In age, they're a year older. In experience, they've grown far more.
The core of this season's Juneau-Douglas High School varsity volleyball team entered last season as varsity rookies - learning as they played and bonding as a team, while still racking up an impressive record.
Now they're a tournament-tested, court-savvy squad looking to build on last year's accomplishments.
"Last year we were all new to varsity," junior setter Torie Powers said. "We felt like we were filling big, big shoes and we were jittery all season. This year, I think we're all confident and ready."
"We've grown together as a team - and not just in volleyball," senior outside hitter Amber Johnson said. "We're definitely friends outside of volleyball, and that's helped us."
The Crimson Bears get their first tests tonight and Saturday as they host Ketchikan in the regular-season openers for both squads.
Varsity matches are at 8 p.m. each night, with junior varsity at 6:15 p.m. and C teams at 4:30 p.m. Matches will be held in the JDHS auxiliary gym, due to ongoing floor installation in the main gym. There also will be intramural matches between Juneau squads at 3 p.m. on Friday, and starting at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
Juneau wasn't lacking for success last season, as the Crimson Bears went undefeated in the region - winning the Region V-Class 4A crown - and finished fifth at the state tournament.
But the team's relative inexperience showed at times - something that has not happened as much in the first few weeks of practice.
"They're smarter players, more mature," said Juneau co-coach Sandi Wagner, who returns to guide the Crimson Bears along with Dale Bontrager and Pat Gorman. "They've shown us so far in practice that they don't make as many mental mistakes as they did at this time last year."
Besides Johnson and Powers, returning varsity players from last season include juniors Hannah Barril, Alycia Cox, Jillian Hahnlen, Lesley Kalbrener, Sara Manning and Rochele Rodman. Senior Megan Treston played on the varsity as a sophomore, but missed all of last season due to injury.
Rounding out this year's varsity squad are seniors Bianca Carpeneti and Carly Garrison, and sophomore Rachelle Albay. The Crimson Bears also have a wealth of talent in their JV and C squads; more than 90 players turned out to play this season.
Like last season, speed will be a hallmark of this year's varsity squad. Juneau also boasts some formidable blockers in Hahnlen, Kalbrener and Manning, who also can make contributions from the back line.
"We all know every position on the court, and that's helpful," Manning said. "We're able to adjust to anything."
With a year behind them, the Crimson Bears are hoping their play as an increasingly cohesive unit also makes a difference.
"The way we work together, the way we communicate - we're a team out there, and it shows," Johnson said.
Notably absent this year are Julie Heard and Karla Dunivin, graduated seniors who were veterans of the program and provided strong on-court leadership for last year's young squad.
"There will be some big holes to fill, but this is a new team, an exciting team and they're working their tails off," Wagner said last week. "This is largely the same group that did amazing for us last year, and I'm looking forward to see what they can do."
Juneau traveled to Ketchikan last week for the annual preseason Jamboree meet. While the Crimson Bears rolled through many of their exhibition games, a strong Kings squad nipped them in the meet's final match.
This weekend's matches - ones that count in season standings - will give Juneau an immediate chance to show what they learned.
"They've got some real power outside ... and adjusted when we adjusted," Wagner said of Ketchikan this week. "We have some work to do. The kids know that, and they're ready to work hard.
"It's exciting that Ketchikan is playing well, and we'll have some good competition this year."
After this weekend's matches, the Crimson Bears hit the road for matches in Soldotna and Kodiak on Sept. 9-11, play at Sitka on Sept. 17-18 and at Ketchikan on Sept. 24-25.
The Bears host the annual Juneau Invitational Volleyball Extravaganza - or JIVE - meet on Oct. 1-2. The Small Schools Tournament is at Sitka on Oct. 8-9, and Juneau will travel to Cordova and Service on Oct. 14-16. The Crimson Bears' final meets of the regular season are both at home - against Sitka on Oct. 22-23, and the All-Comers Tournament on Oct. 29-30.
The Southeast-Class 3A/4A tournament is at Craig on Nov. 4-6, and the state tournament will be held in Anchorage on Nov. 11-13.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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