Before last weekend’s Southcentral Conference tournament in Seward, the Skyview volleyball team spent some of their off time together watching the 2007 film, “The Final Season”.
The movie depicts a high school baseball team in Iowa that holds a strong winning tradition, but is faced with the reality of playing one last year before the school merges with another school in the district.
Perhaps the Panthers can use it as inspiration to capture a state crown in Skyview’s final year.
In many ways, the Panthers are facing the same situation. A 17-0 regular season propelled the team into the conference tournament as the favorite, but after a five-set loss to Anchorage Christian Schools in the second round of the tournament last Friday, Skyview battled back to win the third-place game against Seward on Saturday, clinching a spot at the Alaska School Activities Association State 3A Volleyball tournament that begins today at 1:30 p.m. at Chugiak High School, when they face the Nome Nanooks.
It is the final year for Skyview, and it is the final appearance at the state tournament, and the team has shown they are determined as ever to go out in a blaze of glory.
“Last year, coach thought our team was too short,” said senior libero Casey Neill. “She was like, you’re probably not going to make it to state next year so enjoy this moment, and now she’s saying that we might win state this year. That’s a possibility.”
Sheila Kupferschmid has served as the head coach of the team since 1999, and in those 15 years, she has guided Skyview to six state appearances, including this year. The best result was a runner-up finish in 2001 to Wasilla.
This year, the school has made strides to support the volleyball team. Last week, a group of about 30 students made the trip to Seward to cheer the team on, and a monstrous banner that reads, “17-0 Undefeated” hangs with pride on the banister overlooking the Skyview High School commons area, just outside the gym.
“I’m hoping my kids will go into the state tournament enjoying themselves, playing relaxed, because when they play relaxed they play better,” Kupferschmid said. “I think the pressure is off of them, because before, everyone was shooting to upset them. Now it’s the state tournament, and so it’s a different mentality at state than it is in region play. I just hope they settle down and play their best ball.”
The 2006 Skyview volleyball squad also went undefeated, with a 14-0 record that year, but missed the state tournament after falling short at the region meet.
This season, especially since it’s the last, Kupferschmid and her players aren’t losing focus.
“I feel like we’re a lot closer this year,” said senior outside hitter Sam Reynolds. “We’ve been playing together a lot longer than past teams. We have a lot more chemistry.”
Senior Cheyanne Laber has competed with Neill and Reynolds for nearly five years, three of those years on the varsity high school team.
“We have a lot of experience playing together,” Laber said. “We have a lot of returning starters from varsity last year.”
With a perfect record, some of the players admitted that they were beginning to feel like they were unbeatable as the season wore on, and that nearly cost them against Nikiski two weeks ago, having faced a 2-1 game deficit before rallying back to win.
After losing to ACS in five games at the region tournament last Friday, it finally caught up to them.
“That’s what we did with ACS, we beat them in two sets, and we were like, we got this! We always come back,” said senior Cat Schoessler. “We expected ACS to crumble. We thought they were done, and they came back, and that’s what we need to start doing.”
After winning the first two games of their match against ACS, the Panthers made the mistake of relaxing, thinking that they could cruise to victory. But the Lions fought back and won the final winner-take-all fifth set 15-11.
“I hate having that mind-set going into games, because going into the state tournament and each game, we have to play hard,” Neill said. “We don’t just think we have it in the bag anymore.”
“It was kind of like the same with Nikiski,” Laber added. “Because we just assumed we were going to win, and we just assumed we were going to get first at regions.”
Skyview was facing the daunting task of battling back and held a shot to win the third-place game. Since only three teams from the Southcentral Conference go to state, the team had to beat Seward.
“We were upset that we didn’t get into the championship game, so I think that made us play really hard,” Neill said.
A three-game sweep solidified the Panthers’ spot, and as the third seed from the conference, the pressure is off.
“I’m kind of glad we got third in regions, instead of first or second, because I think we’d be going in with the same mind-set,” Reynolds added.
So what happened this year that propelled Skyview to a perfect regular season record? Kupferschmid said there were a few strategic changes on court, such as moving junior Emily DiPaolo up to setter and sliding junior Hayley Ramsell to opposite. But Kupferschmid said the biggest difference was the simply more experience and maturation.
“That was just a strategy thing. These kids have matured and they’ve been in strength class,” Kupferschmid said. “And Casey with the experience. Two years of experience for my libero is key.”
The SST weight training program for the Kenai Peninsula schools has also benefited some members of the team.
“Weight training and open gym sessions have really helped us this year,” Schoessler said. “And I think we just want it more this year, and we came out and were like, we want to do something.”
A physically stronger team will certainly provide the boost on offense. With power hitters such as Reynolds, Schoessler, Laber and Ramsell, the job has been made easier for coach Kupferschmid.
“I feel I have the best hitters in our 3A competition,” Kupferschmid said. “A lot of times, the best attacking team will win the match. We have to pressure (Nome) on our serve, and definitely pass the ball where my hitters are into the game.”
Nome, the top seed from the Western Conference, is not the only team Skyview is worried about, according to Kupferschmid. If they can get past the Nanooks today, they face a 7 p.m. match with the winner of Grace Christian vs. Hutchison, and if past history is to be relied upon, then Skyview stands a good chance of meeting Grace, last year’s runner-up and a perennial contender.
Skyview did play Nome earlier this year at the West Spiketacular in Anchorage, beating them in just two games. They also met with Nome at last year’s state tournament, sweeping them in three close games.
Whatever the end result will be at state, Kupferschmid said the season has been a special one, and the players have also made it clear that they’ve enjoyed all of their coach’s training and advice.
“It’s special, it’s been a privilege,” Kupferschmid said. “It’s been a privilege to coach these kids. They’ve worked hard, they’ve committed and dedicated themselves to do the best they can for Skyview’s last season. I’m proud of them, and I appreciate them, and what an opportunity to go into the state tournament 20-1.”