Juneau-Douglas High School girls basketball coach Lesslie Knight doesn't need to be reminded that the Crimson Bears are the defending state champs.
As for going for a second championship, Knight isn't about to let her team get forced into the pressure of living up to other's expectations. JDHS opens defense of its title on Dec. 27 in the Capital City Classic.
"A couple people have asked me about the repeat thing and truthfully, there's no pressure," Knight said. "We need to take care of business, do what we do well and we'll assess the competition, but there is no pressure to repeat. We just need to do our best and play hard."
A second state championship is a distinct possibility for the Crimson Bears. The team boasts a wealth of experienced talent, scrappy underclassmen and a junior on the verge of stardom.
Point guard Talisa Rhea (5-10), last year's Alaska State Player of the Year, returns for her junior year to orchestrate Juneau-Douglas' offense.
"What she does incredibly well is see her open teammates," Knight said. "People always question why we keep her at point guard instead of the wing. One thing she does is play very maturely. She recognizes when to push the ball and when to slow it down and set something up."
Rhea's uncanny ability to find her teammates, shoot, drive and defend should make her a marked player. Juneau-Douglas plans on combining Rhea's savvy with the team's overall athleticism and speed by running a little more than usual.
"We have something called 'early', which is early offense, and we try to get a lay-up right off and try to mess with the defense," JDHS senior Jordan Harvey said. "We get the ball and go right into it and try to screw up the defense, kind of catch them off guard before they set up and find us."
If scoring early doesn't work, Juneau-Douglas boasts plenty of weapons to run a proficient half-court offense.
Lexi Garvey and Rhea figure to be two of the team's best 3-point shooters. Seniors Harvey, Kerstin Kimlinger and Sophia Smith can score inside and outside. Sophomore Nicole Fenumiai and junior Andrea Doerflinger, along with juniors Hannah Buck and Veronica Lietz, give the Bears a dose of height underneath the basket.
"We have quick defenders with Lexi and Sophia," Rhea said. "We have strong posts in Nicole and Andrea and Hannah Buck is aggressive."
Defensively, Juneau-Douglas plans to run plenty of man-to-man and try to frustrate the opposition into turnovers and bad decisions. Steals could lead to plenty of uncontested buckets for the Crimson Bears.
"We like to play man-to-man and press to make sure their point guard can't get the ball to the wings," Harvey said. "We work really hard to get steals."
In addition to quality veteran talent, JDHS also boasts a scrappy freshman in Kayla Harrison. The 5-foot-3 guard from Massachusetts brings grit to the team.
"We're hoping she'll see some playing time," Knight said. "She's a really scrappy little player that makes things happen. In the intrasquad (scrimmage), she was in there going really hard, got some steals, some assists, some lay-ups and just makes things happen."
While the team should be able to score and dictate the tempo, the key to a successful season may be on the boards. During last year's state tournament run, two perimeter players led the team in rebounding. If Juneau-Douglas' post players can step up and control the glass, the Crimson Bears may lack nothing.
"Our front court needs to pick up the pace and be ready," Knight said.
Throughout the season, much of the eyes will be focused on Rhea. But one player, even the returning player of the year, cannot win a state title alone. Juneau's fate will be determined by how well the team plays together.
"It's important not to rely 100 percent on Talisa," Knight said. "It's a team sport. The rest need to be ready to go and we'll see who steps up."
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org