Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire 
Kiara Kookesh (right) gets a hand on an attempted pass from Ashlynn Gates during a practice drill at Thunder Mountain High School.

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire Kiara Kookesh (right) gets a hand on an attempted pass from Ashlynn Gates during a practice drill at Thunder Mountain High School.

The tough get going: TMHS girls season to start with early challenges

“We have great athleticism, we have size, we have speed.”

The Thunder Mountain High School girls basketball team is going to be tested early and often.

Coach Andy Lee said the team will start its season competing against some of the best teams in the state, if not the country, at the Doc Larson Roundball Classic in Wasilla, which starts Thursday. Match-ups against talented Wasilla High School and Sierra Canyon School teams loom large early.

“We’re going to come back better,” Lee said. “That’s the plan.”

He added: “We have a tough schedule, and we’re hoping to be better in February than we are now.”

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire 
Kerra Baxter and Sydney Strong compete for a jump ball tossed up by coach Andy Lee during a recent practice at Thunder Mountain High School.

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire Kerra Baxter and Sydney Strong compete for a jump ball tossed up by coach Andy Lee during a recent practice at Thunder Mountain High School.

The Thunder Mountain team is undergoing a youth movement, Lee said. Over half of the girls in the program are freshmen or sophomores. Lee said the team is returning two members of its main rotation from last season’s 8-10 team and graduated nine, including Mary Neal and Mary Khaye Garcia who helped propel TMHS to the final game of the Region V Tournament.

[TMHS readies for season tipoff]

Seniors Sydney Strong and Grace Sikes are the returning staples. Strong has long been a standout for Thunder Mountain, and Lee said she’ll play an important role this year.

“She’s a four-year player, she’s our anchor, she’s our leader, she’s somebody that other teams prepare for,” Lee said.

Lee said the surge in young players partly reflects a desire to play basketball among student-athletes after two pandemic-marred seasons. While things aren’t fully back to pre-pandemic normalcy, travel outside of the region is part of the schedule again, and the season isn’t intentionally stunted like the 2020-21 season.

The relative dearth of basketball activity means players see an opportunity to join a relatively open field of competition.

“There’s a hunger for basketball, but there also hasn’t been any clear kids who have emerged as the A team or the B team or the C team,” Lee said. “Right now, it’s kind of this golden moment where lots of kids love the game. The downside is that nobody has played for two years, and so it shows up in the skill sets or the lack of skill sets.”

However, Lee said the current crop of TMHS girls are long, athletic and primed to play a stifling brand of defense that should lead to points in transition.

“We have great athleticism, we have size, we have speed, and we’re building skills to go with that,” Lee said.

In addition to Strong and Sikes, Lee said he’s expecting contributions from players who were on the junior varsity team last year. He said twins Jaya and Mika Caradang, both sophomores, and senior Jo Pasion are all exciting players.

Lee said he expects a lot of internal competition throughout the year, and he expects depth to be part of Thunder Mountain’s identity.

“One through 20, there isn’t much difference,” Lee said. “There’s not a big gap between our 20th best player and our best player.”

Lee said in light of TMHS’ youth and an unforgiving schedule, he expects the team to be the underdog often. However, he said he expects the young team to grow and likely surprise some teams with its length and energy.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but despite the fabulous class that we graduated, I’m really excited about our new kids,” Lee said.

Roster

Number, name, grade

13 Sydney Strong, 12

51, Kara Strong, 10

3, Jaya Carandang, 10

4, Mika Carandang, 10

22, Kerra Baxter, 9

23, Cailynn Baxter, 9

15, Grace Sikes, 12

25, Jo Pasion, 12

2, Ashlyn Gates, 10

14, Kiara Kookesh, 11

Upcoming tournament schedules

■ Doc Larson Roundball Classic at Wasilla, Dec. 16-18; Wasilla at 6 p.m. Thursday, Mt. Edgecumbe at 2:45 p.m. Friday, and Sierra Canyon at noon on Saturday.

■ Princess Capital City Classic at JDHS, Dec. 27-30; Eagle River at 1 p.m. on Monday, Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé at 5 p.m. on Tuesday; Kotzebue at 1 p.m. on Thursday.