Once again, the Juneau-Douglas High School girls basketball team is poised to take its first step on the three-month journey to postseason play.
And for the first time in their high-school basketball careers, Crimson Bear seniors Alida Bus, Kendri Cesar, Heather Dillon, Nicole Lupro and Tasha McKoy are out in front, ready to lead their team on the long road ahead.
There are no veterans to look up to, no older stars to build the team around - as was the case last season with departed seniors Amy Neussl and Danielle Larson, and in years before that with players like Hilary Rehfeld, Michael Kohan and Courtney Mason.
This season, the five seniors - most in their fourth year of varsity play - are ready to fill the void with veteran leadership and a well-balanced, intuitive style of play that comes from years of shared experience on the court.
"It seems that all of a sudden, we're at the top," Bus said. "There have always been older, better players to push us. Now we have to take on the leadership and step up, and be role models to the younger players."
The Crimson Bears open the 2003-04 season Saturday night at home against Monroe Catholic School of Fairbanks on the opening day of the 13th annual Princess Cruises-Capital City Classic. For more information on the tournament, see the preview article elsewhere in this section.
Juneau finished with a 17-7 record last season; the Crimson Bears won their second straight Southeast title but went two-and-out at the state tournament. The combined experience of this year's seniors will be key to making another run at state.
"These guys have played together through junior high, all through high school," said Crimson Bear head coach Lesslie Knight, who is entering her second season at the helm of the team. "They know each other and they complement each other."
"You're going to see a lot more chemistry and teamwork, because we've been together so long," McKoy said.
"We know what we're going to do before we do it," Lupro added.
Cesar (5-foot-4) returns to help run the floor at guard, and McKoy (5-10) will take on many of the inside duties. Bus (5-9), Dillon (5-10) and Lupro (5-8) bring versatility to the offensive side of the game, and all of the seniors boast speed and skills that will make defense a cornerstone of the team.
"We're a mobile, agile team," Cesar said.
There are two juniors on the varsity squad - Mary Rehfeld (5-9), who has been with the varsity since she was a freshman and is one of the team's top outside shooters, and Kate Potter (6-0), who will be out of town for the Capital City Classic but will take on some of the post duties later in the season.
Sophomores Lexi Garvey (5-7), Jordan Harvey (5-8) and Erin Thompson (5-8), and freshmen Andrea Doerflinger (5-9) and Talisa Rhea (5-9) round out the 2003-04 varsity squad.
Knight said that Rhea, who made a mark on the basketball court and soccer field in middle school, has a lot of potential and is expected to make a significant contribution to the team in her first year.
Aside from Larson and Neussl, several other players from last year's varsity team - senior Julie Heard and juniors Bianca Carpeneti, Jordan Johnston and Ashley Larson - will not be returning as they focus on other sports and interests. Sophia Smith, who played on varsity last season as a freshman, is out this season with a leg injury.
Kerry Lindley returns to assist Knight with coaching, and they will be joined by two new assistants - Rena Balzer and Sue Beckerman. Both are veterans of city league basketball, and Beckerman has been a frequent scorekeeper for Crimson Bear games.
After the Capital City Classic, the Crimson Bears have two weeks off before heading north to play at Wasilla on Jan. 14 and participate in the East T-Bird Classic at East Anchorage High School on Jan. 15-17. Juneau returns home to face Dimond - who knocked the Crimson Bears out of the state tournament last March - on Jan. 29, and will play homecoming games against Lathrop on Jan. 30 and 31.
The Crimson Bears open Region V-Class 4A play on Feb. 6-7 with home games against Sitka, then make a second swing north with games at Bartlett on Feb. 11, West Anchorage on Feb. 12 and Palmer on Feb. 13.
Juneau returns to Southeast play with games at Ketchikan on Feb. 20-21 and at Sitka on Feb. 27-28. The Crimson Bears' last home games - the last games of the 2003-04 regular season - are against Ketchikan on March 5-6.
The Region V tournament is at Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka on March 11-13, and the state tourney is at Anchorage's Sullivan Arena on March 18-20.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.