ANCHORAGE - The dream came true for the Juneau-Douglas High School volleyball team Saturday night at West Anchorage High School.
The Crimson Bears claimed the first Class 4A state championship in school history and completed an undefeated season as they beat the Bartlett Golden Bears, 15-7, 15-9, 12-15, 15-10, in Saturday's title match. Bartlett was also bidding for its first state championship.
"The undefeated part was definitely a plus," Juneau senior middle blocker Amy Neussl said as the team celebrated its victory late Saturday night. "Our goal was to win state. This was our first-ever . We're in the book."
"I don't think we expected it to go like this," Juneau senior setter Callan Janowiec added. "This was absolutely the perfect season."
The victory gave Juneau a perfect 20-0 record in best three-out-of-five-game matches, and the Crimson Bears improved to 100-6 in all games (including round-robin pool-play mini-matches from tournaments). Bartlett fell to 13-8 overall.
Juneau placed three players on the all-tournament team - senior outside hitter Kelly Baxter, Janowiec and Neussl. Making the all-tourney team from Bartlett were Nikki Moss, Letricia Castillo and Erika Williams. Also making the all-tourney team were Chugiak's Kerry Kucko, Service's Heather Lyons, Homer's Chelsea Ward, Skyview's Jenny Carpenter, Palmer's Emily Sakis and Palmer's Jessie Macknicki.
The Crimson Bears also won the tournament's academic award, with a 3.80 team GPA in the last semester. The Homer Mariners won the team sportsmanship award. Seniors Ryia Waldern and Nikki Bennett were Juneau's two representatives on the Good-Sport Team, which honored two players from each of the eight teams at state.
This season fell together well for the Crimson Bears, who only had four returners from last year's third-place state team. But the four returners - Baxter, Neussl, Janowiec and junior outside hitter Julie Heard - were all starters with state tournament experience from multiple sports (Neussl in basketball, Janowiec in soccer and Heard in softball). They formed the core of Juneau's team, with the other players quickly finding their roles within program.
"We don't have one dominant kid, like with some programs," Juneau co-coach Sandi Wagner said. "We have four good kids and the whole team filled in and knew what their roles were. This has been an amazing group of kids."
With four dominant players, opposing teams couldn't focus their defense on one player. If they concentrated on one spot, there was another Crimson Bear ready to fill in the gaps.
"We're an all-around good team," said Baxter, who led Juneau with 24 kills, nine digs and five aces on Saturday. "We had great defense, great setters, great blocking and great hitting."
Heard was a perfect 24-for-24 serving with four aces, 11 kills and 16 digs, while Neussl added 15 kills, Janowiec had eight digs and set up most of Juneau's offense, senior defensive specialist Nikki Bennett served two aces and sophomore middle blocker Megan Treston added four kills.
"It's been a fun senior year," Juneau senior defensive specialist Mary Wilcock said.
Castillo led Bartlett with 14 kills and two aces, while Moss added nine kills, 12 digs and two aces. Meghan Hunsaker had seven kills and two blocks, Krista Sowers made 14 digs and Erika Williams added 12 digs for the Golden Bears.
Juneau jumped out to a 9-0 lead in the first game, but Bartlett rallied to make it 9-5 before Juneau went on another run to close out the game. The Crimson Bears led 10-3 and 11-5 in the second game, but Bartlett closed to within 12-9.
In the third game, Juneau held 10-5 and 12-8 leads, but couldn't close it out as Bartlett rallied to hand Juneau its first lost game in a month. Bartlett then jumped out to leads of 7-0 and 9-3 before the Crimson Bears righted themselves and closed out the match.
"They gave us very good competition," Baxter said. "It got stressful toward the end."
"We knew we still had it," Treston said. "We played really great, I just wish we'd played better in the third game."
In Friday night's semifinal, the Crimson Bears advanced to the championship match with a 15-9, 15-13, 15-13 three-game sweep over the Palmer Moose in a match that was closer than the score indicated. Even though it was a sweep, the match still took nearly two hours to play, twice the time that Juneau's 15-3, 15-4, 15-4 sweep over the Chugiak Mustangs took in Thursday's opening round.
Bartlett's semifinal match took even longer, as the Golden Bears had to rally to beat the Homer Mariners, 13-15, 9-15, 15-3, 15-9, 17-15, in a five-game match that lasted nearly three hours. The match was so taxing that 20 minutes after it was over a wheelchair was rolled into the Bartlett locker room for Moss, who suffered from severe abdominal cramps caused by dehydration. Moss ended up going to the emergency room, but Moss played Saturday.
The Crimson Bears dominated the Golden Bears the first two times the teams saw each other this season, and there were some thoughts that Juneau might do it again.
Juneau swept Bartlett, 15-5, 15-8, 15-7, in a September non-conference match at Bartlett that didn't last much more than an hour. The Crimson Bears swept a two-game mini-match from the Golden Bears during Gold Bracket pool-play en route to winning the 23-team Service-Dimond Invitational Volleyball Tournament in October, winning the first game 15-0, then rallying from an early deficit to win the second game 15-8.
"We know what we're up against," Larson said before the match. "We can't afford to make any mistakes. We can't play like we played yesterday (against Homer) and expect to win, but if we play like we did on Thursday (a four-game victory over Skyview) we can be competitive. We have to play perfect volleyball."
Crimson Bears 3, Moose 0
In Friday's semifinal victory over Palmer, Juneau jumped out to early leads in each of the three games only to have the Moose climb back into the match.
"That was a good match, it was awesome," Heard said. "I'm happy we got pushed."
Juneau jumped out to leads of 8-2 and 10-4 in the first game, but Palmer closed the margin to 11-8 before the Crimson Bears closed out the game.
The next two games were much tougher for Juneau, especially in the latter parts.
Juneau led 12-5 in the second game, only to lose its synchronization and passing game as Palmer rallied for a 13-12 lead. The Crimson Bears finally completed a couple of passes to halt Palmer's rally, then went on to take the game.
In the third game, Juneau led 13-7 but Palmer was able to halt Juneau's momentum while slowly picking at Juneau's lead. Palmer took 1 1/2 complete rotations to do it - nine different Palmer servers took the line during the rally - but the Moose rallied to tie the game at 13-13 before Juneau closed it out.
"They were ready to play," Baxter said. "That was one of our biggest challenges. They had very tough servers and they were hard in the back row (hard for Juneau to score points when Palmer's main attackers were in the back row)."
"That was our first tough game," Janowiec said. "That was our first real challenge."
Baxter led Juneau with 16 kills, two ace serves and 11 digs. Heard had 13 kills, two aces and 13 digs for the Crimson Bears, while Neussl added 12 kills, two solo blocks and 11 digs. Janowiec and Treston both had two solo blocks, while Bennett served two aces for Juneau.
Jessie Macknicki led Palmer with 15 kills and 17 digs, her top performance of the season according to Palmer coach Steve Reynolds. Emily Sakis added 16 kills, four ace serves, 18 digs and seven blocks, while Cate Jelle had six kills and four blocks for the Moose, Jayme Irvine passed off for 20 assists, Bree Johnson added 18 assists and Megan Tompkins made 11 digs.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.