JUNEAU - Thunder Mountain High School's inaugural volleyball season begins this weekend at the Ketchikan Jamboree, but don't expect them to act like a first-year team.
That's not to say the Falcons will win every match, but they do feel like they can play well and make a name for their fledgling program.
Most of the girls have played volleyball in middle school and some at Juneau-Douglas High School. All are banking on that experience translating to the court for Thunder Mountain.
"I think we're all really good players. There aren't bad players, or OK players. We're all pretty good," said freshman setter Katie Tarver, who played at Floyd Dryden Middle School. "We want to work hard as a team and build up for the next couple of years."
First-year head coach Adriana Rodriguez agreed.
"I told the girls how lucky we feel because we're not patching a team together here," she said. "We have a team. It's not, 'Oh, how are we going to fill this position or that?' We're solid. I can see in a lot of them, they really want to improve as players. That makes all the difference.
"They want to be a team to be reckoned with, and that'sexciting."
But it's a work in progress, with Rodriguez, a Crimson Bears volleyball alum, and assistant coach Anya Nelson, who played two years at the University of Wisconsin, still working on the game plan.
"Coach Nelson and I, our primary focus is fundamentals. There are parts of volleyball that we love to do - we love to hit, we love to block - but the reality is you don't get that if you don't have a solid foundation," Rodriguez said. "A lot of our practices have really been building on communication between the players, and passing."
Offensively, the Falcons will run a 6-2 set, meaning there are two setters on the floor at all times. All six can be hitters.
"We have a lot of good setters that have the potential to really take on that leadership role and get their team going," Rodriguez said. "That's key for a 6-2. A lot of these girls come in knowing how to play a 5-1 from middle school, so it's a big shift, especially since we have so many freshmencoming in.
"I see the team really being successful in the future with a 6-2because we have some definite leaders that can make it work."
Rodriguez likes the idea of having two setters - one primary and the other secondary - on the floor at all times because the setter is the catalyst of the offense and the person who decides which teammate will attack and from where.
"We really focus on making sure all of our girls are at least comfortable having to set if they get into that position, but I really like the idea of having that back-up setter that can help make the plays happen if our primary setter has to dig a ball," she said. "We also look for setters who are very diverse - that can hit, that can block.
"Your setters really set the tone for the game, and they control the pace."
Junior setter Jordan Jeans, who played two years at JDHS, said the team has mostly worked on passing and communicating during the preseason. They also focused on team chemistry, which is one area where TMHS will always be at a disadvantage this first season.
"(The teams we'll face) have all been working together for a while, and we have a lot of incoming freshmen that we don't know," she said. "They all have a lot of upper classmen that have played together all through their high school years, so they will probably know each other better than we do. They know how the other people on their teams play."
Junior Janie White, who also played two years for the Crimson Bears, said team chemistry hasn't been an issue, and the experience will come with time on the court together.
"We're all pretty good friends. We're all close and nobody beats on each other too badly. We're all nice and friendly," she said. "We just want to work hard, play well as a team and communicate, and we need to trust each other."
The starting lineup is fluid going into the first weekend of play. Some of the girls won't be able to participate early in the season because they don't have the required 10 practices in yet, but everything should be settled by the time the team returns for its first home matches against Ketchikan on Sept. 4-5, when team captains will be named.
Rodriguez said her team is a bit vertically challenged, but several of the girls who are not as tall have shown to be good athletes that have the hops to get over the net.
"We were running blocking drills and all the girls 5'7" and shorter, you could see they were timid," she said. "We ran through a drill and showed them that all it takes is heart and a fingertip to touch that ball. Honestly, out of all those girls, only a handful of the younger players don't have the vertical to get above the net.
"If you're not tall, you have to be able to play smart, read the ball and communicate," she continued. "We don't have a lot of height, but we definitely have some hard hitters and some girls who aren't afraid to go for the ball."
Defensively on the back row, Rodriguez expects the team to be strong.
"In terms of defense, we'll definitely have a couple of defensive specialists," she said. "But for the most part, most of our girls are pretty good on the defensive line and they're really picking up hits coming back.
"We're working on coverage because we know we're going to be going up against some strong hitters and teams that have been playing together for a while," she continued. "We're really focusing on trying to figure out the best defense that we can right now."
Rodriguez said everyone, in their own mind, wants to win and she expects to be successful, but some of the girls might have to live with the fact that success is not always determined by a win-loss record, especially for a first-year team.
"You go to Ketchikan and lose a match (and that's to be expected sometimes), but you're at home and you lose a match against the other high school in town and it's a different story," she said. "For us, they have a lot of weight to carry because these girls are setting the standard for a new program.
"So for these girls, really feeling good about the season, not by win or loss ratio, but by saying we came together as a team - 30 girls that have never played together have come together - and we're working hard and we feel good about it," she continued. "I'm just as competitive as everyone else. If I can come in and my girls are improving every day and every game we get better, and they're feeling good about the way they played the game, then that's what'simportant to me."