OK, so the Juneau-Douglas High School Crimson Bears didn't exactly claw through a long, fierce regional tournament to RSVP for the 2008 4A Volleyball State Championships. Their invitation is as real as anybody's, though, and they think their chances are, too.
The Juneau-Douglas squad did maintain a perfect 6-0 record against Ketchikan, their only rival in the Southeast Conference after Sitka dropped to 3A this season, and topping any 4A team six times in a row is no easy task. The rest of the Crimson Bears' season, though, was much less one-sided.
An early trip to Anchorage appeared to put the team on the watch list as a surprise state contender. They took some of the larger conferences' powerhouses down to the wire and, at the very least, showed that a good day would turn the score Juneau's way.
From there, things took a twist. First, there were those repetitive, close losses to 3A Mount Edgecumbe. Then, there were those troubling early exits and pool-play flops during the mid-season tournaments. Just a few weeks ago the JDHS coaches could only shake their heads and guess why the team's efforts appeared to be so inconsistent.
Good news greets Juneau-Douglas fans today, though, as the sun rises on the state tourney. Yesterday's demons - inexperience and a limited offense - appear to have been exorcised from the squad that will hit Anchorage for an opening-round matchup against Skyview at 2 p.m. in West Anchorage's Main Gym.
The Crimson Bears returned just a handful of players with varsity experience when this season began, and the early offensive philosophy could best be described as "get it to the seniors." Fourth-year middle hitters Kristie Ely and Rachel Peyton are still the heart of the team's attack, but some shufflings at last week's Region V Championships have ensured that they are not the only source of points.
Senior outside hitter Wendy Calderwood just plain needed some time to catch up with the varsity game this season, and her coaches have praised her in past weeks for capitalizing on her increasing opportunities. Improved mechanics have played a role in her increased efficiency, as has the emotional boost from her fellow seniors as they round the corner towards the end of their careers, according to the coaches.
The squad's other outside spot found a new stalwart amid last weekend's changes. Their usual primary setter, junior Krista Barril, found a nitch on the receiving end of her teammates passes. Her new-found aggression on offense and defense made such impression on her coaches and teammates, that the change may be permanent.
"It's not that Nia's a better setter or Krista's a better setter. Volleyball is too much of a team sport to worry about that," assistant coach Dale Bontrager said. "It's never about one person - it's about team chemistry. (The changes) just work for this team."
With Barril outside, junior Nia Maake was left as the team's only setter, and proved to be more than up to the task as the squad's offense went around, over and through Ketchikan's blockers.
Hoping the rejuvenated offense is more than a weekend phenomenon, Juneau-Douglas plans to keep the "5-1" look this weekend, with Maake in the middle.
"It worked out so well, I think we have to see where it takes us," Bontrager said. "We can stick with it if we're winning, but we have a year of practice with two setters if it we don't."
Getting past the Panthers (5-5 Northern Lights Conference) will put the Bears' new offense to a tough test. Skyview won three of their four matches at their regional tournament last weekend to secure the third and final state birth from their eight-team playoff.
They work off senior hitter and the NLC's Southern Division MVP Missy Massey up front on both offense and defense. She and fellow senior hitters Brittany Meyer and Maddy Abbott give junior setter Casee Penrod plenty of options in an aggressive, power-based attack.
Fourth-year defensive specialist Jessie Bilderback leads the Panthers' efforts from the back row, with junior Jaci Lamborn and sophomore Jaxon Hill filling out the starting lineup.
Skyview split with the Bears in the teams' only contest this season, a two-set match in pool play at the West Spiketacular on Sept. 26. Both sets came down to the wire, as Skyview took the first 18-20 and JDHS topped the second 22-20.
"I look at it as us not playing like we can and still coming away with a split," Ely said. "I prefer to expect perfection, but I think we can win if we just play like we know we can for the whole match."
Ely and Peyton bring the majority of Juneau-Douglas' state-tournament experience from the school's sixth-place showing last season. The pair doesn't expect their younger teammates to back down against bigger competition this weekend, though.
"That's what the early tournaments are for when we go up to Anchorage - we're all experienced right now," Peyton said. "As a senior, I just tell (the younger players) to go as hard as they can. It's just more fun that way. It's a successful tournament if we leave it all on the court."
Bontrager said the team has not set goals for placing in this year's tournament, but added that he thinks the team is set to peak over the weekend.
"I don't know if we're contenders for a state title, and we're certainly dark horses if we are," he said. "I'm just looking for excellent volleyball to end this season and a few of these girls' time on the team."
In all, six seniors will play their final games this weekend, win or lose. Ely, Peyton and Calderwood are joined by Briana Donahue, Kyra Jones and Li'i Levale.
"I think we're all a little sad that the season's almost over," Peyton said. "But we've got the momentum right now, and we're just excited to start playing."
Contact Sports editor Trent Makela at 523-2228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.