Juneau athletes compete in the state softball title (left), Gold Medal Basketball Tournament (center) and ASAA State Swim & Dive Championships during some of 2023’s local highlight sports moments. (Juneau Empire)

Juneau athletes compete in the state softball title (left), Gold Medal Basketball Tournament (center) and ASAA State Swim & Dive Championships during some of 2023’s local highlight sports moments. (Juneau Empire)

Juneau’s top 10 sports stories of 2023

State titles for many, a historic losing season and death of a coaching icon among headline moments.

This story has been moved in front of the Empire’s paywall.

Local athletes won state titles in swimming, cross-country and softball this year, but Juneau’s high school football team suffered its first losing season in 30 years under its current head coach. Another high school coach who became a local icon on the basketball court died and an iconic battle apparently was born as local officials took the lead in opposing a controversial new ban involving transgender athletes.

To say Juneau had an active year in sports in 2023 may seem like a cheesy cliché, but the year did see the return of the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament in February after a three-year absence and the high school Nordic ski team made eligible to compete for the state title for the first time in many years.

The following are the Juneau Empire’s top 10 local sports stories of 2023, presented in ascending order with the top-ranked story last. There will be people — perhaps a great many — who disagree with these rankings, which is what the comments section of the Empire’s social media pages where these rankings are also posted are for.

Thunder Mountain High School senior Liam Hart uses a cradle to pin Ketchikan High School junior Easton Yoder in the 189-pound Division I championship match of the 2023 ASAA Region V wrestling tournament Saturday, Dec. 9, at TMHS. (Klas Stolpe/ Juneau Empire file photo)

Thunder Mountain High School senior Liam Hart uses a cradle to pin Ketchikan High School junior Easton Yoder in the 189-pound Division I championship match of the 2023 ASAA Region V wrestling tournament Saturday, Dec. 9, at TMHS. (Klas Stolpe/ Juneau Empire file photo)

10. High school Nordic ski team eligible to compete for state title for first time in many years

Juneau has a lively Nordic ski youth program, but it’s been decades since they’ve been eligible to compete for the Alaska School Activities Association’s state championship, according to coaches who led an effort to change that beginning in February. A fundraising effort to ensure the cost of equipment and travel would be covered was followed by a request by both local high schools to Juneau School District Superintendent Frank Hauser, who announced this month the local high school team would be eligible for the ASAA tournament in February. Nearly 40 students are expected to be part of the team.

9. Juneau at forefront of resistance to state’s new transgender sports ban

It might not affect the playing status of a single local athlete, yet a new statewide ban on transgender girls participating on ASAA girls high school sports teams became part of a larger debate about LGBTQ+ students that involved hundreds of hours of meetings and many thousands of residents weighing in statewide. Dozens of students in Juneau expressed opposition to the sports policy as well as other proposals limiting transgender rights, and the Juneau Board of Education on Dec. 5 made the local district the first in the state to seek outside legal advice on challenging the state’s policy. City legal staff advised the school board the state’s policy violates local ordinances and likely the privacy clause of the Alaska Constitution.

8. TMHS wrestlers break Ketchikan’s 15-year regional title streak

Thunder Mountain High School (whose team also includes Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé athletes) won eight individual weight class titles, six runner-up and four consolation (third-place) finishes during the Region V Southeast Tournament Championships that ended Dec. 9, totaling enough points — 236.5 to Ketchikan High School’s 186.5, to end the Kings 15-year regional title streak. Fifteen Falcons advanced to the ASAA State Wrestling Championships in Anchorage the following week, with one TMHS competitor finishing fourth and two finishing sixth in their weight divisions during the two-day tournament.

7. JDHS hockey makes history at one state tournament, 18-U team takes title at another

The JDHS Crimson Bears hockey team made history in more than one way after the team took home second place at the 2023 Alaska DII Hockey State Championships in early February — the highest state tournament placement in the team’s history. JDHS, after their first-ever time winning a first-round game, lost the title game to the Soldotna Stars 2-1. The JDHS team was also honored with the tournament’s sportsmanship award. Six weeks later, the Juneau Douglas Ice Association team celebrated an Alaska State Hockey Association championship with a triple-overtime 4-3 win against the Alaska Avalanche in the 18-and-under A Division.

6. Huskies football team suffers first losing season in 30 years with Rich Sjoroos coaching

Last year the Juneau Huskies came within a touchdown of the state high school football title, continuing a long tradition of winning seasons during Rich Sjoroos’ 30-year coaching career with the team. But after losing top senior players, including quarterback Jarrell Williams and running back Jamal Johnson, the Huskies finished the 2023 season with a 1-8 record, including 0-8 in the eight-team state conference, the first losing season in Sjoroos career. Highlights of the season included a 55-49 win in double overtime over Auburn High School in Washington state, plus juniors Jayden Johnson and Hayden Aube emerging as the two biggest offensive playmakers looking ahead to next season.

5. Longtime basketball coach George Houston dies

George Houston, a 1969 graduate of JDHS in 1969 and member of its state basketball championship team, went on to serve 18 seasons as an assistant coach and 14 seasons as head coach for the Crimson Bears. He died Oct. 26 of a rare form of vasculitis at the age of 72. During his career he had a 278-85 record as a head coach, led Juneau to back-to-back state championships in 1997 and 1998, won 11 Southeast Conference titles, was “Alaska’s coach of the year” three times, and was inducted into both the Alaska Association of School Activities and the Alaska Association of Basketball Coaches halls of fame. He also was a member of the Juneau Volunteer Fire Department for many years. On Dec. 12 the Juneau Board of Education renamed the JDHS gym the George Houston Gymnasium in his honor.

Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé sophomore Kai Ciambor and senior Kean Buss celebrate Buss’ goal against Soldotna during the Crimson Bears 4-0 win over the Stars for the ASAA DII Boys Soccer State Championship on Saturday, May 27, at West Anchorage High School. (Courtesy Photo / JDHS Soccer)

Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé sophomore Kai Ciambor and senior Kean Buss celebrate Buss’ goal against Soldotna during the Crimson Bears 4-0 win over the Stars for the ASAA DII Boys Soccer State Championship on Saturday, May 27, at West Anchorage High School. (Courtesy Photo / JDHS Soccer)

4. JDHS boys win state soccer crown

The Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé Crimson Bears boys soccer team showed why they are one of the premier programs in Alaska dominating the Soldotna Stars 4-0 in the championship game of the ASAA Division II State Soccer Tournament on Saturday, May 27, at West Anchorage High School, winning their second consecutive state title and not giving up a goal. JDHS, in fact, would have more goals in the first half than Soldotna had shots against the Crimson Bears.

Katelyn Sulser, right, hits a game-defining bases-loaded triple for Juneau, giving her team the lead for good, in the second inning against Anchorage’s Abbot-O-Rabbit in the decisive game of the Majors Softball State Tournament on Saturday, July 15, at Melvin Park. Juneau scored six runs in the inning to take a 7-2 lead before going on to win 15-5. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo).

Katelyn Sulser, right, hits a game-defining bases-loaded triple for Juneau, giving her team the lead for good, in the second inning against Anchorage’s Abbot-O-Rabbit in the decisive game of the Majors Softball State Tournament on Saturday, July 15, at Melvin Park. Juneau scored six runs in the inning to take a 7-2 lead before going on to win 15-5. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo).

3. Juneau wins two statewide softball titles

The JDHS softball team gave Juneau its first statewide title of 2023 by defeating Sitka High School 6-5 for the ASAA Division II State Softball Championship at Anchorage’s Cartee Fields on June 3. Senior Anna Dale rapped a two-out line drive single into center field and freshman Gwen Nizich zipped home from third base giving the Crimson Bears the win. A little more than a month later, the 11 teenagers on the Gastineau Channel Little League team swept Anchorage’s Abbot-O-Rabbit in three straight games to win the Majors Softball State Tournament. The final victory featured two three-run shots that helped propel Juneau to a 15-5 win.

Hoonah’s Michael Mills (1) fights for the rebound against Juneau on Saturday, March 25, during the championship M bracket game for the 2023 Gold Medal Basketball Tournament. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire file photo)

Hoonah’s Michael Mills (1) fights for the rebound against Juneau on Saturday, March 25, during the championship M bracket game for the 2023 Gold Medal Basketball Tournament. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire file photo)

2. Gold Medal Basketball Tournament returns after three-year absence

Juneau’s biggest annual high school sports event returned after a three-year absence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 26 teams from Southeast Alaska participating in the Juneau Lions Club 74th Gold Medal Basketball Tournament. When the final buzzer sounded after seven days of play, teams from Juneau, Hoonah and Prince of Wales had won titles. Prince of Wales took the top spot in the Women’s Bracket, Hoonah in the Masters Bracket, Juneau’s Filcom in the C Bracket and Juneau in the B Bracket.

Thunder Mountain senior PJ Foy swims his state record-winning 100 breaststroke on Saturday, Nov. 4, in the ASAA State Swim & Dive Championships at the Dimond Park Aquatic Center. (Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire file photo)

Thunder Mountain senior PJ Foy swims his state record-winning 100 breaststroke on Saturday, Nov. 4, in the ASAA State Swim & Dive Championships at the Dimond Park Aquatic Center. (Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire file photo)

1. JDHS girls win state swim title at home, PJ Foy and Emma Fellman win individual titles

Hosting a major statewide sports tournament in Juneau is a big deal. Having the local athletes come out on top both as a team and as individuals makes it the Empire’s top sports story of 2023. Not only did the JDHS girls’ team win the state title with 101 total points, TMHS was the hometown runner-up with 90 — both well ahead of third-place Eagle River with 75. Individually, TMHS senior PJ Foy and JDHS junior Emma Fellman were named the outstanding male and female athletes of the ASAA State Swim and Dive Championships that concluded Nov. 4 at the Dimond Park Aquatic Center. Foy won the 100-yard butterfly and 100 breaststroke — both in new state and team records — and Fellman won the 200 individual medley and 100 breast, both team records and fastest in JDHS history.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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