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M. Scott Moon
Skyview's Amanda McDowell controls the ball during a game last November. She is one of the Panthers’ seniors this year.

Net gain

Peninsula volleyball teams look for more state berths this year

Posted: August 26, 2011 - 8:00am  |  Updated: August 26, 2011 - 10:42am

In 2010, Seward and Cook Inlet Academy were the lone central Kenai Peninsula schools to reach state in volleyball.

With 2011 set to begin, multiple area programs hope to boost that number.

The Class 4A Northern Lights Conference Southern Division features Skyview, which posted a 17-4 record a year ago before fizzling in the postseason, and Soldotna, which returns nearly its entire team after finishing second in the NLC Southern Division.

"Everything goes through Soldotna and Skyview," Kenai Central coach John Kennedy said. "They have the most experience of the teams I've seen."

Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid wasn't ready to call her squad the favorite, but Soldotna coach Bruce King said the Panthers are the team to beat.

"Skyview is probably still on top until somebody knocks them out of there," King said. "But I think we will be competitive with all the teams."

In the 3A classification, Seward looks for a repeat trip after reaching the state semifinals last season. Counterpart Nikiski figures to be improved, thanks to the return of all but two of its players.

Cook Inlet, coming off its first state berth in school history, returns a solid nucleus to the 1-2A Borealis Conference.

Meanwhile, Nikolaevsk hopes to crack the state bracket after finishing second at the mixed-six Southwest Conference tournament a year ago.

Here is a look at each team from the Peninsula:

Skyview Panthers

The Panthers feature five seniors, but are without a slew of players who keyed the squad to a 17-4 record and top seed to the conference tournament in 2010.

Gone are Jaxon Hill, the player of the year for the NLC Southern Division in 2010, as well as outside hitter Alicia West, setter Rebecca Egan and the 6-foot-4 Thit Bak.

That quartet helped the Panthers roll through the regular season before going a disappointing 1-2 in the playoffs.

"It wasn't that the kids weren't capable," said Kupferschmid, entering her 12th season. "I think the intensity and the pressure of it all got to the kids."

Now, Kupferschmid looks to a new pool of players to keep Skyview atop the division.

Chief among those athletes are middle blockers Amanda McDowell and Marlee Cunningham, libero Mary Hauptman and opposite Britanie Whipple.

Kupferschmid wasn't ready to single out a leader, but the coach is excited about McDowell, who led the Panthers with 13 service points, 10 kills, seven digs and two blocks in a 25-16, 25-15 and 25-18 win over Nikiski in the season opener Tuesday.

"She's a kid who has put in her time and work," the coach said of McDowell. "Early on, she looks really good."

The Panthers must find someone to replace all-conference setter Rebecca Egan, who graduated. Kupferschmid said there are a few players competing for the job, but the vacancy is up for grabs.

Skyview will participate in three tournaments before the conference schedule heats up, events Kupferschmid will use as auditions for possible setters. Also looking to earn playing time are Holly Ransel and Cassie McKenzie.

Newcomers Sam Reynolds and Casey Neill figure to see floor time, as will senior Naomi McMullen, who is back after sitting out the past two seasons.

"It's got to be an individual who is willing to put in the time and the work that it takes to run that offense," Kupferschmid said of the setter.

Soldotna Stars

With a solid nucleus returning, expectations are up for the Stars.

SoHi placed second in the NLC Southern Division in 2010, falling shy of the state tournament with a squad made up of three seniors and a slew of sophomores.

The sophomores are back, as are a handful of juniors, and King believes the squad can take the next step.

"We expect to do well this year," the fifth-year coach said. "We gained a lot of experience last year and we are looking to put that experience into play this year."

SoHi lost Jessie Duke, Rebecca Satathite and Leah Garske to graduation, but the team has plenty of talent to fill those gaps.

Heidi Westerman and Julie Litchfield are back as full-time starters in the middle, as are Sydney Goggia and Kaillee Skjold on the right. Kaycee Munn returns to play on the left side, while Jelly Nolden, Kiana Hendricks and Langi Wong are competing for the other left-side slot. Also figuring to play a key role is Kylee Woodford, who was a second-team all-conference player in 2010.

In addition to finding someone for the second position on the left side, King is using early season games to assess the talent of five newcomers, including Natalie Kress and Emily Schneider.

"A big part of our focus is integrating five new players, making sure they are up to speed so they can make contributions when they are asked to," King said. "We always focus at this point on passing and playing defense. We hope that is the cornerstone of the program."

The Stars host Kodiak at 6 p.m. today and 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

Kenai Central Kardinals

The Kardinals feature 13 players, but only five have varsity experience.

Kennedy, in his second season, expects a sharp learning curve for the Kardinals, who finished 3-14 in 2010.

"When you lose the bulk of your squad, you are going to be rebuilding," Kennedy said. "The bottom line is, it's a long season. We just have to stay the course and keep moving forward."

Chief among the losses are former captains Allie McGahan and Shelby Toombs.

Adding to the roster makeover, however, is the fact returning middle blocker Sierra Glonek is out indefinitely with a knee injury. Kennedy said Glonek is one of the most experienced players.

Glonek's injury means outside hitter Lauren Schams will be looked to for leadership, Kennedy said.

"We're hoping she is going to lead these kids in the right direction," the coach said of Schams.

Also returning for Kenai Central are middle hitter Jodi Cook, and setters Katherine O'Reilly and Sarah Rawsom.

Other than those athletes, there are a bunch of new faces on the court.

"The biggest thing for them is learning to compete against each other and being able to take that into competing against other teams," Kennedy said. "Since we are so young, trying to get them to read what other teams are doing, what other players are doing - all that stuff - we've got to start that in practice."

Briana King, Jenna Calhoun, Gretta Kennedy, Ericka Reynolds and Raquelle Reynolds also will see significant playing time. Rounding out the roster are Justice English and Addison Cheek.

The Kards open the season at the Shayna Pritchard Memorial at 8 a.m. Saturday at Nikiski. The event will provide a benchmark for the squad moving forward.

"My biggest focus with the kids is that we are moving forward and constantly making steps," Kennedy said. "Sometimes they are going to be small steps, and other times they will be big steps. We just need to keep getting better."

Homer Mariners

The Mariners lost five players from the 2010 unit - Liz Needham, Ashley Ketelle, Jessica Buckley, Eri Sugiyama and Melissa Wood.

Among the key returning athletes are Brooke DeVaney, an outside hitter; Lauren Cashman, a setter; and Monica Davis, an outside hitter who also can play in the middle.

Also returning are Carly Snyder and Caroline DeCreeft.

The Mariners will compete in the Shayna Pritchard Memorial at 8 a.m. Saturday at Nikiski.

Nikiski Bulldogs

The Bulldogs spent a losing 2010 season in rebuilding mode. They believe those efforts will translate to victories in 2011.

Nikiski returns all but two of its players from a squad that was made up of four juniors and four sophomores a year ago under Nikiski head coach Amber Oliva-Douglas.

Optimism abounds early in the season.

"They have had a really strong start to the practice season, they are definitely coming into the gym with a renewed sense of energy and spirit," Oliva-Douglas said. "They are just working really hard. We have a unified team focus as far as program expectations."

The only absences from the 2010 squad are Makenzie Moore and Kelsey Williams.

Taylor Calderwood, Bailey Buchholz, Sienna Wallis, Savannah Griffel, Minna Bogard and Kinsey Martin all return, and Oliva-Douglas said they will be improved with a year of experience under their belt. Griffel is the starting setter, while Boggard will play libero and Martin will anchor the team in the middle.

Throw in two newcomers who Oliva-Douglas said will play key roles - Dylan Holloway and Cyndey Spurgeon - and the coach believes the Bulldogs have the tools to be competitive in the Class 3A Southcentral Conference.

Also joining the team are newcomers Rachel Thompson, a freshman, and Paris Davis and Rebekah Krogseng.

"Our region is always competitive, but I think we have just as good a shot as anybody else," Olivia-Douglas said. "We have a more experienced squad than we had last year, and they have a stronger sense of identity on the floor."

Nikiski hosts the Shayna Pritchard Memorial beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday. Kenai Central and Homer also will compete.

Seward Seahawks

The Seahawks were one of two central Kenai Peninsula teams to reach state in 2010, joining Cook Inlet Academy.

Seward won the Southcentral Conference and went on to advance to the semifinals of the 3A state tournament.

Cook Inlet Academy Eagles

The Eagles made history in 2010, qualifying for state for the first time since the program came into existence in 2000.

Although the team lost three seniors, Cook Inlet figures to be strong once again.

Seniors Kelsie Leaf, Chemaine Yarns, Kati Dutcher and Angie Utchman lead the way, while juniors Cara Davidson, Ariana Tieaskie and Darlene Bunts also will receive significant playing time.

Coach Lindsay Keener returns along with Janel Franchino.

Ninilchik Wolverines

The Wolverines will compete in the Borealis Conference alongside Cook Inlet. Ninilchik didn't qualify for state in 2010.

Nikolaevsk Warriors

The Warriors, who missed state by one game a year ago, will compete in the Southwest Conference in the mixed-six classification.

Coach Bea Klaich said a trio of boys will lead the 10-player squad - Blake Klaich, Eric Mametieff and Anthony Yakunin.

Mametieff is a second-year player with good leaping ability, Bea Klaich said, while Blake Klaich will shift from the back line into a hitter position up front. Yakunin will anchor the Warriors in the back.

Nianiella Dorvall, who is 6-foot-1, will play setter. Bea Klaich said Dorvall is a versatile player whose height will help the Warriors.

"She can do a little bit of blocking up front, which will be really nice," the coach said.

Bea Klaich expects Nikolaevsk to compete with Glacier View for the Southwest Conference's lone berth to state.

"They are the main competition," she said.

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