ANCHORAGE - Even though it was a rematch of last year's final, Thursday's Class 4A state tournament opener between the Juneau-Douglas High School Crimson Bears and the Bartlett Golden Bears had a decidedly different appearance.
But it had the same result, as the new-look Crimson Bears beat Bartlett in five games as Juneau opened its state title defense.
While Juneau had nine of their 11 players making their state tournament debuts - and one player making her varsity debut - the Crimson Bears overcame a mid-match letdown to beat Bartlett 25-19, 25-23, 17-25, 19-25, 15-7 in the state-tournament opener Thursday at West Anchorage High School.
"That first game was the most important," sophomore setter Torie Powers said.
"We came through, we pulled together," added senior middle blocker Heather Dillon, a first-year volleyball player.
With so many new players - including six sophomores and one freshman - the Crimson Bears were worried about first-match jitters, especially since the team's travel plans went awry. The Juneau players were supposed to arrive in Anchorage on Wednesday afternoon. But a mechanical problem scrubbed their first flight and their second flight was delayed, so it was close to midnight before they got settled at their hotel.
"Honestly, I knew we were going to win when I saw the girls this morning," said senior outside hitter Julie Heard, one of Juneau's two returners from last year's state championship team. "But I was worried. I'm a sleeper, and the whole team likes to sleep. ... It was a pretty long day. (But) I think Bartlett was one of the better matchups for us."
"I think it was better to play Bartlett, because they'd beaten us so many times," said sophomore setter Hannah Barril, one of the nine new players. "We wanted them."
After Juneau beat Bartlett in last year's state championship match, the two teams ran into each other four times during this fall's regular season.
Bartlett beat Juneau the first three times, but the Crimson Bears rallied to win a five-game match against the Golden Bears to claim third place in October's Service-Dimond Invitational.
"I think Bartlett is one of the better teams in the state," Heard said. "They'd seen us before and they knew what we were doing. They were definitely a respectable opponent."
"I was excited to play them, because we beat them a couple of times," Bartlett senior Meghan Hunsaker said.
In the first two games, Juneau came out and took control after Bartlett held brief early leads. But in the third game, the Crimson Bears struggled and six times fell behind by 11 points, including 24-13 before a late rally fell short. The teams swapped points in the fourth game until Bartlett broke a 17-17 tie and closed out the game with an 8-0 run.
That forced a fifth game for the third straight time between the two teams. Senior outside hitter Karla Dunivin, who is the other returner besides Heard, served Juneau out to a 3-0 lead. Then, with Juneau leading 5-4, Barril served the Crimson Bears to an 8-4 advantage. After Bartlett closed the gap to 9-7, Juneau's Heard took over and notched kills on three of the next six points as the Crimson Bears closed out the match with a 6-0 run that ended on a Heard kill.
"That shows a lot of heart," Heard said for the fifth-game regroup.
"That was intense," Dunivin said. "It was very heart-stopping, but that was fun. That was amazing the way the girls regrouped. That's such a huge weight lifted off our shoulders. We were just trying to get back into it and keep our heads up."
The Crimson Bears were able to work all 11 players on their roster into the match, including freshman outside hitter Sarah Christianson, who made her varsity debut. Christianson, who played in every game, was a late varsity call-up when sophomore middle blocker Jillian Hahnlen couldn't make the state tournament due to illness.
"It feels really good to win," Christianson said. "It was my first game on varsity and it was pretty nerve-wracking."
"It's tradition," sophomore middle blocker Lesley Kalbrener said of the five-game match with Bartlett. "We're all on a high right now. We just started clearing our heads. We knew what we had to do. We knew how they played. We definitely came out with some punch."
Heard led Juneau with 16 kills and earned player-of-the-match honors for the Crimson Bears, while Dunivin added 14 kills and five ace serves. Kalbrener added eight kills and one solo block, while Powers served four aces and Dillon added four kills and a solo block.
Nikki Moss led Bartlett with 11 kills and earned player-of-the-match honors for the Golden Bears, while Amanda Foe added nine kills. Hunsaker had eight kills and nine solo blocks, and Vanessa Campbell added five kills and five solo blocks for the Golden Bears.
"We just made a couple of errors," Hunsaker said of the fifth-game. "It's so hard to go to 15 when you've been playing to 25 points the rest of the match. Those first two games we just weren't warmed up."
Juneau will play the Colony Knights at 6 p.m. in today's semifinals. Colony, which beat Juneau in five games in the championship match of the Juneau Invitational Volleyball Extravaganza, also went five games in its opening-round state tournament victory, beating West Valley 25-23, 25-21, 21-25, 20-25, 15-13.
In Thursday's other first-round matches, Service swept Wasilla 25-21, 25-12, 25-14 and Dimond played Palmer 25-23, 25-17, 25-18. Today's Service-Dimond semifinal match takes place at 8 p.m.
The winners of today's semifinals will play at 8 p.m. Saturday for the Class 4A state championship, while the losers will play at 2:15 p.m. in Saturday's third-fifth place match.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.