ANCHORAGE - The Juneau-Douglas High School volleyball team moved one step closer to its goal of the school's first state championship Friday as the Crimson Bears swept the Palmer Moose, 15-9, 15-13, 15-13, to advance to Saturday night's title match at West Anchorage High School.
"Two down, one to go," Juneau senior middle blocker Amy Neussl said of Friday's victory, which was Juneau's second sweep of the state tournament. Juneau swept Chugiak in Thursday's opening-round match.
The undefeated Crimson Bears can accomplish their ultimate goal by beating the Bartlett Golden Bears in the championship match Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The Golden Bears reached the title match by rallying for a five-game victory over the Homer Mariners, 13-15, 9-15, 15-3, 15-9, 17-15, in a marathon semifinal Friday afternoon that lasted nearly three hours.
Juneau improved to 19-0 overall in best three-out-of-five-game matches with the victory, and the Crimson Bears are now 97-5 in all games (including round-robin pool-play mini-matches from regular-season tournaments).
Palmer fell to 18-4 overall with the loss, which some players said they felt was the final. Juneau hadn't played the Moose all season, with their last match-up coming when Juneau beat Palmer in the first round of last year's state tournament. Even though Juneau won in a three-game sweep, the match was closer in some ways than Juneau's only five-game match of the season (a victory over Service where some games were dominated). This match took nearly two hours to complete, and Palmer took Juneau to the limit in all three games.
"That was a good match. It was awesome," Juneau junior outside hitter Julie 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," Juneau senior outside hitter Kelly 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," Juneau senior setter Callan 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 Megan Treston both had two solo blocks, while Nikki 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.
"We'd play good for awhile, but then we'd let down," Sakis said. "We were ready to play them. It took us awhile to adjust to their defense. If we were to play again I'm confident we could beat them. It feels like it was the championship game."
Several players from each team said they felt this match was a better pairing than Saturday's championship, especially since Juneau dominated Bartlett when the two teams played earlier this season.
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. Plus 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.
"We knew this was our hardest game," said Juneau senior setter-outside hitter Alessia Bonanno, an exchange student from Rome, Italy, who was getting to play in front of her father (who made the trip from home). "Psychologically we were prepared. I think today was our hardest time."
Now that they're past the semifinals, the Crimson Bears can finally concentrate on fulfilling their main goal from the start of the season. For whichever team wins Saturday's title match, the victory will result in that team's first Class 4A state championship in school history.
"So far we've met all our goals," Baxter said.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.