When Amber Johnson and Lesley Kalbrener jump to make a play during a volleyball match, they have an edge on the competition.
As decorated veterans of the Juneau Jumpers jump rope team, leaping is something the two Juneau-Douglas High School players have practiced hundreds of thousands - maybe even millions - of times more than anyone else on the court. And the crossover benefits of jumping rope go far beyond leaving the ground.
"Jump rope is all about hand-eye coordination, and it transfers well to volleyball," Kalbrener said.
"We're used to pushing ourselves, working as a team," Johnson said.
Johnson, Kalbrener and the rest of the Crimson Bears will put their physical and mental skills and toughness to the test, starting today at the Region V-Class 4A Tournament in Petersburg.
Juneau finished undefeated in the region during the regular season, earning a first-round bye. In today's match, the Crimson Bears will face Ketchikan, which won Thursday's opening-round match with Sitka 25-18, 16-25, 25-20, 25-17.
The winner of the Juneau-Ketchikan match will move on to Saturday's championship, while the loser will face Sitka tonight in the double-elimination tourney. Tonight's match will determine the other team to reach the championship, which will decide which squad earns a trip to next week's state tourney in Anchorage.
Johnson and Kalbrener each started playing volleyball in middle school, and each are first-year varsity players. But long before they were Crimson Bear teammates, the duo competed together with the Jumpers. Johnson, a junior, has been with the Jumpers for 11 years, while Kalbrener, a sophomore, has been with the jump rope squad for nine years.
In that time, they've traveled across the nation and around the world, racking up countless awards and even appearing on ESPN. Last June, Johnson and Kalbrener - with teammates Tera Ross and Nicole Lim - took third place in the double-dutch pairs freestyle Grand National finals at the U.S. National Jump Rope Tournament in Orlando, Fla.
In April 2002, Johnson and four other Jumpers traveled to Belgium for a world competition. One of Johnson's teammates was Megan Treston, who also plays volleyball for JDHS but is sidelined this season due to injury.
Jump rope events range from solos to large-group affairs, with differences in duration and a mix of extra elements like triple-unders - where the rope revolves three times with each jump. That helps keep things interesting after so many years in the sport.
"You can never stop learning new tricks," Johnson said. "At nationals there are so many levels. It keeps pushing you to take that extra step."
"Jump rope sparks a passion in me," Kalbrener said. "I can't imagine my life without it."
In addition to the competitive side of the sport, the Jumpers also perform exhibitions for the community. A popular routine in those shows features glowing jump ropes in a darkened venue.
"It's different from a lot of sports," Johnson said. "It's cool to say you do something unique."
While jump rope is a unique sport, the skills it develops are universal and are welcomed by the Crimson Bear volleyball program. Co-coach Pat Gorman said the physical skills and synchronization Johnson and Kalbrener developed with the Jumpers help on the court, as does the duo's level of energy.
"They both bring enthusiasm - that's something that rings true with this whole team," he said.
Gorman watched a tape of the Jumpers' June national tourney performance, and was impressed with what he saw.
"It's a totally different sport than what I'm used to," he said. "It was fascinating to watch the different events. ... The speed jumping - it just boggles your mind how fast these kids go."
Gorman said Kalbrener and Johnson have shown great improvement in their volleyball skills this season, and the team is looking to peak in the postseason.
"We're just trying to bring it all together at the right time," he said. "The path to Anchorage leads through Petersburg."
"Our team has come so far from the beginning of the season," Kalbrener said. "I'm excited to see what we can do this weekend."
The Region V-Class 3A tournament is also being held in Petersburg this weekend, with the host Vikings - unbeaten in Region V play - as the team to beat.
In Thursday's first-round matches, Wrangell beat Haines in one bracket and Mount Edgecumbe defeated Metlakatla in the other. In second-round play, Petersburg beat Wrangell and Craig defeated Mount Edgecumbe. Scores were not available.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.