For the majority of this season's Juneau-Douglas High School varsity volleyball squad, last November was spent recuperating from three months of C Team play.
What a difference a year makes.
While last season's state champion Juneau spikers featured a juggernaut of senior stars, the fortunes of this year's Crimson Bears depend on the play of a large sophomore class in its first season on varsity.
The young Region V champion Crimson Bears open the state tournament today at 2 p.m. against the Bartlett Golden Bears at West Anchorage High School.
When the Crimson Bears take the court, six of the 11 players on the roster will be sophomores - Hannah Barril, Alycia Cox, Lesley Kalbrener, Sara Manning, Torie Powers and Rochele Rodman.
A seventh sophomore - Jillian Hahnlen - played on the Juneau varsity all season but has been sidelined due to illness; a freshman, Sarah Christianson, will step up to take her place.
The last time Juneau had so many young players on varsity was when coaches Sandi Wagner and Dale Bontrager took the helm of the program in the late 1980s - and that wasn't on the heels of the school's first-ever state title.
This year's sophomores have stepped up to the challenge.
"It was hard filling the shoes of the top team in the state, but we've done well," Powers said.
"I think we've had a good transition, going from C Team to varsity in one year," Barril said. "We all step up and do our job."
The sophomores said the increase in intensity and on-court enthusiasm are two of the biggest changes they've experienced at the varsity level. They said the team has developed into a close-knit group.
"You have to get to know your teammates better (on varsity)," Rodman said. "Otherwise you don't work well on the court."
They've also had to get comfortable on the court while facing older players with more size and experience. Juneau seniors Julie Heard and Karla Dunivin have helped their younger teammates to stand their ground against tough foes.
"Every game, Julie and Karla tell us to go out and play with authority, and not be intimidated," Cox said.
And no matter what happens at state this week, the sophomores said they are looking forward to two more years together on the court.
Crimson Bear coach Pat Gorman - who guides the team along with Wagner and Bontrager - said there was not much concern about entering the season with so many young players.
"You play with the hand you're dealt," Gorman said. "We keep our minds open, set our sights forward and let the kids develop.
"They're a great bunch of kids - very enthusiastic, very athletic - and they've come a long ways in a short time."
Juneau (13-5 this season in best-three-of-five matches) arrived in Anchorage later than expected after their Wednesday afternoon flight was canceled. The Crimson Bears had to catch an evening flight, which caused them to miss the state tourney skills contests.
The Crimson Bears and the Golden Bears faced off in last year's state title game, and the two teams have seen a lot of each other this season - almost as much as Juneau has played Region V rivals Ketchikan and Sitka. And every match has been a nail-biter.
In their last meeting, the Crimson Bears rallied from a two-sets-to-none deficit to win in the third-place match of the Service-Dimond Invitational on Oct. 18.
Three days earlier, the tables were turned as Bartlett won a hard-fought, five-set match. In September, Bartlett beat Juneau in four sets to win the Peninsula Challenge tourney in Homer.
The Crimson Bears know their first-round opponent - and know they will have be at the top of their game to advance.
"Every game we play, we have to play like it's our last," Cox said.
"We always encourage them to play their best, no matter who is across the net," Gorman said. "If they play their best, the results will speak for themselves."
If Juneau beats Bartlett, it will play the winner of the West Valley-Colony match at 6 p.m. Friday. If the Crimson Bears lose, they will play the loser of the West Valley-Colony match at 2 p.m. Friday in the consolation bracket.
The other schools in the Class 4A state tourney are Service, Wasilla, Palmer and Dimond.
In Class 3A state competition, Region V powerhouse Petersburg will meet Cordova - last year's state runner-up - at 2 p.m. today, while Southeast runner-up Craig faces Seward at 7:15 p.m. this evening.
The other schools in the Class 3A state tourney are Monroe Catholic, Grace Christian, Nikiski and two-time defending state champion Valdez.
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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