The drive to a 4A volleyball state championship begins up front for Juneau-Douglas, where the Crimson Bears are blessed with an abundance of firepower.
Seniors Sarah Tarver, Taylor Larson and Daffodil Alinson have terrorized opposing defenses all season long, blasting big kills all over the court.
Tarver, a 5-foot-10 middle hitter, leads the team with 303 kills in 83 games, good for better than three and a half kills a set with a 36 percent efficiency rating. Tarver also leads the team with 36 solo blocks, and has the fourth-most digs with 160.
Larson, a 5-foot-7 master blaster in the middle, has scored 202 kills. Few can match the power of the Bears' lefty. When Larson winds up and delivers, defenders often duck.
Alinson, who can play just about anywhere on the court, is third on the team with 174 kills, and she is one behind defensive specialist Kalea Chapman for the team lead in digs with 202. She also has 41 aces, good for third best.
"Daffy's strength is placement. She sees the openings and she's able to find the holes," JDHS coach Sandi Wagner said. "Sarah has both placement and strong hits. She can put the ball down when she needs to and she sees where the openings are. Taylor's more of a one-hit show, but it works. And she's learning to hit more than just out of the (front middle), and she's getting more in her arsenal."
All three have shown tremendous improvement since last season, and each brings something unique to the table for the Juneau-Douglas, which opens play against Chugiak at 2 p.m. today in the ASAA/First National Bank Alaska State Volleyball Championships in Wasilla.
"Sarah's a very versatile player and she can put the ball anywhere she wants. Taylor, I think softball really helps her with her swing because she swings so hard and the ball goes straight down," Alinson said of her teammates. "It gives us a lot of variety and because of their talent, we can run so many different plays. It's awesome to watch them jump in the air and put it down."
Tarver called Alinson, a diminutive outside hitter at just 5-foot-5 - but with great leaping ability -¿the team's emotional leader.
"Daffy, whether she makes a mistake or she gets a good kill, you can definitely count on her smiling afterward, no matter what," she said. "That makes us happy, too. She gives the team a very good feeling. No matter what, she's going to be there smiling and having a good time. And she's a major factor on the outside with her kills."
Alinson said few things compare to getting a perfect set and smashing the ball over.
"It gives you a giant adrenaline rush and makes your heart pound," she said. "You just want to jump up and scream. It's overwhelming."
Tarver said the only thing that comes close is a big block against a good opponent.
"I guess it depends on who you're blocking. If it's someone from South or Dimond, two of the best teams in Alaska, I would say that's more exciting. But if you kill it against any team, that's really exciting, too. I guess they just have their different moments.
"I get really pumped up after a big kill, and when I see the excitement on everybody's face, it gets me even more excited. I love it; that's for sure."
Larson couldn't be reached for comment, but Tarver said it's her missile-like spikes that take the team to another level mentally.
"We feed off the big kills and it definitely makes the team come together and excites us," she said. "It helps us play better, so that's a big factor for getting the team pumped. Taylor, not all blockers and middle hitters from the other teams are used to having to move over. That helps us get our offense together and get some points down."
Solid passing to set up the Bears' big hitters up front is the key for a deep tournament run, Tarver said.
Alinson, who is making her third straight state tournament appearance, said the girls hope to make amends for what she called a "meltdown" last year.
"We need to finish strong because it's our last year and we want to make a big impression on the state," she said. "We really want to bring recognition to our school so we want to finish strong in the state tournament as a team.
"Sandi told us before our practice (Tuesday) that physically, we're ready to play. Mentally, it's all up to us," she continued. "We've been talking about how nervous we are, so I think we really need to focus on our confidence and know that we're one of the top teams in the state. We can compete up there."
With the amount of firepower Juneau-Douglas brings, there's no doubt the Crimson Bears can compete with anyone. If they can put it all together, they can win the whole thing.
State tournament draw:
Game 1 - Southeast No. 1 Juneau-Douglas vs. Cook Inlet No. 3 Chugiak - 2 p.m.
Game 2 - Mid-Alaska No. 1 West Valley vs. Northern Lights No. 3 Colony - 3:45 p.m.
Game 3 - Cook Inlet No. 1 South vs. Northern Lights No. 2 Wasilla - 5:30 p.m.
Game 4 - Northern Lights No. 1 Palmer vs. Cook Inlet No. 2 Dimond - 7:15 p.m.
The winner of Game 1 faces the winner of Game 4 in a semifinal at 3:45 p.m. Friday, and the winner of Game 2 faces the winner of Game 3 at 7:15 p.m. Friday in the other semifinal. Both winners advance to the state final at 8 p.m. on Saturday.