Conference shakeup hits area volleyball teams

Soldotna’s Heidi Westerman gets under the ball during a game last year. She will be one of the Stars’ returning players this season.

Usually, transition in volleyball describes the process of going from defense to offense.
This season, transition also describes the conference alignments for the six Kenai Peninsula schools in Class 3A and 4A.
Skyview and Homer moved down a size classification from Class 4A to Class 3A, necessitating a change in the conferences.
The Class 4A Northern Lights Conference lives on, but without Skyview and Homer.
The league now includes Peninsula schools Kenai Central and Soldotna, as well as Kodiak, Colony, Palmer and Wasilla.
In the regular season, each squad faces each league opponent twice. The league retains three berths to state.
Skyview and Homer move to the Class 3A Southcentral Conference, joining Peninsula schools Nikiski and Seward in the Southern Division. The Northern Division is made up of Anchorage Christian Schools, Cordova, Grace Christian and Houston.
Each squad plays division foes twice, and nondivision foes once. This league also gets three berths to state.
Kenai and Soldotna are the smallest schools in the NLC. According to the Alaska School Activities Association, Kenai is at 542, SoHi is at 521, Kodiak is at 758, Palmer is at 806, Colony is at 1,187 and Wasilla is at 1,287.
“I think when there is a large school the talent pool is bigger, and that doesn’t mean the talent is there every once in a while,” Soldotna coach Bruce King said. “Small-schools groups can’t be consistently as competitive as the girls from big schools.”
King said the fortunate thing is that his team this year is loaded with talent, with four returning starters who will all be entering their third year as starters.
“I think in the long term it may make it a little tougher for the two smaller schools to get to state, but not necessarily this year,” King said. “I think we have a strong team this year.”
Kenai coach Tracie Beck, who takes over for John Kennedy, will not have that luxury of experience. She has just one full-time starter returning.
“We’ve got a pretty young squad,” Beck said. “To go up against the big guns is going to be pretty nerve-racking, for sure.”
In past years, Kenai would have gotten to face SoHi, Skyview and Homer twice, while playing against the big northern schools just once. The Kards have no such cushion this year.
“It does make it a little tougher,” King said. “The northern schools are the traditional powerhouses, and we play them all twice.”
Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid and Homer coach Beth Trowbridge are happy with their move to the Southcentral Conference, and first-year coaches Stacey Segura, of Nikiski, and Carri Fisher, of Seward, are happy to welcome them aboard.
“We’ve been asking to go to 3A for three or four years now,” Trowbridge said. “It’s nice that it’s finally happening.
“We’re really happy to have a chance to compete against schools that are much more comparable to us.”
According to ASAA, Homer is the biggest Class 3A school at 429 students.
“It used to be that if we put a top-notch group of athletes together, and everything aligned right, we might have a chance to get third place (in the conference),” Trowbridge said. “Now we can have a good team, working hard, with some athletes mixed in and have just as good of a chance as anybody else.”
Skyview checks in at 375, but Kupferschmid also still has the taste in her mouth of a runner-up finish at Class 4A state tournament in 2001.
“I’m sure the 3A schools will give us plenty of competition,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for the girls to excel.
“But there’s also the thought that it’s disappointing, because you want to play the best.”
The coach said she is consoled by the fact that Skyview can still play the best if it plays its way into the best pools at the big tournaments. The Panthers also keep a nonconference match against fierce rival Soldotna.
Segura is happy with what the change does for competition in the area. No longer is Nikiski’s closest conference rival in Seward.
“It’s an exciting change,” she said. “It gives us more people to play, more competition, and more teams to look at.”
An example of how good the competition will be came at the preseason jamboree in Homer, where Seward, Homer and Nikiski all finished with the same record in pool play.
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula’s six squads:
Homer Mariners
Trowbridge has 10 seniors, three of which are returning starters from a team which finished third in the Southern Division last year.
Haley Oliver, a 6-feet tall, plays mostly on the right side and can hit and block. Caroline DeCreeft has spent the last two years playing libero, but will set this year. Senior Kayla Hutt will switch from the outside to middle blocker.
“One key for us is I can’t think of any one person that stands out as a go-to player,” Trowbridge said. “These girls have been playing together a long time. They’re a close-knit group and they’re working together well.”
Kenai Central Kardinals
Beck returns one starter from a team that finished last in the Southern Division last season.
Junior Justice English played setter for the entire season. Beck said that experience at setting is vital.
Senior Cassie Ross made her way onto varsity at the end of last season as a libero, while senior Ericka Reynolds saw time in the varsity back row.
Senior Sarah Rawson gives the Kards versatility with her hitting and setting abilities. Seniors Addison Cheek and Jenna Calhoun also add experience to the team.
“If we don’t have goals set for each tournament, it will be pretty easy to get beat up playing against the big schools,” Beck said. “As long as we improve and play our best ball by the end of the season, that’s what every coach dreams of.”
Nikiski Bulldogs
Segura, then Stacey Griffel, starred for the Bulldogs as a setter, graduating in 2006. She coached the C team for two years, then the JV/C team last year.
“I was a little nervous at first, but I’ve surprised myself,” she said. “It takes a lot of organizing, fundraising and getting the parents and girls organized and ready to go for the season.”
Segura has four returning starters to ease her transition to varsity coaching. Senior Taylor Calderwood is an outside hitter, and seniors Bailey Buchholz and Sienna Wallis are middle hitters.
Sophomore Rachel Thompson was an outside hitter last year, but will set this year.
“I could probably put her anywhere,” Segura said. “I want to use her athletic ability and know-how. She’s smart with the ball and knows how to read defenses.”
The final two starters will be juniors Rebekah Krogseng and Jodi Cook at outside hitter.
Senior Lacy Elsey will back up Thompson at setter.
Segura said that the Bulldogs need to work on defense, but are already pounding the ball on offense.
“My goal is to be a threat every time we send the ball to the other side of the court,” she said. “I don’t want to give the other team anything they can use. I’m trying to drill that into the girls this year.”
Seward Seahawks
Fisher takes over for longtime coach Angela Hammer, who retired after leading Seward to a fourth-place finish at the Class 3A state tournament last season.
Fisher, a 2001 graduate of Seward who played at one time for Hammer, served an apprenticeship of sorts last season when she worked with the team on a daily basis and traveled to the conference and state tournaments.
“She is a great resource and I learned a lot from her,” Fisher said of Hammer. “I also got to know all the girls.”
The Seahawks return three starters from last year — senior middle blocker Tessa Adelmann, senior outside hitter Gretchen Lindquist and junior setter Ashley VonBorstel.
Those moving into the starting lineup will be senior Brianna Honebein, junior Ashley Whiteshield and sophomore Kiana Clemens. Sophomore Maria Jackson will be the libero.
“We have great hitting on this team — a great offense,” Fisher said. “Our weakness is passing and defense, but that’s something we can work on throughout the season.”
Skyview Panthers
Kupferschmid, now in her 13th year, used a senior-heavy team to win the Southern Division regular-season title last year.
As usual, though, she has done a good job restocking the program despite working at a school under 400.
“I always seem to get good kids at Skyview,” Kupferschmid said. “To me, they’re hard workers and they’re kids that are doing everything I ask them to do.”
The coach will get varsity experience from senior Holly Ramsell at outside hitter, senior Marlee Cunningham at middle blocker, junior Sam Reynolds at middle blocker, and junior Cheyanne Laber at opposite hitter.
Kupferschmid said junior Casey Neill will be the libero, and senior Cassie McKenzie, junior Cat Schoessler and junior Megan Powers will provide some hitting.
Junior Torrie Sipes will be the defensive specialist, while sophomore Hayley Ramsell will make her varsity debut as a setter.
“An area we need to develop is our block,” Kupferschmid said. “We have some big kids.
“I think we’ll take our lumps early, but it’s a team that if I put all the right pieces in place and they work hard, they should be strong toward the end of the season.”
Soldotna Stars
King led his team to a second-place finish in the Southern Division last season. The Stars then made a run to the third-place game in the NLC tournament before losing.
SoHi lost two starters from that team, including an all-conference libero, but returns plenty of experience.
Senior Heidi Westerman made second-team all-conference as a setter and is in her third year as a starter. Junior Julie Litchfield is a setter and also has started for three years.
Having two seasoned starters allows King to run a 6-2 alignment. That means the setter is always coming out of the back row, meaning the setter always has three hitters in the front row to set. In a 5-1, the single setter has only two options when she is in the front row.
“Heidi and Julie are both very complete players,” King said.
Senior Kaillee Skjold was an all-conference middle hitter last season and enters her third season as a varsity starter. Senior Kaycee Munn is a left-side hitter also starting for her third straight year.
Junior Katelynn Kerkvliet, at 6-feet tall, will be the other middle hitter.
Senior Natalie Kress will be the libero, while seniors Emily Schneider and Jelly Nolden, juniors Kiana Hendricks and Mikayla Wong, and sophomore Taryn McCubbins give the team depth.
King said this team has tons of senior experience, which is pivotal when it comes to the pressure-packed games of conference tournaments.
“Our success to a large degree will depend on how well we pass, just like everyone else,” King said. “We do have lots of weapons. If we get the ball to the setter, she’ll have lots of options.”


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