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When they first started practicing back in August, the Juneau-Douglas High School volleyball players weren't sure how good they'd be this year.
This weekend, the Crimson Bears completed an undefeated regular season by sweeping a pair of matches from the Sitka Wolves at the JDHS main gym. Juneau made little work of Sitka - which was missing two key starters - winning 15-1, 15-1, 15-4 on Friday and 15-2, 15-2, 15-7 on Saturday.
"It's gone really well this year," Juneau senior outside hitter Kelly Baxter said after Saturday's Senior Night match. "I think we played at our level, even though there was a difference between Sitka and what we saw up north. Even though we used a lot of different lineups, we still played well."
"At the beginning of the season we had no clue how the season would go," Juneau senior defensive specialist Nikki Bennett said. "We always have a little more we can work on. But we played really well, even with all the lineup changes. Usually in practice when we mix it up, it's kind of like we go, 'Argghh!' I think there's always pressure to win."
The two victories this weekend gave Juneau a 15-0 overall record in its best-three-out-of-five-game matches and an 8-0 record in Region V-Class 4A play. For the season, the Crimson Bears won 85 of the 90 games they played, including two-game round-robin pool-play mini-matches in tournaments. Juneau had already clinched the first-round bye that goes with the regular-season region championship a month ago, and the Crimson Bears will be favored when they go to the Region V-Class 4A tournament Nov. 7-9 at Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka.
Sitka fell to 3-6 overall, 2-6 in Region V-Class 4A to tie Ketchikan for the second seed in the region tournament. Ketchikan and Sitka will play each other in the first round of the double-elimination region tourney, with the winner advancing to play Juneau. Only the region champion will qualify for the Class 4A state tournament Nov. 14-16 at West Anchorage High School, a trip Juneau hopes to make for the 14th straight year.
The Wolves had a daunting task facing a Juneau team that just won the state's premier regular-season tournament (the 23-team Service-Dimond Invitational Volleyball Tournament) the week before and the Juneau Invitational Volleyball Extravaganza (JIVE Tournament) two weeks ago. But Sitka's troubles were compounded by injuries and mental mistakes.
The Wolves were missing starting middle hitter Miranda Whitson to a hand injury and starting outside hitter Sidney Wyman to an ankle injury this weekend, which left Sitka short in the front row. Another reserve player didn't see action in Saturday's match because she forgot to pack her blue jersey, further shortening Sitka's bench.
"Even the crew we did have didn't play as well as it's capable of doing," Sitka coach John Franceschini said. "I think the girls were intimidated by a much better team. We started getting it in the third game (Saturday), when we relaxed a bit. With Sid and Miranda gone, we had no people to block. We'll definitely be stronger at regions. But I think Juneau's the No. 1 team in the state right now. They've been beating up on everybody."
In Friday night's match Sitka closed to within a point of Juneau, 2-1, early in the first game only to have the Crimson Bears score 13 straight points to win the game. In the second game, Juneau took an 8-0 lead before Sitka scored its only point. In the third game, Sitka cut Juneau's leads to 6-3 and 10-4, but couldn't get any closer as the Wolves made as many passing and serve-receive errors as Juneau had kills for the match.
Juneau senior setter Callan Janowiec was 15-for-16 serving with seven aces, plus she made two block assists. Junior outside hitter Julie Heard was 9-for-10 serving with three aces and five kills. Senior middle hitter Amy Neussl had nine kills, four aces, three solo blocks and three digs. Baxter added six kills, three aces and four digs, while sophomore middle hitter Megan Treston had three kills and senior outside hitter Ryia Waldern had three digs in the last game.
"We weren't really that focused, but we had a good time," Neussl said. "Last week we had a lot of pressure games we had to win and we were able to relax some tonight."
Friday's match was so one-sided, the highlights were in the crowd as about a dozen of Juneau's male athletes were covered in red, white and black body paint as they cheered on the volleyball team, with one guy in blue paint (representing Sitka's colors) who was chased around the gym during timeouts.
"We're in love with our fans," Janowiec said. "We were just anxious to get going. We played well as a team."
"We just had to focus," Waldern said. "We had a good match. We were able to play on our side of the net and not their side. It doesn't matter what's going on on their side. And the crowd was great, wonderful."
In Saturday's match, Juneau only played seniors in the first two games, mixing up the lineup so some of the seniors off the bench got more playing time than usual.
Juneau took a 7-2 lead before closing out the first game with eight straight points. The Crimson Bears took a 12-0 lead in the second game, and led 9-0 in the third game before Sitka rallied to close the lead to 9-5 and 14-7.
Neussl led the team with 15 kills, seven digs and two solo blocks. Baxter added 11 kills, nine digs and six aces, while Heard had five kills (all in the third game), Janowiec had six digs, Waldern served three aces and senior outside hitter-setter Alessia Bonanno served two aces.
"I think we play together well, and it was fun to change around the lineup," Juneau senior outside hitter Mary Wilcock said. "Our goal at the beginning of the season was to win state, and we've still got three weeks of work to win state."
In junior varsity action, Juneau twice needed five games to beat Sitka, winning 15-8, 8-15, 15-1, 13-15, 15-10 on Friday and 8-15, 15-12, 15-8, 12-15, 15-8 on Saturday.
Sitka's C team claimed a pair of five-game matches from Juneau, winning 12-15, 15-5, 15-13, 8-15, 15-7 on Friday and 8-15, 11-15, 15-10, 15-12, 15-5 on Saturday.
Juneau's varsity team will be off this weekend, other than a couple of younger players who also play on the JV team. The Crimson Bears will host their annual All-Comers Tournament on Friday and Saturday, which will pit the large schools JV and C teams and small schools varsity teams from around Southeast. Matchups and times will be announced later in the week.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.