There was every reason in the world for the Juneau-Douglas High School girls' swimming and diving team to feel the pressure of the state championship meet on Nov. 4-5 in Anchorage.
After falling one point shy of the state title a year ago in Anchorage, and carrying a roster of mostly sophomores and juniors, it would've been understandable for the Crimson Bears to experience some butterflies.
There's one problem with that thesis, though. JDHS didn't feel any pressure. The Bears entered Anchorage and fearlessly topped the best high school swimmers and divers Alaska had to offer.
"It's something we knew we could do," JDHS sophomore Melissa Bogert said. "It's a nice accomplishment. It's a team achievement and it shows we have a good team. Last year, we learned we're a good team and we could do that. This year we wanted to do it and show we were that good."
While Juneau-Douglas easily captured the state championship, the seeds were planted way back in August in California.
The entire team attended a swim camp at the University of California-Irvine.
"I told them flat out there were three reasons we were going there," JDHS coach John Wray said. "One, to get a suntan. Second was that I wasn't going to spend a lot of time on technique. I wanted to get that done early."
The third thing, Wray said, was to have the team come together.
"This is where they all were slammed in the same dorm, in the same cafeteria and they were with each other constantly," Wray said. "We're here to get to learn how to get along with one another. ... I try to stress that we take care of one another, we have each other's backs and we look out for one another."
With the team solid on their technique and tight as a unit, the Crimson Bears wasted little time asserting themselves as a force.
Though they didn't qualify for the state championships, swimmers like Erika O'Sullivan, Sarah Felix, Koko Urata, Annie Choate, Erin Oelklaus, Claire Brooks, Erin Pratt and others provided the early season depth and competition in the pool.
JDHS did not lose a meet during the regular season and captured the 30-school Bartlett Invitational with relative ease.
After the Bartlett Invitational, the Crimson Bears returned to Juneau for their lone home meet of the year.
The training intensified as the team started to prepare for the upcoming Region V championships in Sitka on Oct. 28-29.
Days before the lone home meet on Oct. 7-8, Wray pushed his team through an exhausting exercised called "Drop Like Flies." The exercise has two swimmers in each lane with the athletes going for 12 heats of hard 75-yard swims.
Besides being an intense workout, the exercise also helped stoked competitive fires and shapened concentration as they strive for the wall.
The sets proved important for the team.
"I remember one step we did, it was probably a few weeks into the season," said JDHS sophomore Kristin Jones. "We did a set of 'Drop Like Flies.' At the end, John said, 'I just witnessed you guys become a team.' He said that exact moment, and we kind of realized we came together as a team for the first time."
After putting on an impressive show for the home folks, JDHS dominated in Sitka en route to a 14th consecutive region title. The Bears more than doubled second-place Ketchikan's score and captured first or second in every single event. Julia DiCostanzo, Melissa Bogert, Sara Bogert, Jones all won individual swimming events, while the team took two-of-three relays.
The Juneau-Douglas divers also asserted themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
JDHS finished a remarkable 1-2-3-4 in the diving competition. Tanya Trucano, Hanna Davis, Holly Trucano and Allison Sharp all punched their ticket for the state competition.
With 13 girls headed to state, JDHS appeared unstoppable.
Wray said his team swam "like maniacs" on Nov. 4 in Anchorage and had qualifiers in every single event for Nov. 5.
The team faced a gutcheck, however, as Jones, a favorite to repeat as state champ in the 500-yard freestyle, was severely fatigued with a sinus infection after Friday's qualifying.
Unable to go in her usual events, JDHS needed to rally together if it wanted to bring home the title.
The Crimson Bears, who battled so hard throughout the year and prided themselves on their closeness, responded by delivering monstrous performances on Saturday.
"They swam like maniacs on Friday and didn't hesitate," Wray said. "All of them said we're going to pick this up and pick up the slack. Then it was a confident statement they made collectively. I wasn't surprised but it stunned me. I was kind of a little choked up about it.
"Later that evening, Kristin made a comment that she felt she let the team down and wanted to swim. The girls heard that and I think that boosted them up again."
Jones, unable to go in the 500 freestyle or the freestyle relays, delivered a gritty performance in the 200 individual medley. She won the state title by .13 seconds over West Valley's Stephanie Hampton.
Meanwhile, the team had at least one athlete finish in the top eight of every single event. Amber Kelly stepped up on the 400 relay team and helped the quartet take second.
"Amber Kelly swam like a 54 (seconds) which was stunning," Wray said. "Amber had an incredible meet. Every time she got in the pool she was confident and ready to go and she overcame some trials this year by staying healthy."
The team won its first state title since 1983 with 101.5 points, 31.5 points better than second-place South Anchorage.
They did it by sticking together throughout any adversity and by maintaining a focus beyond their youth.
These Crimson Bears didn't worry about pressure, because of a quiet confidence they had. They did the work and earned the right to reap its rewards.
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com.
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