ANCHORAGE -- Things were looking bleak for the Juneau-Douglas High School volleyball team when the Palmer Moose scored the first eight points of their opening-round match Thursday night in the Class 4A state tournament at West Anchorage High School.
But the Crimson Bears were able to regroup, as they pulled out a 14-16, 15-6, 15-6, 15-7 victory and advanced into today's 4:45 p.m. semifinal match against the Skyview Panthers.
Skyview upset the two-time defending champion Service Cougars 15-8, 15-6, 15-7 in another of Thursday's opening-round matches, while Chugiak swept West Valley, 15-6, 15-1, 15-10, and Wasilla swept Dimond 15-0, 15-11, 15-2, in the others. The winner of today's Juneau-Skyview match plays the winner of today's 3 p.m. Chugiak-Wasilla match in Saturday's 7:30 p.m. championship, while the losers will play in the third-fifth place match at 2:15 p.m. Saturday.
"We lost those first couple of points, but we're a comeback team," Juneau senior middle blocker Brenna Asper-Smith said. "We knew this would be our hardest game."
"Once we got a couple of points, we started rolling and we never stopped," Juneau junior setter Callan Janowiec said. "We're more experienced this year, so it was easier for us to regroup."
Juneau and Palmer didn't play each other this season, but they did match up in last year's state tournament opener when the Moose claimed an easy three-game sweep.
Thursday, it appeared Palmer might be headed for a similar result as the Moose jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first game. Juneau made reception errors, passing errors, attack errors and serving errors to help Palmer grab the early lead. Juneau finally got a point when Amy Neussl made a kill, and that seemed to settle the Crimson Bears down.
Juneau closed to within 8-5 before losing serve, and didn't seem fazed when Palmer beefed up its lead to 10-5 on a couple of more Juneau errors. But the Crimson Bears methodically chipped away at Palmer's lead, closing to within 10-8 before a long series of sides-out held the score at 10-8 for nearly a complete service rotation. Juneau actually took a 14-11 lead to hold game-point in the opening game, but the Crimson Bears couldn't close out the game as Palmer rallied to win.
Even though Juneau didn't win the first game, the comeback was all the Crimson Bears needed.
"It was domination," said Neussl, a junior middle blocker. "We had the momentum, and we didn't let it go. Last year we were all new to state, but this year we were able to build on last year's experience."
"That was probably the funnest volleyball match I can remember playing," Juneau senior outside hitter Anna Capacci said. "I think we were a little apprehensive for the first couple of points, but then we realized they're not that great and we can play with them. We knew our game was better. I'm excited for the rest of the tournament. I hope we can keep playing like this."
Juneau (15-4 overall) hasn't missed a state tournament in more than a decade, but Capacci was one of only two players on last year's team that had been on the varsity squad when Juneau took second place to Service in the 1999 state tourney. This year, most of Juneau's players have state tournament experience and the Juneau coaches were able to get everybody into Thursday's match so even the couple of rookies now have seen action.
Palmer, on the other hand, has only one returning starter (senior middle blocker Emily Sakis) from last year's team that took third place at state. The only other player who saw a little bit of state tourney action was outside hitter Emily Mounce. Palmer coach Steve Reynolds said his team could have used a little more experience.
"We struggled with our passing, and we had a lot of hitting errors," Reynolds said. "You combine back passing with bad hitting, and you don't do well. Plus they (the Crimson Bears) blocked well against us. They blocked a lot of our hits."
Junior outside hitter Kelly Baxter led Juneau with 15 kills and 11 digs, while Capacci had 14 kills, 13 digs and two aces. Neussl had 10 kills, four solo blocks and two aces, Asper-Smith had six kills and three solo blocks, Janowiec had three kills and 14 digs, and senior outside hitter Krista Heard served three aces.
Sakis led Palmer with 19 kills and 12 digs, while Mounce added seven kills and 16 digs and Jessie Macknicki served two aces.
With Thursday's victory, the Crimson Bears are feeling pretty good about their chances of reaching a second state championship match in three years. Juneau beat Service and Skyview in a pair of five-game matches in its season-opening road trip, although Skyview did win a mini-match at the Service-Dimond Tournament a month later. The Crimson Bears also played Skyview several times last season, including a close three-game sweep loss to the Panthers in the consolation bracket of last year's state tournament.
"We're excited about our chances," Janowiec said. "We've been through these teams before. We're only looking one game ahead."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.