualifications of anybody," Mercer said of Savland. "He knows how to lead men."
Sophomore Kurt Barry, who made state as a freshman last year, is also slated at 160 pounds.
Another key figure for the Crimson Bears is 145-pound junior Steven Dyer.
The junior is a state qualifier and attended arguably one of the nation's most arduous wrestling camps this past summer - the 28-day J Robinson Camp at the University of Minnesota.
"It's definitely the hardest thing I've ever done," Dyer said. "It's all about determination, all about mental strength."
The Crimson Bears will be relatively young in the lighter weights with the exception of sophomore Bryce Saviers.
The 119-pounder made the state tournament last season and should return this season.
At 103 pounds, Bobby Hunt and freshman Sabrina Story will battle it out for varsity time, while freshman Jufer Librando and sophomore Allen Hunt man the 112-pound class.
Freshman Ryan Cao is the lone grappler at 130 pounds and Sam Cordero, also a freshman, will be at 140 pounds.
"We've got a good, solid set of freshman and a set of seniors," Mercer said. "That's what you need to feed a team, the new guys learning from the old guys."
The Crimson Bears will also boast a huge and experienced coaching staff with assistants Darrin May, Lee Kadinger, Steve Dahl and Dave Zuniga.
Juneau-Douglas appears ready for the entire season and is scheduling its practices and training sessions accordingly.
Practices now take place around 2:30 p.m., allowing the athletes more time to recoup at night and focus on academics. Also, JDHS will be traveling one less time than it did last season.
Mercer also is aiming to eliminate the need for wrestlers to cut weight and jump up and down weight classes - which can drain a wrestler of stamina and strength.
With all these adjustments, Mercer believe his team will be fresh and ready for a successful campaign.
Despite the changes, he admits its hard to fight a wrestling coach's natural urge to push his athletes to the limit.
"Thank God for the last 10 minutes when you can hammer them with sprints," Mercer said with a laugh. "If it weren't for that, I don't know what we'll do."
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.