This is the last season for Skyview volleyball. The Panthers intend to make it a good one.
“Our practice shirt theme is, ‘The Final Season,’” said Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid, entering her 14th season at the helm. “It’s something they can look at every day to set themselves up to give their best.”
Skyview will be closing after the 2013-14 school year, meaning one of the most respected small-schools programs in the state will be no more.
Last season, the Panthers made a splash in their first season of small-schools play, winning the Southcentral Conference tournament and finishing fourth at the Class 3A state tournament.
Even before going small-schools, Skyview was a threat for the state title, finishing second in the Class 4A state tournament in 2001.
“The kids want to do something to represent Skyview at its best,” Kupferschmid said. “On and off the floor, the kids really want to demonstrate sportsmanship, as well as hard work and talent.
“These kids are a good group. They have good team chemistry.”
Kupferschmid is the first to point out that graduates Marlee Cunningham and Holly Ramsell will be missed as the Panthers try to follow up on their first state tournament berth since 2008.
But Skyview comes back with loads of experience off that team.
Four seniors return in middle blocker Cheyanne Laber, outside hitter Cat Schoessler, libero Casey Neill and outside hitter Sam Reynolds. Reynolds is in her third year as a varsity starter.
Junior Hayley Ramsell also returns. She grew 3 inches since last season, so Kupferschmid has moved her from setter to opposite and second setter. Junior Emily DiPaolo will step into the setter’s role.
“It’s best for the team chemistry to make this move,” said Kupferschmid, whose team won the jamboree in Homer this past weekend. “Hayley Ramsell will definitely be a threat, and she’s a very good defender over there. It’s a very defensive position.”
Adding depth to the team will be junior defensive specialist Taylor Wilson, junior defensive specialist Heather Tolliver, sophomore defensive specialist Sabrina Hines and sophomore outside hitter Megan Ussing.
“It seems like I always have good attackers,” Kupferschmid said. “If our defense can pass the ball, we should be competitive.
“Especially on receive, we’re all new on receive. That’s always a challenge, and it takes time, but I’m excited about our kids.”
In the listing of schools in the Alaska School Activities Association 2013-14 handbook, Soldotna is the smallest Class 4A school with 505 students.
The challenge for smaller schools is weathering the cycle of athletes that is not as pronounced at bigger schools.
Last season, the Stars won the Northern Lights Conference and tied for fifth at the Class 4A state tournament, but then lost five seniors. Coach Bruce King also retired.
But new coach Emily Kenagy said her team has talent aplenty to fill the graduates’ shoes.
“From what I’ve seen so far, I think we have a great potential of winning the Northern Lights,” said Kenagy, whose team was second at the jamboree in Homer. “I have confidence in the girls. I think they are absolutely awesome.”
Kenagy comes to Soldotna from Oregon, where she coached volleyball for a year and also coached four years of softball.
She returns plenty of varsity experience in senior setter Julie Litchfield, senior middle Katelynn Kerkvliet, senior outside hitter Makayla Wong, senior outside hitter Kiana Hendricks and junior right-side hitter Taryn McCubbins.
Kenagy is excited about the upcoming talent, as well.
“I play all my girls,” the coach said. “They’re all good enough to start. I’m not just saying that. They really are.”
Rounding out the varsity roster are junior outside hitter Katelyn Earll, junior right-side hitter Bailey Rosin, sophomore right-side hitter and setter Olivia Conradi, junior libero Alex Ashe, junior outside hitter and defensive specialist Skylar Shaw, sophomore right-side hitter Lindsey Wong and sophomore middle blocker Makenna Rosin.
With so much talent and versatility, Kenagy said the challenge will be bringing it all together.
“One of our weaknesses will be trying to come together as a team, because we’ve never played together as a team before,” the coach said. “Another challenge will be getting them excited about the game.
“They are really modest. They don’t like to gloat and rub stuff in an opponent’s face. That’s good, but I want them excited when they are playing well.”
Kenai Central Kardinals
Just like the Stars, the Kardinals face the challenge of stacking up against bigger schools night after night. Kenai is the second smallest team in Class 4A.
The Kards won two games last season in Tracie Beck’s first year as the head coach, but are already showing improvement this season.
The Kards finished third in the jamboree in Homer, then took Seward right down to the wire before losing a five-setter on Tuesday.
“We won just two games last year and really needed to work on our whole game,” Beck said. “Our defense has made huge gains and our offense has made huge gains.
“That was really our goal — to put in extra time so we could compete and play with anybody in the region.”
The Kards return varsity regulars in senior setter Justice English, senior outside hitter Dacia Shier and junior middle hitter Kiana Harding.
Other main cogs on the varsity will be sophomore right-side hitter Alli Steinbeck, freshman middle hitter Abby Beck and junior outside hitter Sierra Hall.
Senior Paige Ramos and senior Falon McGahan return after missing last season due to medical issues. Juniors Kyla Whannell, Becky Dragseth and Heidi Perkins also will see varsity time.
Even though the team has improved a lot, Beck is under no illusions about how tough conference play will be.
“You go up to the Valley, and they are playing club ball and traveling to festivals,” she said. “It’s a tough, tough region.”
The Bulldogs are looking for a strong follow-up to their trip to state a year ago.
Last season, the Bulldogs earned the top seed from the Southern Division, then finished second in the Southcentral Conference tournament to earn their first state berth since 2007.
“I have girls that are returning, some starters, some on the bench, that are determined to get back there this year,” second-year coach Stacey Segura said. “The whole point is to eventually make it there every year and build a legacy.”
The challenge for the Bulldogs is that a big chunk of the girls who experienced that state run have graduated. Nikiski lost six, including four starters.
“This year, I’ve had to sit down and think of ways to make the team better,” Segura said. “Last year, it came easier because everybody had been there so long.”
Junior Rachel Thompson, who made the all-state tournament team last season, returns at setter.
“I feel bad because the passing has been rocky at the beginning of the season, so Rachel is flying all over the place,” Segura said. “She’s great at what she does. She’s a solid rock for the team.”
Senior outside hitter Rebekah Krogseng and senior middle hitter Jodi Cook also return to starting roles.
Also key for the Bulldogs will be freshman middle Ayla Pitt, freshman opposite Brianna Vollertsen, senior outside hitter Katie Costello, junior libero Laura Hufford and Lauren O’Brien. Thompson and Costello will be the team captains.
Segura knows that patience will be important with two freshmen receiving a bunch of playing time.
“It’s going to take a little bit,” she said. “I told them, ‘We can lose all you want as long as you keep growing. At regions time, you can walk in and take first. You’re allowed to do that.’”
Segura saw all the competition at the Homer jamboree. While Skyview’s returning experience stood out there, she said that as other teams gain experience there will be parity on the Peninsula.
“I don’t think anyone on the Peninsula is the top dog,” she said. “I don’t think there will be a team that will be destroying everyone all season.”
As usual, the Seahawks, fourth at the conference tourney last year, figure to be in the thick of the race for Southcentral Conference supremacy. And as usual, they plan on doing it with their trademark frantic play on defense.
“Defense and passing,” said second-year coach Carri Fisher, when asked to list her team’s strengths. “We’ve got strong passers. They’re scrappy and they don’t let anything hit the floor.”
Seward returns four starters in junior middle Kiana Clemens, senior setter Ashley VonBorstel, senior right-side hitter Ashley Whiteshield and junior outside hitter Maria Jackson. Jackson was the starting libero last year.
The new starters will be junior outside hitter Carrie Anderson, junior libero Paige Carter and senior middle Cambria Robinson.
Fisher also said senior outside hitter Jordan Hargreaves will fill in for Jackson.
The coach said she has not seen any of the Anchorage schools, but thinks the teams in the Southcentral Conference will all be really close. Fisher said her team will be right up there if the Seahawks can get the ball down.
“Our outside hitters do a great job, but we don’t have as much power as we did last year,” she said.
Homer coach Beth Trowbridge begins her 12th year at the helm with the tough task of replacing nine seniors.
But the coach said that she is fortunate to have a lot of young talent that, over time, will flourish.
“I’m glad we have a series of four straight weeks of tournaments,” said Trowbridge, whose squad was fourth in the Southern Division last season. “That’s what it takes — a lot of playing time to figure out how to play with each other.
“They can gain confidence and be really strong at the end of the season. It’s an athletic crew that really likes playing and stays focused.”
Senior Zoia Basargin, a first-team all-conference outside hitter last season, returns to lead the Mariners. Senior libero Maggie Koplin and junior opposite Larsen Fellows also got a lot of varsity time last year.
Senior Tayla Cabana also played a lot more varsity as the season progressed.
“We’re going to be pretty strong this year with Zoia and Tayla on the outside,” Trowbridge said.
Sophomore McKi Needham will be a setter if the Mariners play a 6-2, or an opposite hitter if they go 5-1. Junior Kyla Pitzman will be in the middle, while Brenna Evarts will be a defensive specialist.
Like other coaches, Trowbridge agreed that Skyview showed the most experience at the jamboree, but that other Peninsula teams have the talent to catch up as the season progresses.