Juneau-Douglas claimed both the Division II boys and girls state soccer championships last year. Both teams are coming off impressive regular seasons and look poised to make strong title defenses.
But despite being 9-1-2 and the reigning state champions with their lone loss coming against an out-of-state opponent, the Juneau-Douglas girls team isn’t among the top seeds at this year’s state tournament, which starts Thursday in Anchorage.
The Crimson Bears are going to officially begin their title defense as the No. 4 seed and while he can’t speak for his players, head coach Matt Dusenberry admitted that he was initially bothered by the perceived slight against his team.
“I don’t know the sense from them but for me personally, I might have been bothered for about an hour and then could care less,” he said. “It is what it is. You want to have an opportunity to play at the end of the tournament. It doesn’t matter what the order is. You’ve got to win three games.”
Last year’s title-winning team was very senior-heavy, and the only returning player that got to hoist the First National Bank trophy in 2022 is junior captain Cadence Plummer.
“She’s been a starter since she was a freshman,” Dusenberry said. “For the last two years she was able to be around and rub elbows with all the kids that had a fair amount of success in their high school careers in our uniform.”
This year’s squad is mostly composed of sophomores and juniors who have been waiting for their opportunity to shine on varsity.
While he doesn’t know if the group’s inexperience in the postseason played a part in their surprising seeding, it’s still confusing, given the impressive success they had on the pitch during the regular season.
“It is a little bit of a head-scratcher when we haven’t lost a game and other teams have lost a couple,” Dusenberry said.
Of the three teams ranked ahead of them, top-ranked Kenai Central has the strongest case for validation with a perfect 16-0 record.
Second-seeded Soldotna is 10-5 and finished second in its conference behind the Kardinals, and third-seeded North Pole is 4-3-1.
Heading into the state tournament, he doesn’t want his team to fall into the trap of believing they have to switch things up now that a second straight title is on the line.
“It’s moments like this where we sometimes overthink things and think that we have to do something different or something special,” Dusenberry said. “You show up and keep giving forth your best effort and usually good things will come from that.”
Juneau-Douglas boys ready to repeat
The Juneau-Douglas boys team went 12-1-1 and is the top seed heading into state, but the Crimson Bears aren’t putting much stock into where they’re ranked because they know it won’t mean much come game time.
“I think those things are a bit overrated and if you spend much time thinking about it or worrying about it, you’re really making a mistake,” Juneau-Douglas boys head coach Gary Lehnhart said. “They line them up in front of you and you gotta beat them all to win.”
In the past, Lehnhart has had teams that had the top seed and “laid an egg in the first round” and other lower-seeded teams that went a lot further than anyone anticipated. That was the case last year, when the Crimson Bears made a title run that surprised some.
“I think it probably came a year sooner than we thought,” Lehnhart said. “This year we kind of went into the season a little bit as the favorites. The kids have played really well so they’ve set themselves up to win the No. 1 seed and a great regular season.”
Unlike their girls’ title-winning team, the boys brought back a “good solid core” from last year because they had a lot of younger depth.
“You always like to see as players mature and get older, they get better,” Lehnhart said. “Our junior class last year was already pretty strong and they’ve all really become solid players.”
Since the sanctioned state tournament started in 2000, his program has done well in the postseason, claiming six titles and nine runner-up finishes. That success means the Juneau-Douglas players are accustomed to the high standards that come with putting on their crimson and black uniforms.
“I think anybody who plays in this program feels like a state championship is a reasonable outcome if they get lucky enough and do the work,” Lehnhart said. “I think all of them kind of come in expecting teams to target us. I don’t think we’d go into a game and not have people gunning for us.”
He has been at the helm of the program for 31 years and the most enjoyable part of the experience for him isn’t winning titles, it’s the journeys he gets to witness and go on with his players as they develop.
“I love coaching kids over a four-year span and watching them grow up and building those relationships and watching them do it with each other,” Lehnhart said. “If you happen to end up at the end with a championship, that’s just frosting.”
Division II girls soccer state tournament
at West, Service and South
No. 3 North Pole vs. No. 6 Grace Christian, 9 a.m. at Service
No. 1 Kenai Central vs. No. 8 Nikiski, 11 a.m. at West
No. 2 Soldotna vs. No. 7 Houston, 1 p.m. at Service
No. 4 Juneau-Douglas vs. No. 5 Homer, 4 p.m. at West
Loser Kenai Central/Nikiski vs. Loser Juneau-Douglas/Homer, 9 a.m. at South
Loser North Pole/Grace Christian vs. Loser Soldotna/Houston, 1 p.m. at South
Winner Kenai Central/Nikiski vs. Winner Juneau-Douglas/Homer, 1 p.m. at West
Winner North Pole/Grace Christian vs. Winner Soldotna/Houston, 1 p.m. at Service
4th/6th place, 8 a.m. at Service
3rd/5th place, 9 a.m. at West
Championship, 11:30 a.m. at West
Division II boys soccer state tournament
No. 4 Ketchikan vs. No. 5 Kenai Central, 9 a.m. at West
No. 3 Soldotna vs No. 6 Grace Christian, 11 a.m. at Service
No. 1 Juneau-Douglas vs. No. 8 Homer, 5 p.m. at West
No. 2 Palmer vs. No. 7 North Pole, 7 p.m. at West
Loser Juneau-Douglas/Homer vs. Loser Ketchikan/Kenai Central, 11 a.m. at South
Loser Soldotna/Grace Christian vs. Loser Palmer/North Pole, 3 p.m. at South
Winner Juneau-Douglas/Homer vs. Winner Ketchikan/Kenai Central, 3 p.m. at West
Winner Soldotna/Grace Christian vs. Winner Palmer/North Pole, 3 p.m. at Service
4th/6th, 9:45 a.m. at South
3rd/5th, 9:45 a.m. at Service
Championship, 1:30 p.m. at West