Bruce King has spent 25 years in Alaska as a high school volleyball coach trying to catch ever-elusive state championships.
This September, King will be attempting to catch fish in Mongolia.
“I’m just going to burn some time there, and do a lot of fishing and maybe play some golf,” King said on a recent sunny day at Soldotna High School. “There’s things I’ve put on the back burner and have had to squeeze in during the season.”
King stepped down as the Soldotna High School volleyball coach in February, and he leaves behind a lot of experience and memories, including three state championships at the Class 3A level — all as an assistant coach at Nikiski — in 1994-95, 1998 and 2000.
“Every year you re-evaluate if you have the time and energy to push your team to be successful, and I felt that after 25 years it was time for someone else to take that job,” he said.
As far as his trip to Mongolia, King mentioned that there is a member of the salmonid family — the largest — that is found in northern and western Asia.
“I’m going to go there and chase it around with a fly rod,” he said.
On taking a look back through his coaching career, it’s plain to see King always left a team in better shape than when he arrived.
He learned the game of volleyball in a physical education course in college. At the time, volleyball was a side sport to him. He always waited until basketball season was over before focusing on volleyball.
In 1989, King took a junior varsity coaching position at SoHi, where he stayed for five years at various levels.
They Say Defense Wins Championships
Many coaches, including King himself, describe the teams he staffed as defensive-minded.
“We always stressed defense as a way to win volleyball,” he emphasized. “If you asked SoHi players who was the most important players on the team, you’d get votes for setter and libero. These last two seasons our libero was the MVP of the team.”
Current and longtime Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid has been at the helm of many classic battles between her squads and the SoHi teams led by King. She knows firsthand how tough it was to triumph over King’s squads.
“He would work with his personnel. If he had a defense that could receive really well, it was more or less trying to get his serve over and his defense could take care of rest,” Kupferschmid said. “But it was about personnel. He always had good liberos come in, and you had to beat him defensively to win.
“He always put a competitive team on floor. I respect him as a coach, and as a leader in our community for the sport of volleyball.”
Ex-Nikiski player Stacey Segura (formerly Stacey Griffel) played under King’s tutelage from 2002-03 through the 2005-06 seasons.
“He was the kind of coach that would take your statistics and involve those in practice and would try to improve your serving based on how you did in previous games,” Segura said. “He’s not a very intense coach where he makes you run a lot, he makes sure you get as many touches on the ball as possible.”
Segura is now leading the Bulldogs as head coach, having taken the reins last year, and has integrated a few techniques that King used to use.
“When a server is constantly getting an ace on you, he would call a timeout to kind of freeze the server, and make them think longer about what they need to do,” Segura said. “The more gamelike the situations in practice, the better. It would be small drills, so if we were working on serving, we would also be working on passing. Everyone would be moving, it was a gamelike situation.”
The Student Becomes The Master
After his first stint at Soldotna, King found himself with an opportunity to help coach at Nikiski in 1994. It was there that he would learn the most from one of the best on the Kenai Peninsula.
For the next seven years, King was an assistant coach at Nikiski, under the guidance of Cherrie Hobart-Verkuilen.
“She was a big reason I’ve been successful since I took over the program,” King said. “She was an outstanding coach and she taught me the importance of a program, and how to make a program work and sustain itself.”
King found himself in a highly competitive atmosphere, and a team that found itself battling for the 3A state title in five of those seven years.
“The thing about coaching at Nikiski during that time period was that if you didn’t make it to the state tournament, your season was considered a bad year,” he said. “So, it wasn’t even that big of a deal because we were expected to be there.
“Of course when you move up to 4A, it’s about fighting tooth and nail to get there every year.”
The duo of Hobart-Verkuilen and King produced a force to be reckoned with almost every year, with players such as Hannah Thompson, Lindsy Glaze, Alivia Knowles, Oralee Nudson, and Annie, Laura and Tammy Berdahl.
“We were lucky enough to always have a couple of good athletes and a firm understanding by the rest of the players that we all had a role, and if we played our role we would be successful,” King said. “I was pretty good at teaching mechanics.
“She knew how to set expectations and how to create a program that kids would buy into. I think a lot of young coaches like me thought that if you knew how to play, you would be successful, but there is a lot that goes into running a program.”
King would spend six years as a varsity coach at Nikiski after Hobart-Verkuilen stepped down, before setting his sights on SoHi again in 2007.
“By the time I came back to SoHi, I was pretty well set in how I ran a program,” he said.
The Guy With The Crazy Shorts
Between high school volleyball and the Peninsula Midnight Sun club teams, there are countless players who have had the privilege of competing under the guidance of King.
One of them — Segura — acknowledged that while King was usually serious about his work, the same couldn’t always be said for his appearance.
“One thing I’ll always remember is that he had the craziest shorts on all the time,” Segura said while laughing. “He’ll show up at games, and you know some coaches show up in their team gear, and others are dressed up. Bruce would show up with tennis shoes, socks and crazy Hawaiian shorts.
“I don’t know where he would get them, but we used to make fun of him for that.”
In Segura’s senior year, Nikiski went undefeated, but faced a tough challenge near the end of the season with a matchup against Grace Christian. For her, that game was one of the highlights of her prep career, as she racked up 65 assists en route to a five-game win.
Kupferschmid has faced King’s SoHi squads many times over the years, when Skyview and Soldotna were in the same classification. The games between the Panthers and Stars provided some intense fireworks at times.
“I’m am going to miss those hard-fought rival type of matches that we had,” Kupferschmid said. “I think both of us respected each other, but I still see Bruce involved in whatever he can plug into these days.
“One time SoHi beat us at Skyview, I think it might’ve been one of my better teams that had a 14-1 record,” Kupferschmid said. “They upset us on a Saturday, their kids just emotionally took over the match.
“We worked and worked and worked to stay on the floor with them, and we actually ended up beating them.”
King said there had been so many classic battles throughout the years that there isn’t enough space in a story to recount every one.
“Maybe the one that stands out is in the late ’80s where we lost to Seward in the state title game,” King recalled. “It was a three-hour marathon match where every point was severely contested. It was a heck of a battle.”
Of course, for all the great and successful triumphs King experienced with his teams throughout the years, the 2000 state 3A championship with Nikiski stands out to him as one of the most memorable, for better and for worse.
A Nikiski JV player was planning to come watch the varsity team compete at the state tournament, but was tragically killed in a car accident en route to the venue in Anchorage.
In order to keep the team focused on the job at hand, King — along with Hobart-Verkuilen — held off on informing the girls about the terrible news. The Bulldogs went on to capture the state crown, only to find out what had happened afterward.
“Those kinds of things stay with you more than one particular match,” he said. “We won the title but didn’t tell the girls until after it was over.”
That tournament would be his third and final state crown in coaching.
“Every coach wants to be in a 4A state championship game, and I never did that,” King said. “But I don’t really think about it, because I didn’t really have any long-term goals early in my career.”
He Does It For The Kids
Now just because he will be absent from the high school volleyball scene when the leaves change color, it doesn’t mean he will be forever gone. King still plans on being involved in the volleyball community in club events.
Even though the coach admits that he is the “biggest thief on the planet when it comes to stealing other people’s ideas which will help the program,” he still plans on being around, watching games and injecting his own brand of volleyball knowledge into the community — knowledge which he has amassed over the years.
“When I first started, I was working for Fish and Game, and I was shocked at how much you could change a person’s skill level over the course of a season,” King said. “At my job, sometimes you’d spend a decade working on a question, and you don’t get any closer to finding an answer than when you started, but you could walk into a gym and in three months you could see that you had an influence on the skill level of a kid.
“That’s always been the thing for me.”