The Juneau-Douglas High School boys basketball team will have its youngest roster in several years this season.
But the young Crimson Bears weren't given any breaks with their schedule, and they won't be able to ease into the season.
The Juneau boys tip off their season against the two-time defending Class 4A state champion Bartlett Golden Bears at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Anchorage (game broadcast locally on KINY radio, 800-AM).
Then, the Crimson Bears head to the eight-team Service Cougar Tip-Off Classic this weekend, with an opening game against Barrow at 6:45 p.m. on Thursday. The Crimson Bears will play the Service-Point Hope winner (or loser) on Friday, and the championship game is on Saturday. The tournament also features East Anchorage, state runner-up Wasilla, Heritage Christian School and West Hills, from a San Diego suburb.
The Juneau and Bartlett junior varsity teams play at 5:45 p.m. today and the Juneau JV team plays in a tournament at Dimond High School this weekend.
The Crimson Bears (18-9 overall last season and third at state) have graduated 12 seniors over the past two years, so head coach George Houston said he's worried the Juneau players may struggle early this season. Against a quick press like Bartlett's, things could go bad in a hurry if Juneau's guards can't cope with the pressure.
"We're a younger team than we've had, so the confidence factor will be a concern," Houston said after Sunday afternoon's annual Red-Black scrimmage. "With a new group, we'll see how we're going to be."
"We're really excited to be playing first Bartlett and then at Service," said 6-foot-2 senior guard Alex Heumann, who was the MVP of last year's Capital City Classic after making 75 percent of his 3-pointers (18-for-24) during the tournament. "This is a good chance to see what we have. We're not as good as we need to be, but we're getting better."
While the Crimson Bears graduated six seniors each of the past two years, they still have some talent. Heumann will serve as co-captain with 6-5 senior center Adam Nelson. Other seniors on the team are 6-2 forward David Jones and 5-11 guard Rob Carte.
The juniors include 5-9 point guard Larry Cooper, 6-2 swingman Thomas Derbesy, 6-1 swingman Kyle Huntsman, 6-6 center Andrew Capacci, 6-3 forward-center Mychal Hutcherson and 5-11 guard Norman Zura. The four sophomores are 6-4 forward Josh Monagle, 5-7 point guard Tres Saldivar, 6-0 swingman Luke Miller and 5-11 guard Scott Lesh, a transfer from Skagway. The only freshman on the varsity is 6-3 forward Clae Baker, but he's out with a broken finger on his shooting hand.
The Crimson Bears are younger than usual, but nine of the players have varsity experience.
"Alex and Adam were just voted team captains today, so their roles are expanded this year," said Houston, who takes a 228-57 record into his 12th season as head coach. "They'll have to provide leadership. We'll do OK as long as we don't destroy our confidence."
Juneau lost to Bartlett two years ago in the state championship game, falling behind early as Bartlett's guards created havoc in Juneau's backcourt. The teams didn't play last year.
Not only is Bartlett the two-time defending state champion, but the Golden Bears return the state's player of the year in junior point guard Mario Chalmers, who was ranked the 33rd best junior nationally in High School Hoops magazine and is being called Alaska's best player since Carlos Boozer and Trajan Langdon. Bartlett also returns first-team all-state guard Doug Hardy.
In order to beat Bartlett, and even to beat Barrow on Thursday, the Crimson Bears said they need to outwork their opponents.
"We feel pretty good about our chances, but we need to work a lot harder since we're young," Cooper said. "We need to go with confidence."
"It's just a battle day-in and day-out in practice," Nelson said. "We're all working hard since we're younger."
While Barrow, being a Class 3A team, is a step down from Bartlett's level, the Whalers will provide their own challenges for Juneau. Barrow returns the core of its team that placed third at the Class 3A state tournament last year, going undefeated until the state semifinals.
"It seems to me the last time we played a (Class) 3A team, we got our tails whipped," Houston said, referring to Juneau's 70-55 loss to eventual Class 3A state champion Craig in the Region V-3A/4A Southeast Championship game. "Barrow beat us at the team camp in Fairbanks this summer."
"Our defense will be a priority," Monagle said. "We'll just go at them like we would any other team. We'll get a feel for what we have."
After this weekend, the Juneau boys and girls will host the Princess Cruises-Capital City Classic on Dec. 27-30. The tourney will be the season-opener for the Crimson Bear girls.
After the Capital City Classic, the Juneau boys are idle for two weeks before they host Wasilla on Jan. 16-17. The Crimson Bears play in the East T-Bird Classic on Jan. 22-24, and then they host Lathrop on Jan. 30-31 to wrap up the non-conference part of their schedule.
Juneau plays at Sitka on Feb. 6-7, hosts Ketchikan on Feb. 20-21, hosts Sitka on Feb. 27-28 and goes to Ketchikan on March 5-6 for its Region V-Class 4A games. The Region V tournament is March 11-13 at Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, and the state tournament is March 18-20 at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.