There's bad news for girls' high school basketball teams around the state of Alaska: The state champion Crimson Bears might be even better this year.
The Juneau-Douglas girls' basketball team opened its title defense on the road Thursday against Douglas High School in Gardnerville, Nev., and coach Lesslie Knight said she thinks her team is ready to handle the pressure of wearing the bull's-eye on its back for the 2010-11 season.
"I don't feel any pressure. I'm always thankful when we have the opportunity to go to state," she said. "The kids might feel it, but I just want them to have fun and play hard. They're talented and they play very hard, so they should have good things happen for them."
And the Bears have plenty of reasons to be confident. Five girls graduated from the state-championship squad that was heavy on juniors last season. Now it’s their turn to take on the leadership reigns after the departure of first-team All-State wing Brittany Fenumiai, third-team All-State forward Annette Highley, combo guard Mahlet Tingley, wing Emily Johnson and guard Kristen Dierick.
Knight said the influence those girls had on this team was significant and can't be understated.
"I think what we miss from the seniors is an incredible amount of leadership," she said. "Our seniors are used to being followers, so they have to step up and take some leadership roles. In particular, they're all pretty non-verbal, so getting them to communicate on and off the court is going to be a challenge.
"They were very important. They were our best leaders and we could always look up to them," senior power forward Taylor Larson added. "They set good examples and were just all-around good players who will be hard to replace."
But the Bears must find a way to do just that, even though it won't be easy. Still, Larson, a second-team All-State selection last year, added her teammates have done an admirable job in practice during the preseason.
"I don't think you can replace them, but you can just fill in the hole they left," she said. "We won't be as good because we don't have them, but we can have people that are better in different ways that can make us better as a team in a different way than last season."
And while the girls who graduated were critical cogs on the state championship team, this year's seniors also were major contributors in last season's title run. Senior point guard Karli Brakes, a third-team All-State selection last year, said the Bears aren't unfamiliar with the pressure and expectations that come with winning.
"There's definitely pressure this year but it was just as big last year with our team, so I think we're pretty good at dealing with it," she said.
Brakes is one of several Bears who will be forced into an expanded role. She will be the primary ball handler for JDHS after splitting time at the point with Tingley last season, and she said she's ready for the responsibility after putting in a lot of work during the offseason, particularly on her conditioning.
"I'm going to try and step up and be a leader with Taylor and the rest of the seniors this season," she said. "And I'm hoping we can all step up and play those minutes."
After having the luxury of two effective point guards last season, the Bears are hoping for contributions from either senior Monica Ashenfelter or sophomore Marissa Brakes, Karli's younger sister, as the primary back-ups at the point.
Knight said her starting point guard, known for her dogged on-the-ball defense, has come a long way in her development.
"Karli has consistently handled the ball, and she's just as tenacious. A lot of kids slow down with age and as their bodies mature, but Brakes is still going 100 percent," she said. "We've really encouraged her to work on her 3-point shot as well. So hopefully, we'll see her taking some more outside shots."
Juneau-Douglas also will have to deal with replacing Highley and Fenumiai, and the Bears have already experienced an early-season setback, losing senior shooting guard Olivia Henderson to a torn ACL. Knight said her absence on the floor means she will have to find other, possibly younger, players to rotate at the position.
"Olivia Henderson would have been our starting shooting guard," she said, "and with her out we're going to rotate some people in."
But Knight said this also will give her more opportunities to incorporate the team's abundance of size on the perimeter.
"We have some incredible size. Maria Weyhrauch, at 6-foot-2, will play some wing, and Sarah Tarver will play some wing. When we use those two on the wings we tend to press people, using Tarver up top in some pressing situations," she said. "I think you're going to see a big, fast team, but the challenge will be getting our younger kids up to speed."
One of those younger kids, sophomore Esra Siddeek, will be forced into a starting role with the injury to Henderson. Knight said the team will depend on her 3-point shooting stroke to spread the floor.
Starting at shooting guard in place of Henderson, senior Nani Ostrom will see much more playing time than she is accustomed to, but she said her preparation over the summer should have her ready for an increased role. Knight said Ostrom's 3-point shooting also will be a valuable asset to the starting unit.
"I've been working really hard this offseason because I knew this was expected," Ostrom said. "Olivia's injury was completely out of the blue, but it just really shows it's time to step up and mature as a senior."
She also said playing with last year's seniors made a great impression on her and her teammates.
"They're great role models on and off the court," she said. "It's definitely a trait we need to pass on to the lower classmen, and we really just want to benefit from their leadership (last year) and have some of our own."
And though there will be new players filling new roles this season, one thing hasn't changed: The Bears' calling card will again be their defense. Still, Knight said the team also is excited about its possibilities on the offensive end.
"The offense looks just as good. We have two strong 3-point shooters and our next two in line after that are fairly consistent," she said. "I think we're going to have a strong perimeter and inside game. And defense, again, will still be our focus."
Larson destroyed opponents on the block last year as an integral part of the team's success. Knight said she may surprise some people with her versatility this season.
"Taylor has done a lot of offseason work and she's incredibly fast. One of the things that hurt her last year at times was she'd get fatigued," she said. "I think we're going to rely on Taylor to even play some on the perimeter. I think people will be surprised to see how well she handles the ball and, hopefully, they'll see a change in her perimeter shooting as well as her free throws."
Starting next to Larson in the post will be the 5-foot-10 Tarver, who also brings great versatility and athleticism to the floor for the Bears.
"She looks more aggressive. I think you're going to see her get a lot more steals and take a lot more fast-break opportunities," Knight said. "Once she gets the ball in her hands, it's hard to stop her. She handles the ball well on the fast break."
The Bears will bring two girls more than 6-foot tall off the bench to spell Larson and Tarver, something few girls' high school basketball teams have the luxury to do.
"The nice thing is we have the flexibility," Knight said. "Being able to bring Maria and Hannah (Swofford) in allows us to put Tarver and Taylor out on the perimeter a little bit.
Even without the almost unprecedented depth Juneau-Douglas possessed last season, this year's squad has more than enough talent to make a run at back-to-back state titles in March.
Juneau-Douglas is in Nevada right now on a three-game road trip. The Bears played Douglas High School on Thursday, face Carson High School at 6 p.m. today, and Robert McQueen High School at 4 p.m. Saturday. The team also will take a tour of the University of Reno will in Nevada. The team opens in-state play Dec. 27 in the Capital City Classic at JDHS after a Dec. 23 alumni game doubleheader with the boys' and girls' teams both playing.
Bears roll to first win
The Bears got off to a good start Thursday with a 55-24 win over Douglas High School in Nevada.
Taylor Larson led the way with 20 points. Sarah Tarver added eight points, Esra Siddeek 7, Maria Weyhrauch 6, and Karli Brakes, Hannah Swofford and Nani Ostrom had 4 each.