When it comes to experience, balance, size, defensive prowess, speed and quickness, few teams will be able match the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears girls' basketball team this season.
Last year's region runner-up squad returns intact, and is loaded with three seniors, eight juniors and one freshman new comer debuting tonight against Thunder Mountain at home, and Saturday at TMHS.
"We have the same team as last year and not much has changed," said senior guard Mahlet Tingley, a fourth-year member of the varsity. "I feel like it will be a good season, even better than last year's. We've grown up together and the team chemistry is still the same. We just hope to feed off our first few games and see how things go."
Senior wing Emily Johnson said the girls have hit the court running in practice.
"We've been refreshing on plays and working on new stuff ... and making some adjustments," she said. "We've really been working on defense and we haven't played together since the summer, so we're trying to get back into the swing of things. We're really looking to get better and go from there."
The only thing slowing the team down has been the injury bug, coach Lesslie Knight said. Johnson won't return to the lineup until January after tearing her ACL in August, and senior guard Brittany Fenumiai also is rehabbing shoulder and knee injuries.
"We've been plagued with some injuries, which is unusual," Knight said. "So both of them have been working really hard with their rehab, and I've had two kids out with a groin injury. We're slowly working them back in."
Knight has a simple philosophy when it comes to her team's identity: share the ball on offense and defend, defend, defend.
"We play with a very strong team concept, and we have very balanced scoring," she said. "We have several girls who could score 18 to 20 points a game, but within the concept of our team approach, most of our kids average 8 to 10 points a game. We consistently play nine or 10 kids equally, and our starting lineup can change on any given night."
Balance in spades
JDHS like to throw a number of looks defensively, and it has the size and speed to play small or go big. Juniors Hannah Swofford and Maria Weyhrauch both stand 6-foot-2, and junior Sarah Tarver checks in at 5-foot-10. Three other players on the 12-girl roster check in at 5-foot-9.
"What you'll see us do sometimes is platoon, and we'll play five at a time and mix it up," Knight said. "Sometimes it's a fast-break team, and we're really fortunate to have two girls over 6-foot. They have really long arms and they're mobile, which is unusual to see at this level. The next couple after that are around 5-10, so we're really going to mix up what we do this year. Typically, we're a really strong pressing team, and we can do that at any given time.
"We should be fun to watch."
Tingley said the Bears' best offense is its suffocating defense.
"We're going to want to run and play some defense to get easy lay-ups," she said. "Our strongest point would have to be our running game, but we can also play a set offense in the half court. We have a lot of bigs that can create plays for themselves in the post, and we have a lot of guards that are quick and can get lay-ups. We're fortunate to have both size and speed, and we have a very athletic group."
Senior forward Annette Highley said the Bears need to take advantage of their "specialties."
"I think we've gotten a lot stronger, and we're really powerful," she said. "Taylor Larson is really strong in the post, and she is an advantage inside for us. Brittany Fenumiai and Mahlet are really good passers, and Karli (Brakes) will get a lot of assists, too. And as a team, we really look for each other."
Ketchikan finished fifth in last year's state tournament, and also returns a talented team, though starting senior point guard Laci Effenberger is transferring out of state. The Kings are the Bears' biggest obstacle to make back to state for the first time since a fourth-place finish in 2008.
Highley said to expect another close series this year with Ketchikan while Tingley said the two teams are evenly matched skill- and talent-wise. But Knight added the Kings aren't the only team on the schedule.
"I believe Ketchikan, the last couple of years, has been one of the top teams in the state," she said. "The bummer is that only one team from our region gets to go. The two of us have been consistently in the top five to eight teams in the state, and so it will be a head-to-head matchup.
"Some of the kids think we spend the whole season preparing for Ketchikan, but I don't think we really do," she continued. "I think we work on what we need to work on and when regions come, then we focus more on Ketchikan. At this time, we're still ironing out the kinks."