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A look at the Soldotna-Skyview co-curricular consolidation

Posted: July 31, 2014 - 9:08pm

The merging of Skyview High School’s co-curricular activities into those of Soldotna High School has the potential to be an example of two negatives making a positive.

The first negative is the difficulty associated with taking two fierce rivals and putting them all on the same side. No matter how much careful planning goes into such a task, expecting two cultures to elide seamlessly into one is a heavy lift.

The second negative is the extraordinary coaching turnover Soldotna experienced after last school year. This school year, eight varsity sports will have new head coaches and Soldotna will have a new athletic director. While some of that change came due to the merger, some of the change also came from the departure of bedrock coaches like Pat Nolden, Aaron Swanson and Matt Johnson.

Normally, that type of experience is impossible to replace. But that’s where Skyview comes in.

Enter coaches like Neldon Gardner (head wrestling coach at Skyview since 1990), Ted McKenney (22 years as cross-country coach at Cook Inlet Academy, then four at Skyview), Sheila Kupferschmid (volleyball coach at Skyview since 1999) and new athletic director Kent Peterson (involved in coaching running and skiing at Skyview for nearly 20 years) and suddenly the loss of coaches like Nolden, Swanson and Johnson isn’t as daunting.

And the addition of coaches like Gardner, McKenney, Kupferschmid and Peterson has the added benefit of making the merger seem less like Soldotna absorbing Skyview and more like Soldotna and Skyview teaming up to make a greater whole.

“I do believe that because a lot of these Skyview kids have already had us, the transition will be smoother,” Kupferschmid said. “I’ve worked with some of the seniors for five or six years. They’ve seen us, and I hope it’s going to be an easy and normal transition.”

One only has to think back to a few years ago to when Kupferschmid’s Panthers were regularly battling Bruce King’s Stars in one of the Peninsula’s most intense prep rivalries to imagine how tough the merger could have been. But King retired after the 2012 season.

“The transition would have been tougher had there not been the job opening,” Kupferschmid said. “With the job opening, the transition seems easy. The timing seems very good for some of us Skyview coaches.”

Serendipitously, SoHi also is set to get a new track, new turf field and new lockers this school year, providing further opportunity to blaze a fresh path forward.

On Aug. 30, Soldotna will host Thunder Mountain in the first game on the new turf field. Prinicipal Todd Syverson, entering his 10th year in that position, said the game will be a big community event, with a rededication of the field and a community dance that evening.

He said that is just one example of how co-curricular activities will play a role in smoothing the consolidation effort.

“What happens with athletic teams is it creates an extended family,” he said. “Kids coming together to play football games, swim or run creates chemistry and a sense of family unity.

“Academics are always first, but activities are a close second in the development of a young man or a young lady.”

And the family unity in sports extends beyond the athlete to the athlete’s family.

“It will be easier to bring the whole community together because they are cheering together,” Syverson said. “That will make the transition a lot easier.”

Syverson said the community has already been bonding together, with Kathy Gensel, Dale Dolifka and Irv Carla spearheading an effort to get businesses to donate so each student gets a Skyview Middle School, Soldotna Prep or Soldotna High School sweatshirt for the first day of school. Gensel, Dolifka and Carla also have been instrumental in creating intramural programs in volleyball and basketball due to the athlete cuts expected in those sports.

The following is a closer look at how the merger will affect each program:

Football

It should be full speed ahead on the new turf field, as Galen Brantley Jr., who took over the program in 2007 and has won five state titles since then, remains the head coach. Former Skyview head coach Eric Pomerleau joins the staff as an assistant.

Syverson is expecting about 600 sophomores through seniors at Soldotna High School, and 180 freshmen at Soldotna Prep, which is housed at the former Soldotna Middle School but is effectively part of the high school for activities purposes. Last year, Soldotna had 540 freshmen through seniors.

In football, Syverson said the extra numbers will help fill out the junior varsity and C teams.

“It was getting to be a struggle getting enough players for the JV and C-teams,” Syverson said. “We were having to play some younger players before they were ready, throwing them to the wolves.

“Now, we will be able to get younger athletes playing time at the appropriate age level.”

He said now Soldotna is able to schedule JV and C-team games with larger schools. This should make the program better in the long run, a shuddering thought for middle-schools competition.

Football cheerleading

Sue Stein and Jeannie Young return as the co-head coaches.

“We had a great football cheerleading club the past year, and with greater numbers there will be even more opportunity this year,” Syverson said.

Cross-country

Dan Harbison took over the program after the 2004 season and now hands it over to McKenney, who will be assisted by Peterson.

McKenney said he is looking forward to building on the foundation left by Harbison and assistant Laura Pillifant. McKenney said he has a good relationship with Harbison, and when Harbison told McKenney that he would be fine focusing on the cross-country ski program, McKenney agreed to take over cross-country.

“We have a lot of good kids returning,” McKenney said. “The girls team returning from Soldotna is pretty good and there’s a pretty good boys team from Soldotna.

“Together, we should have a pretty respectable team.”

Due to being around meets for so many years and a summer running camp he helps sponsor, McKenney said he already has a solid relationship with many of the Soldotna runners.

He said his job also will be made easier by the fact that the clock doesn’t lie and that cross-country can take as many numbers as possible. This means he is not open to charges of favoritism when cutting players or selecting the varsity squad.

Volleyball

While the increased school size poses little hardship for many sports, volleyball only puts six players on the court at a time.

“It’s going to be bringing two programs into one, and those kinds of numbers into one, and because of that there is going to be less opportunity for all of these athletes,” Kupferschmid said. “I expect 70 or 75 kids to try out for three teams, and in volleyball I can only have so many on the court.”

And many of the athletes are dead serious about the sport. Kupferschmid said she has been getting 30 to 35 athletes at open gyms throughout the summer.

When those athletes hit 15 open gyms, they earn a practice shirt with “The preparation to win is greater than the will to win” on the front. On the back is a Star and Panther with the words, “United to win.”

To soften the blow of the cuts, Kupferschmid will head up the coed intramural program. The coach became known for developing diamonds in the rough at Skyview, and said the intramural program will allow her to attempt similar feats at Soldotna.

Syverson said he is thrilled to have “one of the best volleyball coaches in the state” not only running the varsity, but intramurals as well.

“Intramurals is another avenue we can use to develop unity and community in the school system,” Kupferschmid said. “It should be a positive avenue for the students.”

Swimming

Lucas Peterson returns for his third year running the swim program, with former Skyview head coach Lindsay Fagrelius joining the staff.

“The big benefit for Skyview is a lot of times they didn’t have the numbers for boys and girls relay teams,” Syverson said. “Now they have the opportunity to swim more events, and relays can be so much fun.”

Wrestling

This program is the hands-down favorite to be the one where the merger is immediately felt across the state.

Last season, the program struggled with low numbers, falling to four wrestlers as the conference tournament approached. And head coach Scooter Hackett was struggling all season with a leg injury that eventually forced him to resign.

This cleared the way for Gardner.

“He is the best wrestling coach in the state of Alaska,” Syverson said. “He’s a legend. He has such a great rapport with the students.”

Gardner’s wrestling roots in the area are deep, starting with winning two individual state titles as a student at Kenai Central in the 1970s. He then took an assistant coaching job at Kenai Central in 1983.

He also has been an assistant at SoHi and a head coach at Soldotna Middle School, the building that has been converted to Soldotna Prep. Ironically, the mat room he packed with over 100 wrestlers back as a middle school coach will be SoHi’s new mat room.

In keeping with the irony theme, Syverson, then a vice prinicipal at SkyHi, played a heavy role in making Gardner the head wrestling coach when the school opened its doors in 1990. Gardner also would coach football under Syverson.

At Skyview, Gardner would have 20 state-champion wrestlers and win Class 4A state titles in 1997 and 1999, and fall season titles in 2000 and 2001.

He also has deep roots in the school system, retiring in 2006 from Soldotna Middle School.

Before SkyHi was reclassified as a Class 3A school a few years ago, the numbers at the school had dipped to the point that Gardner knew it would be impossible to battle schools like Colony, Wasilla and South for Class 4A titles.

But mix in the wrestling tradition at Skyview with the football tradition at SoHi, and Gardner said he is back in the game.

“I think we should be in the mix, in the top five,” Gardner said. “State champs is what we shoot for every year.

“We’re hoping to get as many kids as we can from the football team. You can take an athlete and develop the athlete into a wrestler, especially a football player, really easy.”

Had there been wrestling at SkyHi this season, Gardner said he was looking at a top-two state finish with two state champs and four other state placers returning.

The key is to build on that core and get around 50 wrestlers in the room. That’s why Gardner was happy to invite Hackett and his assistants to help out.

As a wrestling coach, Gardner has had to roll with the punches of a constantly changing time for wrestling during the prep calendar. The merger has rolled right off his back.

“I thought it was going to happen a long time ago,” he said. “People ask if it bothers me. It doesn’t. I just roll with the punches and look for the good in things.”

Hockey

Derek Urban draws the task of taking over for Swanson and his assistant, Nolden. Swanson coached from the 2003-04 season to the 2006-07 season and then came back to the team in 2008. Nolden was at SoHi all of his 30 years before retiring after the last school year. He was in and out of the hockey program the whole time.

Urban said he is fortunate to have been an assistant in the program for five years.

“The experience and knowledge gained under those two coaches was invaluable,” he said.

Skyview’s closure won’t affect numbers in the hockey program, since Skyview did not have a hockey program.

Urban also is familiar to area hockey fans due to his time coaching in the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association.

“I’m looking forward to starting a new era for SoHi hockey, but we will never replace two great coaches,” Urban said. “I hope both coach Swanson and Nolden remain around and involved with the program. The door is always open.”

Cross-country skiing

There is no change here, as longtime head coach Dan Harbison remains on the job. He will be assisted by Isaac Erhardt.

“He’s a great coach,” Syverson said. “He does all the little things that make a big difference for the ski program.”

Harbison also has an athletic director with 19 years of ski coaching experience. The big question is how much Peterson will put it to use.

“I’m still saying that I’m not going to help coach skiing, but we will see what happens,” he said.

Basketball

Both boys head coach Matt Johnson and girls head coach Doug Blossom are gone from their posts.

Johnson’s signature moment in his six years at the helm was making it all the way to the Class 4A state finals before losing 55-52 to Dimond in overtime in 2009. Johnson moved out of state.

Blossom made state tournament appearances in two of his three seasons in charge. But Syverson said a clause in the district contract says educators, if qualified, have first opportunity, meaning the opportunity went to former Skyview girls head coach Kyle McFall.

Johnson will be replaced by Mark Tuter, who has over 20 years experience coaching girls basketball at Soldotna. Tuter will be assisted by Blossom. Tuter took a break after the 2010-11 season, but he got back into coaching by being Johnson’s assistant.

“He was a long-term, very successful girls basketball coach,” Syverson said. “With that background and the learning he did under coach Johnson, we expect he will do an excellent job as coach.”

Syverson said former Skyview boys coach Jesse Settlemyer got a teaching job in Kenai, and wasn’t interested in the SoHi boys job.

On the girls side, Eric Skjold will remain a girls assistant.

“Kyle is a real go-getter,” Syverson said. “He’s been busy with open gym and summer camps. He’s also doing a lot of fundraising.”

Even with the boys and girls intramural programs, basketball will be one of the great challenges of the merger after McFall and Settlemyer built solid programs at Skyview.

“It can be hard when five players get on the floor, and traditionally good teams only have seven or eight kids that get to play regularly,” Syverson said. “That’s where intramurals can fill a void.”

Track

Phil Leck will be the head coach this year at Nolden steps aside, but the two were already sharing coaching duties so there will be little change.

The biggest change will be the brand-new track the team trains on. Soldotna’s track has not been usable for about 15 years, so the team had to travel to the Skyview track.

“When you practice and train on that type of facility, I’m excited to see what the track program can do next spring,” Syverson said.

Track is one of the sports where one of Skyview’s coaching mainstays, Rob Sparks, did not make the transition over to the Soldotna coaching ranks.

Sparks coached track at Skyview ever since the school opened in 1990, and spent 17 of those years as a head coach.

Syverson said track programs can take high numbers of kids, so he isn’t worried about integrating the Skyview program that way, but the principal said his preference is always to have a coach like Sparks back in the game.

Sparks will teach at Soldotna Prep where Syverson said the 2013 BP Teacher of the Year will continue to work to use cyberspace to create new opportunities for teachers and students in a classroom without walls.

“Sometimes, coaches just need to take a break,” Syverson said. “I hope to talk him back into coaching next year.

“The pay is minimal and the hours are long. Great coaches like Nolden and Sparks sometimes need a year off, then they are good to go 10 more years.”

Soccer

Jimmy Love remains the girls head coach, while Jeff Siemers remains in charge of the boys.

Again, a lot of Skyview experience is lost in this sport with the absence of David Carpenter. Carpenter coached the Skyview’s boys all but one year since the program’s inception until 2010, when he switched to the girls. Carpenter led the Skyview boys to a third-place finish at state in 2004, a performance that in many ways put Peninsula soccer on the map.

Carpenter will teach at Kenai Alternative this year, and Syverson said he is hoping Carpenter is another coach that just needs a break before jumping back into coaching.

Baseball

George Stein has resigned as head coach, and Syverson said a new hire has yet to be made.

Syverson said the program could use more numbers. Although Skyview did not have a baseball program, the principal is hoping more students in the school will mean more players on the baseball team.

Softball

Kelli Knobel will remain the head coach, with her husband, James, as assistant.

When Skyview softball ended its season, coach Steve Schoessler announced his intention to stop coaching area high school athletes after getting his first coaching contract with SoHi wrestling in 1982.

Schoessler started the Skyview softball program in 2010 and kept building it. This year’s team finished 7-7 overall and had about 30 athletes out.

With SoHi softball having about 30 athletes out for softball, Schoessler said at the close of the season there will be less opportunities for athletes to play.

Syverson said he still sees room for growth in softball, from filling out JV squads to having more opportunities for athletes to specialize in a certain area, like pitching.

Other co-curricular activities

Finally, Syverson is excited about the numbers of students that will be available for band and choir concerts under the direction of Vernel Schneider, drama programs under the direction of Terri Zopf-Schoessler and the dance program under Jeannie Young.

Syverson said the student council activity advisers worked hard to merge the two programs and now will be under the direction of Lana Syverson.

Principal Syverson is not only excited to have Peterson as athletic director, but as a guitar instructor. Peterson said he has two classes with a total of 50 kids.

So everything is in place for a successful consolidation. Now only one question remains.

“I haven’t seen any kids yet,” Peterson said. “I haven’t technically been back to work.

“But it seems like everything will be smooth.”

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