There's a big hole in the middle as the Juneau-Douglas High School basketball team returns to the court tonight and Saturday against Palmer. That's what losing a 6-foot-2, 300-pound center will do for you.
Faifo Levale is now opening holes along the line for Portland State in college football, but the good news for the Crimson Bears is that 6-foot-4 Eric Gross returns after being named to the All-State Second-Team last season.
Gross averaged roughly 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists per game in 2007-08. It's well-known in the state that Gross can play, but the question remains how much Juneau-Douglas will pound the ball inside this season.
Despite losing his starting backcourt to graduation as well - two guards who are now both playing college sports - third-year head coach Steve Potter wants to see his team running wild this season.
"This year, I think we've got some athletes. We've got guys with a lot of basketball knowledge and basketball skills," Potter said. "We just sort of need to adjust to what we can do best talent-wise."
Potter's plans this year include focusing on defense early and getting his team's undersized guards and mid-sized forwards using their athleticism.
The Crimson Bears also return 6-foot-4 Geoff Craig along the front line to help Gross carry the load inside.
"Eric and Geoff are both really good defenders and ferocious rebounders. Eric's also a really strong offensive player for us," Potter said. "The only other player we have coming back with a ton of experience is Cody Grussendorf."
Juneau-Douglas is searching for inside depth in early practices with only two players of the 13 currently on the varsity roster who can match Gross and Craig's height. One of them, Eric's younger brother, freshman Evan Gross, has yet to play a high school game and still needs to add strength to his frame to compete at the varsity level, according to Potter.
What the remaining players do have is athleticism in spades. Senior guard Alex Fagerstrom stands just 5-foot-11, but has already shown that he can dominate with his combination of speed and power on the football field after being named the state's 4A Offensive Player of the Year at running back.
Potter also points out Grussendorf, a 6-foot-3 junior forward, as one of his best athletes.
"Cody's also just has a lot of understanding of basketball for us. He can really play the one, two, three or four (positions) for us," Potter said. "We'll have to use him in a lot of different ways."
Potter isn't quite sure what he has yet with his team, and matchups and tempo will likely dictate the team's starting lineups and rotation early in the season.
"I know we have a lot of guys who can play. We need to find the guys who want to play up-tempo. That's what we want to do," he said.
Fagerstrom isn't the only JDHS football player to return to the basketball team this season. Junior postman Lawrence Fenumiai will bring his 6-foot-3 frame back over from his fall linebacker position and will also compete for minutes inside.
Corey Mahar is also switching off football mode, to try to fill the hole at guard.
"Lawrence is probably the most athletic of that next level of big guys, and Corey's not real big but he plays strong, and he just plays fast," the coach added.
The players on the current team did their part in lobbying Potter to move to a more up-tempo system, and the coach said the group has put in the work thus far to make it work.
"For us to play that way, we have to be locked in mentally, and we have to run all the time so we can transition quickly," Potter said. "We definitely have guys who can shoot the three, and they'll be shooting, but we're not the Phoenix Suns either. We're not trying to get shots up in seven seconds or less."
This weekend, Potter is hoping for a couple of wins to start the season against a Palmer team whose new coach, Jason Marvel, has an old reputation. Marvel led his Wasilla team to the state title two seasons ago before retiring for the next two seasons.
"I think he decided that retirement just wasn't in the cards for him," Potter said. "We beat (Palmer) at state last year, but they're a completely different team now, and we know it. We want to see if we're good yet, and that's what these games will tell us."
Both the Friday and Saturday games for the Juneau-Douglas High School boys' basketball team will tip off at 8 p.m. against Palmer at the high school's Main Gym.
Both the Friday and Saturday games for the Juneau-Douglas High School girls' basketball team will top off at 6:15 p.m.