Normally the Juneau-Douglas High School wrestling team would be preparing for one last showcase home tournament -- this weekend's Thanksgiving Classic -- before its final push for the state tournament in December.
But all that changed when one of their own was killed in an auto accident early last Saturday morning. As the team struggles to cope with the death of 152-pounder Brandon Pilot, the tournament has become more than a showcase.
Now the tournament is part of the healing process. Juneau's wrestlers are dedicating the tournament to Pilot, and Juneau coach Bob Mahon said a future tournament may be named for Pilot. This weekend's tournament opens at 5 p.m. this afternoon, with action continuing at 9 a.m. Saturday morning. The finals are scheduled to start about 6 p.m. Saturday, and Mahon said the team may gather for a moment of silence before the finals.
"I think it will be a big part of the healing process," said Juneau's Jonathan Moore, a 189-pounder who also played on the football team with Pilot. "We'll know after this weekend if we'll be able to overcome this. It's Brandon's weekend. We're doing it for him."
"I think it (the tournament) matters more," added Juneau's Willy Dodd, a 112-pounder who also played football. "I think the team wants to step up and show losing Brandon isn't going to be the end of our season. It happened on Saturday and we all came in and talked about it on Monday. It was really somber and there were a lot of emotions. It's brought a lot of people together."
Mahon said the team has ridden an emotional rollercoaster since wrestlers started to hear about Pilot's accident early Saturday morning on Fish Creek Road, near Eaglecrest Ski Area. He said the team didn't practice on Monday, instead it huddled up and talked about Brandon. The team attended Pilot's funeral on Tuesday afternoon, and Wednesday's practice was the first one where things were seemingly like normal.
"I think we did pretty good today," Mahon said of Wednesday's practice. "If you hadn't known what happened it wouldn't have looked much different from a regular practice. We talked on Monday and Tuesday we had to say goodbye to a friend. Now we have to go on for a friend.
"This is our first step in being able to heal," Mahon added. "This will be good for the kids. It'll be a release. But we're not done yet. We've got three weeks before the state meet, and once we get through this weekend we'll know a little better how we're doing for the rest of the season."
This weekend's tournament features nine or 10 teams, Mahon said, with the only one from outside Southeast being Kotzebue. Others in the field besides Juneau include Ketchikan, Klawock, Craig, Skagway, Hoonah, Mount Edgecumbe, Wrangell and Pelican.
But in the meantime, the Juneau wrestlers just want to get through this weekend and they'd like to win the tournament for Pilot.
"You look at yourself from a different perspective after something like this," Moore said. "Now it feels like we've got something guiding us. I'm not a religious person, but it's almost like we've got an angel showing us the way now. It was tough losing Brandon because he was always happy and always in a good mood. But I think this can be a driving force to bring us together."