As the Crimson Bears hockey team prepares for its season opener Thursday in Anchorage against the Colony Knights, it will do so with question marks concerning leadership after graduating six seniors from a squad that lost to the West Valley Wolfpack in the Mid-Alaska Conference playoffs last season.
But coach Dave McKenna said he has confidence this group will come together.
"We lost some talented players, especially our all-time leading scorer (Nick Mow). But there's plenty of room for some kids to step up and assume leadership roles," he said. "I feel like we're going to be a solid team. It might take a while for us to get some experience under our belt, but we have a group of kids that worked very hard during the offseason - much more than years past."
McKenna said the level of competition in training camp has risen with each new season, a testament to the development of youth hockey players around Juneau.
"It's getting tougher and tougher to make the team every year. The age at which you start hockey is really critical because there are so many skills to pick up," he said. "We're seeing kids with more well-rounded skills, but they're also coming in really dedicated to the game and loving the game. It's a nice position to be in, but it makes things difficult when it comes to picking teams."
The Bears once again must compete against MAC powerhouses like West Valley and North Pole, and McKenna knows the team has a lot of work ahead if it wants to accomplish its ultimate goal.
"I think we'll be a really solid team. It might take a little while to get started out of the gate, but I have really high hopes for these guys," he said. "We're really shooting for that first playoff win, which would give us an opportunity to go to the state tournament.
"That seems like a little bit of a stretch right now, but if these guys can stay focused on doing the little things right, I think we'll get there."
While they may have lost a significant amount of talent from last season, the Crimson Bears still have plenty of skilled holdovers. Goalie Garrett Cheeseman will see the most time in goal this season after Matt Noreen's departure. Noreen and Cheeseman split time tending the net last year, and McKenna said he's excited about his goalie's potential.
"He's coming into the season in really great shape after a great year last year," he said. "The goaltender battle is out of the picture, so that allows him to focus and know he'll be getting the bulk of the ice time this year."
And Cheeseman knows what kind of responsibilities he has as the team's primary keeper. He said despite losing scoring and overall size, this year's unit will find its identity through team speed.
"We're definitely young and small, but we have a lot of kids that really love playing the game. So they really want to put their heart out, play their best and fight for us," he said. "We did lose a lot of scoring and a lot of the bigger guys to help us against teams that will be tough hitting-wise, but we do have some quick guys that will be able to get in there and get around them."
Cheeseman also said he and his fellow seniors remember last season's loss to West Valley in the playoffs, and that serves as inspiration on the eve of their season opener.
"I want to beat one of those teams (Lathrop and West Valley) and, hopefully, make it to state my senior year," he said. "We lost to those (teams) the last two years in the playoffs, so hopefully this year we can pull it out and make it to state."
Others returning for JDHS this season include seniors Eric Verrelli, Cole Carnahan and Taylor Lehnhart, as well as junior Bill Holbrook. As far as the rest of the roster spots, McKenna said his coaches still need to see how their younger players respond in game situations. He also said there will be no shortage of chances for players to demonstrate their abilities this season.
"We have plenty of talent, it's just a matter of who's going to really step it up a notch and play at that competitive, physical varsity level," he said. "Lots of guys will get opportunities this year, and any of the freshmen and sophomores could come in and be primary players.
"Each year, kids come up a little bit more well-rounded and have been around the game a little bit longer," he continued. "This year it was really tough when it came to decision time at tryouts."
As for the schedule ahead, the Bears will kick the season off with difficult matchups against Colony, Bartlett and Eagle River before returning to Juneau to face Soldotna in their home opener. McKenna said last season he wanted a more difficult schedule to help prepare his squad for a potential run at state, and this year he's got it.
"They're all really strong programs. We don't really have any weak spots in our schedule, so we're going to hit the ground running," he said. "We have a lot of good teams coming to visit between mid-November and mid-January, so there's going to be a lot of good hockey to come watch."
The Bears open the season against Colony on Thursday in Anchorage, and will face Bartlett and Eagle River on Friday and Saturday, respectively. The home opener against Soldotna is scheduled for Nov. 12 at Treadwell Arena.