The Juneau-Douglas High School hockey team drops the puck on its 14th season Thursday with the fourth annual Palmer Showcase Tournament.
The Crimson Bears play Southcentral competition Colony, Dimond and West Anchorage at the MTA Events Center before returning home to face Palmer next Friday and Saturday at Treadwell Arena.
Two of the teams conspicuously absent from JDHS’ schedule this season are longtime Mid Alaska Conference rivals West Valley and Lathrop. The Wolfpack and Malemutes were shipped to new conferences — and later joined forces due to low numbers — marking one of numerous changes to Alaska high school hockey this season.
In February the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) board of directors raised the enrollment cutoff for Division I (large school) hockey programs from 500 to 850, clearing the way for JDHS and a handful of others to move down to the Division II (small schools) classification.
The Division II state title will now be fought for by 13 teams, instead of seven, while the Division I state title will now be a battle between 11 teams instead of 18.
ASAA Executive Director Billy Strickland said by phone Wednesday numerous small schools have struggled to keep their programs alive. To ensure the long-term health of the division, it was time to bring more teams into the fold.
“To balance it out a little bit we raised the enrollment number to incorporate some of the smaller Division I programs into the Division II league,” Strickland said. “It makes Division II a lot more stable group of schools.”
The top-three teams from Division II’s Railbelt and Aurora conferences will receive an automatic state tournament berth. There will also be two at-large bids handed out.
The Railbelt includes JDHS, Homer, Kenai Central, Soldotna, Redington, Houston and Palmer while the Aurora features Tri-Valley (Healy), Delta Junction, Hutchinson, Monroe Catholic, North Pole and Glenallen/Kenny Lake/Tok.
JDHS assistant coach Matt Boline said Homer will be a team to watch.
“We know that they were really tough last year,” Boline said. “We were really surprised we didn’t see them at the state tournament last year because all season long they were one of the top teams in the North Star Conference (with Colony, Wasilla, Palmer, Soldotna and Kenai).”
There was a sense of disappointment for senior Cameron Smith when he first heard the news. This was supposed to be the year Smith and his teammates finally slayed West Valley, he said. JDHS fell to the Wolfpack by one goal in each of the past three MAC finals.
“West Valley is a team that we’ve always wanted to beat,” Smith said. “But now we can’t. So we were pretty mad and it kind of felt like an insult because they were pushing us down to the lower division, but now that we’re thinking about it, this is definitely where we should be, because it’s right around our competition level.”
It wasn’t just Smith who wanted another stab at the Wolfpack, the only MAC team that never suffered a loss against JDHS.
“When Juneau does win its first state championship, we’ll see how I feel then,” Boline said. “But I would say right now it feels like beating West Valley would be cooler than winning the state championship.”
Now, instead of being the first senior class to win the MAC Championship, Smith and his cronies could become the first ones to win a state championship.
Not a bad tradeoff.
“I think we can definitely win state,” Smith said. “That’s our goal. Last year and the years prior, we just wanted to make state, but I think we can really be competitive there.”
The Crimson Bears have both depth and leadership on their side. Smith is one of 13 seniors on the team.
Bill Bosse, Cully Corrigan, Logan Ginter, Owen Squires, Ronan Lynch, Tyler Weldon, Finn Yerkes and Kyler Alderfer make up the forwards while Smith, Blake Bixby and Greyson Liebelt are all defensemen. Wolf Dostal, the other senior, is one of three goaltenders on the team alongside sophomore Dawson Hickok and junior Cody Mitchell.
“We’ve been playing together so long that we’ve pretty much found our roles with each other,” Smith said. “We’re so comfortable with each other that we know where everyone fits in already.”
Smith and Bosse were both named to the all-MAC team last season. Bosse led the Crimson Bears in scoring and accounted for over half the team’s postseason tallies.
The oversized senior class will certainly leave a big hole next season, so Bosse is already trying to set a good example. A state championship would do that and more.
“Winning a state championship, that’s definitely a top priority,” he said. “Making it known that Juneau actually does have a good hockey team instead of always just being a blow-by team.”
• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Empire Sports on Twitter at @akempiresports.