The nucleus is there, but the season won't be a success unless the Juneau-Douglas High School volleyball team can find some complementary parts.
The Crimson Bears open the season at this weekend's Sitka Jamboree with four returning starters from last year's team that finished third in the Class 4A state tournament. But seniors Amy Neussl, Callan Janowiec, Kelly Baxter and junior Julie Heard are the only four Juneau players with varsity experience.
That means there will be a period of adjustment as the Crimson Bears find out which players fit in best with the Gang of Four.
The Crimson Bears have one of their largest squads in team history - 66 players went out for the team - and there are 30 freshmen, which bodes well for the future.
"I don't really know how we'll do," Juneau co-coach Sandi Wagner said. "We have a lot of unanswered questions. We have a lot of very talented freshmen. It's too early to tell."
"There is so much talent, but we have to see everybody play a bit more," co-coach Dale Bontrager added.
Wagner and Bontrager are two-thirds of Juneau's returning coaching staff, which will have a combined 45 years with the Crimson Bears at the end of the season. Wagner and Bontrager are both entering their 16th years with the team, while assistant coach Pat Gorman is starting his 13th season.
The four returning varsity players will be expected to provide some stability while the coaches try out different combinations of players around them.
If they find a combination that clicks, the Crimson Bears could reach the state finals for their second time in team history; Juneau lost to Service in the 1999 state championship match. But if none of the combinations work out, Juneau could struggle to get out of the Region V-Class 4A tourney.
That makes this weekend's Sitka Jamboree a big preseason test for the Crimson Bears.
"We're working on it. This weekend will definitely be a test," said Neussl, a middle blocker.
"This weekend will be good, so we know where everyone is," said Baxter, an outside hitter. "There will definitely be a break-in period, but we have the ability."
The Jamboree will feature four teams of seven players each from Juneau and Sitka, three teams from Ketchikan and two teams from Craig competing in a low-pressure environment. Teams will play two-game mini-matches (which could end in draws) against each other, and no stats will be kept.
Since the Alaska School Activities Association wants each region to experiment with rally-point scoring at least once this season, Wagner said she's asked Sitka to do the experiment at this tournament so the rest of the season takes place under the old serve-sideout rules. Sitka Athletic Director Lyle Sparrowgrove said the Jamboree is used for referee certification, and the main focus is on letting the players get some game experience in before the real season starts when Juneau hosts Ketchikan on Sept. 6-7.
For the Crimson Bears, this weekend will be a shakedown cruise of sorts. But the players are anxious to open the season.
"We want to play some games," said Heard, who is shifting from last year's setter position to outside hitter this year. "They're working really hard. But it's really hard to tell."
"It's coming, and I hope we come together like we did in the alumni game, when we stomped them," said Janowiec, a setter. "We did a lot of offseason training, and that will be an advantage."
Several of the Crimson Bears went to volleyball camps at the University of California-Davis - Janowiec said they won their division - and the University of Washington, while other players went to a clinic in Ketchikan.
"We learned a lot, and we're learning from college coaches and players," Janowiec said.
"We learned some new techniques," Neussl added.
While the Gang of Four will provide the nucleus, the rest of the varsity roster will be in a state of flux for a few weeks while different players are worked into the mix.
For now, the rest of the varsity roster features senior Alessia Bonanno, an exchange student from Italy who appears to be a strong right-side hitter; senior defensive specialist Nicole Bennett; sophomore middle hitter Megan Treston; senior utility player Ryia Waldron; senior utility player Danielle Ryder; senior defensive specialist Mary Wilcock; and junior middle/outside hitter Carla Dunivin.
But the three coaches said any number of the younger players could move into the main mix.
The Crimson Bears, who were 16-5 overall and 8-0 in Region V-Class 4A regular-season matches last year, will be trying to book their 14th straight trip to the state tournament this season. Only one team advances from the region - which features just Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan - and the Wolves and Kings have both pulled off regular-season upsets in recent years.
Meanwhile, the rest of the state has been catching up to Anchorage schools, which haven't dominated state tournaments the past four years they way they did the previous decade. Over the last four years, Juneau, Skyview, Colony and Wasilla have all made trips to the state championship match with Colony winning the 1998 title and Wasilla winning last year. Service won the 1997, 1999 and 2000 state titles, and Dimond, Bartlett and Chugiak are also expected to be tough.
"Dimond's young and tall, Wasilla's the defending state champion and Bartlett's got three or four players back," Gorman said of the scouting report he recently received from longtime Service coach Virgil Hooe. "But the one to watch may be Palmer."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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