The Juneau-Douglas High School volleyball team is hoping older and wiser means better performance as the Crimson Bears prepare to open their season this weekend at the Sitka Jamboree.
The Crimson Bears underwent an almost complete overhaul last season, as young players had to fill in on the varsity level after one of Juneau's best and deepest graduating classes departed following the 1999 season. Entering last season, Juneau only had two players who'd seen more than token varsity experience and neither of them lettered in 1999, when Juneau took second place in the state tournament for its best finish ever.
But after undergoing a baptism by fire last season, most of Juneau's young players are back for another year and the extra experience has the the Crimson Bears brimming with optimism. This year the Crimson Bears not only have five returning starters, but seven returners were on Juneau's roster at the state tournament last November.
"I think we're a little stronger than last year," said senior outside hitter Anna Capacci, who is switching positions from middle blocker. "I think we have a lot more confidence."
"I think we're ready," senior middle blocker Brenna Asper-Smith said. "We've been playing together forever, like year-round."
Besides Capacci and Asper-Smith, the other Juneau players with state tournament experience include junior setter Callan Janowiec, senior utility player/outside hitter Sarah Bixby, junior middle blocker/outside hitter Amy Neussl, junior outside hitter Kelly Baxter and senior middle blocker/outside hitter Devra Roberts.
Adding depth to the roster are newcomers like sophomore setter Julie Heard, senior middle blocker/outside hitter Morgan Zidek-Ledington, junior setter Ryia Waldern, senior defensive specialist Rowena Lumba, sophomore middle blocker/outside hitter Karla Dunivin, senior middle blocker/outside hitter Julie Patz and junior setter Danielle Ryder, who all moved up from the junior varsity and C teams. Also new this year is sophomore outside hitter/middle blocker Teresa Dyson, who transferred from Hoonah.
"We have a quite a lot more experience," Juneau co-coach Dale Bontrager said. "We've definitely stepped up a notch. Almost all of these players went to Davis with us (referring to a large 900-team summer volleyball camp at the University of California-Davis). There will be more competition from Sitka and Ketchikan, who both have lots of returners. We took four Sitka players and two Ketchikan players with us to Davis. We had three teams at the camp."
Bontrager is one of three experienced coaches with the volleyball program. He and co-coach Sandi Wagner have been coaching together for 15 years, and co-coach Pat Gorman has been with them for 13 of those 15 years.
Despite it being a rebuilding year, Juneau won its 11th Region V-Class 4A championship in 13 years last season. But the Crimson Bears also suffered their first regular-season region loss in years, a loss to Ketchikan, showing that the rest of the region is starting to catch up to Juneau's usual dominating level of play.
"We'll know where we stand after the Jamboree, and after we play (two-time defending Class 4A state champion) Service on Wednesday," said Neussl, who is switching positions to middle blocker from outside hitter. "We'll have to hustle."
"We have a lot more experience and team unity," Janowiec said. "We did a lot in the off season. Everybody has more specified positions on the team this year. We're a more well-rounded team."
This weekend's Sitka Jamboree will bring together several Southeast teams for a series of round-robin, pool-play mini-matches starting at 3 p.m. on Friday and 8 a.m. on Saturday. There won't really be a champion in the Jamboree, Bontrager said, but the teams will get a lot of match experience. Juneau is taking 32 players, broken down into four eight-player teams for the Jamboree.
After this weekend's action, Juneau heads north for five matches in four days -- against Service on Wednesday, at Class 3A power Seward on Thursday, at Class 4A Kenai Central on Sept. 7 and at both Soldotna and Skyview on Sept. 8. Later in the season, Juneau will head north Oct. 17-20 for matches against Class 3A Cordova, Class 4A Colony and the Service-Dimond Tournament, which features most of the top teams in the state.
"I don't think there's any one team that stands out this year," Capacci said. "Service only has one returner, and (defending state runner-up) East lost its big middle. Chugiak's down this year, and so's the team in yellow from Fairbanks, Lathrop."
Juneau's first home matches are Sept. 14-15 against Ketchikan. The only other home events are the Juneau Invitational Volleyball Extravaganza (JIVE) tournament on Oct. 5-6 and against Sitka on Oct. 26-27. The Region V-Class 4A and Region V-Class 3A tournaments are both Nov. 1-3 at Wrangell, and the Class 4A and Class 3A state tournaments are Nov. 8-10 at West Anchorage High School.
"If it improves the same way over this season as it did last year, this group has the potential to be pretty competitive in the state," Bontrager said. "This group has been up north, and it's been down south, so it's seen a lot of these teams. It's an intelligent group of kids."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.