This weekend will tell the Juneau-Douglas High School volleyball team a lot about itself.
After weeks of being trapped in Southeast, playing the same few teams over and over again, the Crimson Bears finally get a true test to see where they stand in the state.
Juneau plays a non-region match against Chugiak at 7 p.m. tonight at Chugiak High School, then heads to Anchorage for the 20-team Service-Dimond Tournament on Friday and Saturday. Juneau opens pool play in the tournament Friday afternoon at Service High School with round-robin matches against Kodiak, Heritage Christian School and defending state champion Service. The other teams in the tournament are East Anchorage, Lathrop, Kenai Central and Grace Christian School in one pool; Palmer, Nikiski, West Anchorage and Ketchikan in another pool; Colony, Dimond, West Valley and Susitna Valley in a fourth pool; and Chugiak, Valdez, Bartlett and Seward in the final pool.
Depending on how the Crimson Bears do Friday, they'll either open play Saturday morning at Service or Dimond High Schools. Playoffs for final standings begin at 12:30 p.m. and the championship match of the tournament is at 5:30 p.m. at Service.
"I think a lot of people want to see what's going on up there," Juneau junior Sarah Bixby said. "They want to see how well we perform. It'll be a lot faster pace."
"It'll be a whole different game for us," Juneau sophomore Callan Janowiec said. "We'll be able to see where we stand. We have to pick up our game from where we are down here, but this will give us a good idea where we are. We know we have to play good."
Juneau has an almost totally different lineup than the senior-laden one it took to second place in last year's Class 4A state volleyball tournament. None of the current Crimson Bears lettered last year, although a couple of players like Anna Capacci and Janina Pelayo did see brief stints on the varsity roster. For some of the Crimson Bears, this trip to Anchorage will not only be their first chance to see most of the state's top teams, it'll also be their first trip to the medium-sized city.
"I've never been there before so I'm kind of nervous," Juneau sophomore Kelly Baxter said. "I know it will be a lot faster than what we see down here. Some of us going up won't see a lot of playing time. But even when we're not playing we'll be able to see what we need to do to improve."
When Juneau plays Chugiak tonight, it will face a team that's had its ups and downs this season. The Mustangs (8-7 overall, 5-5 in Region IV) are coached by former University of Alaska Anchorage and Chugiak High School standout middle blocker Sabrina Bingham (no relation to the writer), who is in her first year as the coach at her alma mater. Chugiak has had weeks where it's played well, but other weeks where it's struggled. Juneau is 7-5 overall and 5-1 in Region V.
This is not Juneau's first trip out of Southeast, having opened its season with a road trip to Fairbanks. But in recent years the quality of play in Fairbanks has not been comparable to that in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley areas. No team has been as dominant as Service was last year, when the Cougars only lost one match on a road trip to Oregon all season, but Service and East Anchorage are both playing well this season. Palmer and Colony are also strong from the Mat-Su Valley area, while Dimond and Chugiak are in the second tier from Anchorage.
In order to be competitive with the teams from Anchorage and the Mat-Su, Juneau will have to play at a faster tempo than it does in Southeast. And the Crimson Bears will have to be ready for more power from their opposing outside and middle hitters.
"We have to work on our team factor," Bixby said. "We can't just work on improving as individuals."