ANCHORAGE - After finishing a lowly seventh place in the Juneau Invitational Volleyball Extravaganza, the Craig High School volleyball team realized it had a problem.
The Panthers were failing to communicate on the court - but the players identified the problem and corrected it. Craig turned its season around, and won the Southeast Class 3A championship.
On Thursday, the Panthers continued their hot streak as they swept the Seward Seahawks 25-19, 25-12, 26-24 in the first round of the Class 3A state tournament at West Anchorage High School. It was Craig's first state tournament victory since 2000.
"That was our turning point," Craig coach Tina Nelson said of the JIVE Tournament. "When we were up in Juneau, we were watching the communication they had on the other teams. We were missing that."
"We didn't do good at JIVE," added Craig junior Katrina Nelson, who was named the player of the match for the Panthers. "We figured out what we needed to do. We talked it up and had more communication. And we needed to cheer after everything."
In the other first-round Class 3A match involving a Southeast team, three-time defending state champion Valdez swept Petersburg 25-16, 25-12, 25-17. Also on Thursday, Cordova knocked off Nikiski 25-23, 25-27, 25-21, 25-22 and Monroe Catholic swept Grace Christian 25-23, 25-16, 25-20.
The Panthers will take on Cordova in today's 2 p.m. semifinal, with the Wolverines being the only non-Southeast team Craig has seen this season. Cordova is a regular JIVE participant, and Wolverines coach John Harding said he likes to use JIVE as a chance to see the Southeast teams before state.
"We at least got a little peek at Cordova," Tina Nelson said.
The other semifinal today pits Valdez and Monroe Catholic at 5:30 p.m., with the winner joining the Craig-Cordova winner in Saturday's 5:30 p.m. championship match. Today's consolation matches feature Nikiski vs. Seward at 9:30 a.m. and Petersburg vs. Grace Christian at 11:15 a.m.
The Panthers have been to four of the last five state tournaments, but only had one victory - over Heritage Christian School five years ago, when they took fifth place for their best state finish.
Even though Craig had been to state, the Panthers said they still felt the jitters when they took the court against Seward, which won the 1996 state title and has been second twice since then.
"It kind of helped, but we were still nervous and anxious," Craig senior Brianne Goheen said. "We hadn't seen these teams play."
"We were still a little nervous," added senior Jill May, who was making her third trip to the state tournament. "I'm not super surprised we won, but they did scare us the third game."
The Panthers said the JIVE tournament shook the team up, and they realized they needed to get better.
"We started practicing harder and focusing," Goheen said. "We knew after Juneau we had to pick it up. We started trusting each other."
"Our teamwork - we're a much better team," May said. "We pretty much decided we needed to put more energy into our practices."
Craig's journey to state took more time than the usual trip out of Southeast, as the Panthers dealt with ferries, planes and lost automobiles. The Craig players had to be up at 4:45 a.m. Wednesday to catch the ferry to Ketchikan, then flew to Juneau and Anchorage with delays for weather along the way. The Panthers finally got into town about 9:30 p.m., missing Wednesday's skills contests and the coaches meeting. Then, driving to the hotel, Tina Nelson said she got lost and it took another hour to find it.
"We were on the way to Seward," she said.
Valdez sweeps Petersburg
The Buccaneers were too much for the Vikings, and they showed why they've won the last three state titles and six overall. It didn't help that Petersburg lost a couple of players since the region tournament.
"Valdez is looking pretty tough," Petersburg coach Bev Siercks said. "They've got some big hitters. We were moving, but Valdez was tough. The girls came out and wanted to play their best. I think we'll do fine (today) and the girls are playing well."
Kelli Luczak was named the player of the match for Petersburg, which didn't have any stats. Brooke Wegner, who had 15 kills and 20 digs, was the player of the match for Valdez.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.