Friday, April 4, 2014

Spokane ties have created longstanding tradition between Alaska's Juneau-Douglas and pair of GSL schools

The two sides gathered for a pre-game photo - Photos by Gerald Barnhart | Full Gallery [+]
As it turns out, soccer in Spokane and Juneau, Alaska have quite a bit in common. A nearly lifelong connection between three coaches has spurred what is now a 15-year tradition between three schools separated by more than a 1,000 miles. Each spring, Gary Lehnhart brings his Bears down to Spokane to face Ferris and Mead; and on Friday evening their season opener at Joe Albi Stadium looked to be off to a great start only to see the Saxons prevail in the final 13 minutes, 2-1.

The visitors took an early lead on a fantastic individual effort 26 minutes into the contest and despite the Saxons controlling the second half handily, it was not until the 67th minute when Callan Martin scored the equalizer on a ball from Gonzaga-bound Connor Ourada, who would get the winner from the penalty spot in the 72nd.

A year ago the two sides played to a 4-4 draw against Ferris and a 1-1 tie at Mead, where the Bears will play again tomorrow afternoon at 1:00. They finish the trip to Washington state with a game Monday against Cleveland HS in Seattle.

Lehnhart and Ferris coach Robin Crain have quite a complex, but friendly history. Seeing them joke with one another throughout the evening, including during the contest itself, you would never know they used to face one another as college foes, Lehnhart for Whitworth and Crain at Western Washington, or have coached against one another in the GSL.

"We played against each other in college," said Crain. "He played at Whitworth and I played at Western. We were in the same conference so we competed against each other. And my high school coach was his college coach, and when I graduated I came over and started teaching here and Gary was assistant coach at Whitworth and he had me as an assistant as well so we coached at Whitworth together. Then we taught at St George's and coached together."

Lehnhart eventually served as an assistant under Dick Cullen at Mead before moving on to Juneau in 1990 and starting the Bears' soccer program three years later.

Gary Lehnhart
"I made a decision to go to Alaska for family reasons and thought my coaching days were over - ended up building a program there," said Lehnhart. "Once the program got going, I realized I needed to get my guys out of there. I called Dick and Robin, and the rest is history."

"In the beginning we played their JV teams for the first few years and then slowly we got to the point where we could play them straight up and beat them a few times. It's been a great thing for my guys. Couple of guys now play at GU over the years and a few other guys play DIII and DI, so its good for them to get some exposure with college coaches. We have a kid at Whitworth right now (Nathan Fosket).

"This has been a good trip for us, and early in the year too. This is where we get up against some good competition. Our league is not... we don't get challenged much in our league. I think we've lost once in 18 years. We need to get pushed, and we get pushed down here. Ferris is a great team; Mead is always a good team."

Lehnhart was not exaggerating about the difference in the level of competition for his Bears. A glance at last year's campaign shows only a handful of games in which they did not win by at least four or five goals. They won every game in their home state by at least two, but played to the two draws in Spokane and a pair of one-goal losses to Roosevelt and Newport in the second half of their Washington trip.

"It's actually better than most people realize," he said of the sport in Alaska.

"Anchorage has really good soccer - it's a big city and... that oil money," he said with a grin. "They put together some good teams; there's been a lot of really good boys and girls soccer that has come out of Anchorage.

"Juneau is a small little community, but we have put together a nice little program and every year we send a couple of kids into the college ranks. Now they play more; the kids play more statewide too, so they are getting up to Anchorage and playing more with the Anchorage kids. Our kids get opportunities because its such a small state, so a lot of my kids play ODP. That gets them exposure. They travel a lot - we fly to almost every game. We are all over the place."

Geography has always been an issue for the sport in the western United States, but it is arguably even more challenging for teams in Alaska.

Robin Crain
"When he moved up to Juneau he started coaching the Juneau team and running summer camps," said Crain. "He was flying us up every year and basically we'd coach his team for the first few years of the camps. And that kind of made the connection that, 'hey I'm gonna bring my team down because it is the same price as if we were going to go to Anchorage or Fairbanks, and the competition is better. So that's what he started doing."

A quick calculation puts Spokane approximately 1016 miles from Juneau. The trips to Washington definitely make sense considering the level of competition and the fact that Anchorage is about 575 miles away and Fairbanks an estimated 630.

"It's a great thing for the Juneau kids, and it's a great thing for us because we don't get any games over spring break," added Crain. "This gives us some good competition because they are always very good - one of the top teams in Alaska every year."

As for the 2014 edition, both coaches seemed pleased overall with each happy with at least one half of game.

"As much as I would have like to have won, the better side probably won," said Lehnhart. "They definitely controlled the run of play and we struggled to win the ball in the air. They are a really good side. He's got one of the best sides he's had that I have seen; and this is our first game so I was pleased. I thought we competed, especially in the first half I thought we did a pretty good job of building some attack. In the second half we were pretty much on our heels."

"I thought Juneau played really well. It took us a while to settle in," said Crain. "The second half I thought we played to our potential. The first half we struggled, but it was a great competitive match. The Juneau kids are very fast and skilled."