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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011

Crimson Bears sport new look

FOR THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Juneau-Douglas' Taylor Vidic bumps the ball to a teammate during Crimson Bears volleyball practice Tuesday at JDHS.

After losing 12 seniors to graduation and only returning one varsity member from last season’s team, Juneau-Douglas looks to a completely different group of players to step up and compete at the high level the Crimson Bears are known for in Southeast.

“It’s going to be about playing with heart and desire,” coach Sandi Wagner said. “We’re not as athletic, but these kids are working hard and I like what I see so far.”

Gone is the front row fire power of Sarah Tarver, Taylor Larson and Daffodil Alinson, the athleticism of defensive specialist Kalea Chapman and the sure-handed setting and serving of Megan Hart.

But JDHS has done this before.

This isn’t the first time the Crimson Bears have had to rebuild after losing a large crop of talented seniors, and they are prepared to play with “the hand their dealt,” said longtime assistant coach Pat Gorman.

“Because they’ve been running it for so long, I think they have it down to a science,” senior middle hitter Taylor Vidic said. “Every now and then you’ll get classes that have a lot of great athletes and so once they’re gone, it gives room for people who aren’t necessarily as naturally talented to grow and have their spot in the limelight.”

This year’s squad lacks the experience, athleticism and depth of last year’s team, which finished fourth in the state tournament, but its coaches and leaders say it has the desire, work ethic and dedication to make up for any holes.

“I think a lot of people don’t know what to expect from us, just because we lost almost all of our varsity,” Vidic said. “But I’m hoping we’re going to surprise people. We’re definitely improving at a pretty quick rate and that’s really all you can ask for.”

Senior outside hitter and lone returnee Krista Bontrager said it’s a close-knit group that’s unique in its own way.

“I don’t see it as replacing; I see it as building our own identity and starting over with each other,” she said. “It definitely opens up a lot of new opportunities, and we’re all sort of on the same playing field. We’re all open with each other and I see us coming together as a team.”

Joining Bontrager on the outside is junior Chelsea
Peterson. The two outside hitter spots are the only positions not up for grabs at this early juncture.

Vidic, fellow senior Nicole George and junior Carly Gunnerson all are vying for the middle blocker spot up front.

“They each have their strengths and they each have their weaknesses,” Wagner said.

Seniors Solana Ashe and Jean Cumlat, and junior Sally Paul figure to share time as back row specialists, and junior Rachel Doogan and sophomore Gracie Meiners will vie for setting duties.

Swing players Kayla Balovich and Malin Murray figure to see time at both the JV and varsity levels. Balovich, a sophomore middle and outside hitter, and Murray, a junior setter, will likely start the season on JV, but are expected to suit up for the varsity as the season progresses.

Wagner said the team has improved at a remarkable rate since the start of practice, and it’s going to have to keep working hard in order to be successful.

“We’ve seen a lot of improvement since the first day and they are doing things well on a regular basis,” she said. “I think the key right now is to try and get it all together and find consistency.

“We see them make great defensive plays, we see them make great offensive plays, we see them serve, but it’s consistency and doing it all at the same time that’s important.”

Wagner said she’s still undecided as to what type of offense the Crimson Bears will run most this season, and she expects it will change to fit the team’s strengths.

“One day we may run a 5-1, the next day we may run a 6-2, the next day we may run a 4-2 International,” she said. “I’ve never been one to make it standard what I do. I run our offense and defense by what we do best. It’s going to be changing depending on what the kids are working on, where their strengths are and what they’ve improved on the most.

“We’re asking most of these guys to make big changes to what they have been doing because at a lower level, they can get away with doing it sloppily,” she continued. “It’s frustrating at times because usually when you’re making a big change, you get worse before you get better. But they will get there.”

Cumlat said she expects the team to come together for a run at an 18th straight conference championship.

“I think we’ll be pretty good,” she said. “I know we have the team chemistry, and the majority of us played together in Phoenix. I think we got the gist of it.”

“I think everyone’s really dedicated,” Vidic added. “For most of the people on this team, this is their main sport. Before, volleyball was basketball and softball players’ offseason sport. For a lot of us, this is where we want to excel the most so we have a lot of heart and desire.”

JDHS looks to its five seniors this season and all but Bontrager lack varsity experience, but they’re taking the role change in stride.

“With my past experience,” Bontrager said, “I’ll be expected to step up and be a leader, and it’s basically just leading by example.”

Vidic said the jump from JV to varsity leader has been an easy adjustment.

“I’m a senior and I feel like a leader,” she said, “but I don’t feel like I’m being pushed into something too fast because we’re all friends and we’re all really committed. So it hasn’t been too overwhelming.”

The Bears kick off the 2011 season at 8 p.m. Friday at Thunder Mountain. The return match is at 7 p.m. Saturday at JDHS.