After a draining split in Ketchikan two weeks ago, the Juneau-Douglas High School volleyball team is looking forward to showing how much it's learned this weekend against visiting Sitka.
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The Crimson Bears (1-1, 1-1 Southeast) played a pair of five-set marathons two weeks ago in Ketchikan, winning the first while dropping the second.
"It was a fantastic opportunity," JDHS coach Dale Bontrager said. "You like to see that kind of pressure-stacked situation this early in the season because you know what you have to work on. We found out a lot out there."
One of the most important things the Crimson Bears learned from the split was the importance of mental preparation, Bontrager said. So in practice, Juneau-Douglas spent the last two weeks of practice flexing its mental muscles.
By visualizing where they want to be and pumping each other up, JDHS hopes to bring a positive attitude and steely determination against Sitka (0-2) on Friday and Saturday.
Who: Crimson Bears (1-1, 1-1) vs. Sitka (0-2, 0-0).
When: Friday and Saturday. The C games start at 4:30 p.m., JV at 6:15 p.m. and varsity at 8 p.m.
Where: Juneau-Douglas High School gym.
What's at stake: Sitka opens Southeast Conference play while JDHS can lead into first place with a victory this weekend.
"We're doing a lot of talking," Bontrager said. "The practices are geared towards using their brains, being mentally ready everyday. ... It's all about being able to see yourself doing it."
Volleyball sets itself apart from other sports with its huge swings in momentum. A five-set game with multiple-point runs and long rallies can be a thrilling, but emotionally draining, experience. Being able to fight through mistakes and keeping cool in a heated situation can be the difference between winning and losing.
"(JDHS coach Sandi Wagner) puts goals on the board everyday like 'communication' or 'don't let things get to you,'" hitter Kelly Walker said. "Today, our discussion was don't let yourself shatter. Don't let other people get you down. We're really working on trying to fix ourselves as a team."
In addition to improving their mental game, the Crimson Bears also tried to fine-tune their blocking scheme.
Swing blocking, or bunch blocking, is a more offensive way to defend against spikes. Instead of jumping straight up and down, the blockers will swing their arms around like a windmill. Done properly, the block could translate into a swing in momentum for JDHS.
"Swing blocking is an arm motion where they get up and turn and block the ball," Bontrager said. "You get up a lot higher that way, but you have to do a lot more athletic motion to get there. It's almost like a spike approach to the net."
Another new aspect to Juneau's game is the libero. Starting this season, the Alaska School Activities Association allows teams to use this defensive specialist.
The libero wears a different colored shirt from her teammates and can only play defense. It also allows for more substitutions, so the coaches can get more players in the game if they so choose.
In Ketchikan, Carly Lehnhart played the specialist role.
"It provides another position for someone to specialize in," Bontrager said. "Carly is not very tall and probably wouldn't be a front-row player for us, so she can just focus her heart and soul into the back row. That makes for a great defensive player because that's what it takes."
Lehnhart said, "I like it a lot because defense is what I like to do. So when I can focus on the whole game, where before you would have to come out every rotation. ... When you're focused on defense, you can just focus on keeping the ball off the floor."
With an improved mental outlook and new schemes, the Crimson Bears expressed excitement about showing their improvement.
Their only one way to prove how Juneau has improved its mental approach, however, and that takes place on the court against tough opposition.
"From my team, I want to see kids who want the ball," Bontrager said. "They want to be the go-to girl. I want to see kids saying, 'Set me.' I think that will be the biggest accomplishment, if we can get the kids to want the ball. All of them, all the time."
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com.