The Juneau-Douglas High School boys basketball team may have surprised some people by winning their eighth straight Region V-Class 4A title and eventually taking fifth place in the Class 4A state tournament last year, the first year A.C. (After Carlos Boozer).
But the Crimson Bears are favored this season as they shoot for their ninth Region V-Class 4A title in a row. Juneau opens its season Wednesday night in the Capital City Classic, with the Crimson Bear boys playing West Valley of Fairbanks at 8 p.m. that night.
"We only lost three people to graduation and we had a pretty young team last year," said Juneau coach George Houston, who took over as head coach in 1992. "We got a lot of young players some good experience and from that standpoint, I think we're going to better this season. And with our injuries last year, that further developed our depth. Hopefully we're not going to rest on our laurels from a 17-10 season."
With his young players a year older, Houston feels the Crimson Bears will be more mature this season and less prone to rookie mistakes. Also, the Crimson Bears were able to play only a handful of games last year without someone sidelined by an injury. That meant Houston had to give more playing time to his youngsters, which means he's got 11 players with meaningful varsity experience on this year's roster.
"We've got a really deep team this year, which can be both a good and bad thing," Houston said. "We'll have to see how everyone decides to fill their roles."
Houston is waiting to see if someone will step up and become the go-to guy for the Crimson Bears this season. Even with all the team's experience, Juneau still has only four seniors on the varsity roster (five seniors if you count team manager Aaron Larson, who will see some minutes as a 6-foot-3 forward).
Last year three seniors stepped up to play key roles for the team, even though all three missed games with injuries. Evan Tromble (now playing basketball at Colorado School of Mines) went from being a bit player the year before to being Juneau's top scorer and rebounder. Rick Carte (now playing football at Western Washington) gave Juneau a physical presence underneath the basket. And John Blasco (now playing basketball and baseball at Linfield) made some critical shots from the guard position.
Houston thinks 6-foot-5 senior forward James Severin, who missed some games with injuries last year, can make a similar jump in status this year. Severin scored 30 points in Juneau's intrasquad game Dec. 15 and was a strong force in the paint. Another person who could become a go-to guy is 6-1 senior guard Clay Brown, who had 23 points in the intrasquad game. Ryan Monagle, a 6-2 junior guard-forward who scored 25 points, is another one who might step up for Juneau.
"We've got a lot of players back with the experience of playing at the varsity level," Severin said. "We've got way better balance this year, especially in our guards. We'll be a pretty guard-oriented team and we'll be pretty athletic. We can press and play faster this year. We've got five or six guys we can count on this year to take a shot when we need it."
"Our bench is pretty deep and we can go with multiple scenarios," Brown said. "Last year Tromble was our standout, but this year I think we'll be more team-oriented. We'll all step up. When one player's off, everyone else can step up. We'll depend on each other more."
Curtis Lane, a 5-7 junior guard, had 20 points in the scrimmage, while sophomores Joseph Ayers (a 6-0 point guard), Bryan Hamey (a 6-4 guard-forward) and Byron Wild (a 6-4 forward) all scored more than 14 points apiece in the intrasquad game. Rounding out Juneau's roster are 5-11 senior guard Jon Carlo Malacas, 6-6 senior center Leon Bus, 6-4 junior forward Jacob Miller (who is battling concussion problems), 6-3 junior forward John Mackie (who has a broken foot), 6-1 junior guard-forward Craig Kitka, 5-5 junior guard Julius Cumlat and 5-11 sophomore guard Sterling Henderson.
"Nobody's really stepped up yet, but we've been really competitive in practice," Houston said. "Severin has really improved. He's gotten stronger and he's been pretty steady for us every day. Clay Brown has another year with us after transferring from Sitka last fall. Leon Bus is a lot bigger and stronger, and he was being pushed in practice by Mackie and Miller until they got injured. We've got six or more guards we can run out there and not really lose anything."
Juneau will play one of its toughest schedules in team history, with two home games against defending state champion East Anchorage, a home game against defending state runner-up Dimond, plus home games against Anchorage's Bartlett and Service high schools, West Valley of Fairbanks and Kentlake of Kent, Wash., besides the usual home games with Ketchikan and Sitka. Juneau will also play at Wasilla, at the Palmer Elks Showdown and at the Dimond tournament, in addition to its regular visits to Ketchikan and Sitka.
"I feel we have probably the toughest schedule in the state," Lane said. "We'll see all the state's toughest teams, except Lathrop and Kodiak."
Juneau posted a 6-2 record in region action last year, losing once each to Ketchikan (13-11 overall) and Sitka (12-11) who tied with 3-5 region marks. Sitka beat Ketchikan in the region tournament, then Juneau beat Sitka to claim the region's only berth at state. At the state tourney, Juneau beat Wasilla in the first round, then lost close games to Dimond in the semifinals and Kodiak in the third-fifth place game.
Sitka is 2-1 so far this season after finishing second to Soldotna in the Grace Christian School Classic, while Ketchikan is 2-0 after beating Class 3A Metlakatla twice last week. Both fourth-year Sitka coach Bob Potrzuski and second-year Ketchikan coach John Brown feel Juneau is the team to beat in the region this year, but neither coach is ready to concede the championship yet.
"At Juneau, they just reload," Potrzuski said. "They've probably got 10 kids who can really play and they can really put the pressure on you. Juneau's always the team to beat and it feels like we're always looking up. Ketchikan will be tough and those Juneau-Ketchikan games could be wars. We did beat Juneau in Juneau last year and that was really important for our confidence. And we're playing a lot more quality teams in our schedule this year."
"All our groups are pretty competitive, but Juneau's still the team to beat," Brown said. "We have to knock them off. We have to beat them on the floor. But I think we've got a good shot, and a good shot at Sitka."
Sitka works on team chemistry
Sitka only returns four players from last year's roster, none of them starters. But Potrzuski feels he has much better chemistry with this team than last year's squad, even though this year's group is smaller and younger.
The Wolves will be led by their four returners, 6-3 senior guard-forward Mike Schneeberger, 6-1 senior forward Greg Blankenship, 6-1 senior guard-forward Brett Haavig and 6-1 senior guard Brian Friske. Six-foot senior guard Jason Mooney (also called Jason Nunez-Mooney) moved back to Sitka from Oregon and will probably be the team's other starter. Others who will see a lot of action for Sitka are 6-2 junior guard-forward Colin Kambak, 6-0 junior forward Elgin Hollings, 6-0 sophomore guard Karl Stedman, 5-8 sophomore guard Karel Uddipa and 6-3 sophomore forward Cody Campbell.
"I think individually we're a little smaller than in past years, but we're way smarter and have much better chemistry," Potrzuski said. "These kids really understand the game and what needs to happen to win. I'd rather have this kind of a team. These guys have been coaching heaven."
Ketchikan's system in place
At Ketchikan, Brown feels his players will be much more comfortable with his system now that they've already got a season under their belts using his scheme. Brown, who played for Ketchikan in 1965-68 and coached the team briefly from 1978-82, is one of only two basketball players in Alaska to play on four state champion teams. The Kings lost several players to graduation, but still return a solid core group of athletes.
Brown said his starting five will most likely be 5-8 senior T.J. Milner at point guard, 5-9 junior Braden Sharp at off-guard, 6-1 senior Ken Terpsma at small forward, 6-4 senior Brandon Nicholas at power forward-center and 6-4 junior Jesse Richardson at center-power forward. The first players off the bench will be 6-3 sophomore forward Calin Bjur, 6-1 forward Bob Boyd, 6-2 junior guard Russ Miller and 6-2 senior forward Matt Valentic. Rounding out the roster are 5-5 senior guard Chris Campbell, 6-4 senior center Jake Schwartz, 5-10 sophomore guard Josh Robinson and 5-11 sophomore guard William Montgomery.
"We're fairly deep this year," Brown said. "We can go down seven, eight, nine guys and we don't get hurt too bad. In fairness to last year's team, this group is more comfortable with my style and they had a chance to work with it over the summer. I feel better about this group than last year's, they've adjusted well. The system is in, now all we've got to do is make it work. We'll be a decent team, at least as good or better than last year."