Don’t look now, but there is a storm brewing on the Kenai Peninsula this fall.
As the prep volleyball season gets set to begin, local teams are sharpening their talents in the gym, and with the recent merger between Soldotna and former Skyview high schools, the much anticipated Soldotna-Kenai rivalry should receive a healthy boost.
In a somewhat ironic twist, former Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid has taken the reigns at Soldotna. Considering the many intense bouts that Kupferschmid’s Skyview squads had with the teams from Soldotna coached by the retired Bruce King, the hands of fate have certainly worked in mysterious ways.
“I wanted to be a part of bringing that together,” Kupferschmid said about the merger between Skyview and Soldotna. “Once the district said that this was the way they were going, I just thought I probably would be the best individual to mesh these two programs together.”
Kupferschmid said the early practices have been nearly seamless at SoHi, and after playing Kenai Central in three close games in last weekend’s championship match at the Homer Jamboree, Kupferschmid is looking forward to the coming years.
“They’re big and fast, they’ve been training all summer,” Kupferschmid said. “In our area, it’s gonna be Kenai (as contenders).
“But I foresee a rivalry with Kenai, they’re gonna be tough.”
Kenai coach Tracie Beck added that her team has increased its depth in a big way, saying that she has never had a bench quite as full as she does now.
“But we’re not playing Soldotna, we’re playing Skyview and Soldotna,” Beck said. “When you combine those two, it’s a tough matchup. That’s so exciting for us.”
Last year, Kodiak took hold of the Class 4A Northern Lights Conference and won the regular season at 10-0, while Palmer was 8-2, SoHi was 5-5, Colony was 4-6, Wasilla was 2-8 and Kenai was 1-9. The top three spots from the conference tournament earn a trip to state.
The top three teams in the Class 3A Southcentral Conference tournament also go to state. The tourney will be held this year at Grace Christian.
Kupferschmid spent 15 seasons as Skyview’s volleyball coach. In those years, Kupferschmid guided Skyview to six state berths, with a runner-up finish at the 2001 Class 4A state tournament as the highwater mark. Last year, Skyview ended its era with a third-place finish at the Class 3A state tourney.
This year, it may feel different wearing a dark blue uniform, but the jelling of the two “sides” has been very consistent.
“The kids are adjusting to what I feel is important on the floor,” Kupferschmid said. “I really like the chemistry of the team, I really like my players.”
Kupferschmid said she is coaching two former Skyview starters from 2013 — Hayley Ramsell and Taylor Wilson — but the rest are previous Soldotna players.
“That’s a process that takes time,” Kupferschmid said about working with many different players. “The players are getting to know me and vice versa, and I’m taking my time to see what’s best.”
Kupferschmid said she is using early tournaments like the Homer Jamboree and the Chugiak Invite to see what will work best. So far, the veteran coach is looking at a 6-2 court rotation, where six hitters and two setters are utilized, and on any given “play,” three hitters are available.
“Hopefully they will pick up my system quickly,” Kupferschmid said. “Another thing is trust. They have to trust what I’m doing. You can’t hurry that process.”
The varsity squad will include seniors Bailey Rosin, Alex Ashe and Skylar Shaw, juniors Mackenna Rosin, Lindsey Wong and Kirsten Yarnes, and sophomore Judah Aley. Kupferschmid named Rosin and Aley as middle hitters, and said Aley has proven to be a powerful player.
The rest of the roster, says Kupferschmid, will be players that can be plugged in wherever they are needed.
“I like all my kids, to be honest,” Kupferschmid said. “I think one of our strengths is chemistry on our team. I think these kids mesh pretty well, and if I can get the athletes working together and working for each other, that’s the biggest team issue that teams can have, and we’re looking good.”
At the Chugiak Invite this weekend, Soldotna will get first round matchups of South, Palmer and West. The Stars’ home opener is slated for Tuesday against Seward.
Tracie Beck returns for third year as coach, and according to her, this may be the best one yet.
This comes after a 2013 season in which the Kardinals struggled with consistency to finish 1-9 in the conference,
“The beautiful thing is depth,” Beck said. “When you’re building a program, while you’re in the midst of a tough part, you’re always thinking how is this all gonna work out?
“All the hard work and extra time, these hard-working kids have paid off. Just seeing these seniors, it’s so fulfilling. I can’t explain how proud I am of these kids, and when you’re in a program that keeps getting thumped on, it makes you assess, are we moving in the right direction?”
Part of the senior leadership that Beck is expecting to see a lot of production out of is middle hitter Kiana Harding, outside hitters Becky Dragseth and Sierra Hall, libero Heidi Perkins, setter Jamie Bagley and Kyla Whannell, who Beck said could play anywhere.
Perkins started as libero last year and Bagley was a JV libero. Both are strong players in the back.
Junior right side hitter Alli Steinbeck, junior Alexis Baker, sophomore middle hitter Abby Beck and Amber Walters — a setter from Wyoming — will add valuable experience as well.
Coach Beck said a lot of her players traveled to Gonzaga University this summer to attend a volleyball camp, and received knowledge and rave reviews from sophomore outside hitter McKayla Ferris, who said if the Kardinals make it to state, she will be coming up to watch them compete.
“Those little things go a long way,” Beck said.
After missing last year’s Class 3A state tournament following a 4-6 season in the Southcentral Conference, Nikiski coach Stacey Segura is hoping to have her Bulldogs back on track in 2014.
In her third year coaching the team, Segura said this year’s group has the most mental fortitude.
“Volleyball is super mental, and you need to have mentally strong girls,” Segura said. “Everybody needs to be moving and communicating together for it to work.
“I’ve been able to coach some of the younger ones into that mentality, and everyone is enjoying playing with each other. They’re willing to work hard, and I don’t think that if we end up losing, the scoreboard is gonna show the whole story.”
Competing at the 2012 state tournament was an exciting time for Nikiski, Segura said, and so missing out last year has left a bitter taste in the returning member’s mouths.
“I bring up state in every single practice,” Segura said. “I make sure they’re well aware of that. Some of the older girls have gotten a taste of it.
“That first year, I had a lot of talent, but not a lot of chemistry.”
The good news is that Nikiski is returning a couple of key cogs in the machine.
At the setter position is senior Rachel Thompson, who Segura said is one of her strongest players overall. Senior Laura Hufford returns as libero, juniors Brittany Perry and Hannah Love are defensive specialists as outside hitters, sophomore Ayla Pitt is a returning middle hitter and Brianna Vollertson is an opposite hitter. Segura added that since middle hitter Jodi Cook graduated in the spring, she decided to bring up freshman Melodie Sexton.
Segura admitted that the team’s hitting still needs some work, but defensively, the Bulldogs are a stronghold.
“We held a lot of open gyms,” she said. “Every open gym had a decent amount of girls show up, and even some eighth- and seventh-graders worked with us, so it was good to see interest.”
Nikiski took third at the Homer Jamboree last weekend, losing a pair of matches to Soldotna, splitting with Kenai and sweeping Homer. Nikiski lost to Kenai in the semifinal round.
Nikiski opens for business tonight at home against ACS, a perennially tough opponent, although Seward proved smaller teams can overcome the Anchorage teams.
“I’m really excited to see how they’re going to react in a home game environment,” Segura said.
Beth Trowbridge returns for her 13th year as head coach of the Homer varsity, and will be getting help this year from assistant coaches Lauren Childers and Chris Gorny. Gorny is a former BYU standout.
There are currently 30 girls on the roster, according to the Homer Tribune, and the team opens their season at home tonight against Seward.
Setters Larsen Fellows and McKi Needham, Jane Rohr and Kyla Pitzman all looked strong at the Homer Jamboree last weekend in games against heavy hitters Soldotna, Kenai Central and Nikiski.
The Seahawks finished 5-5 in Southcentral play last year, but a changeup has left them as a bit of a wild card.
Seward will be working with a new head coach this season, as Jamie Frederickson replaces Carri Fisher, who stepped down due to a work conflict.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, being first year as head coach,” Frederickson said. “We have a new athletic director, we’re having to learn as we go, so we’ve had to hit the ground running. We didn’t even have a JV coach until this week.”
Frederickson is a longtime Seward resident, and graduated from Seward High School in 2002 after four years of playing on the Seahawks volleyball team. Since then, she has added coaching stints on the JV team in 2007 and 2008.
“Seward was solid back then, we had a great coach with Angie Hammer,” Frederickson recalled. “We’ve always been pretty small, and small in height.
“I remember a year where the middle hitter was 5-foot-2. She could get up there but we didn’t have the big blocker like most teams.”
Frederickson added that owning previous experience with the team and holding lifelong friendships with many Seward residents has been a major morale boost.
“It’s a testament to the previous coach that the varsity team is rolling with it,” she said. “They already know what I’m talking about, and that’s been great.”
With zero offseason open gyms, camps or additional work, Frederickson is pleasantly surprised at how the team has quickly adapted to the season regimen.
Frederickson said she is utilizing a 6-2 rotation this year, led by libero Paige Carter-Kurtz. Returning junior Jessica Honebien could also be a libero, but will be used as a setter for now.
Two seniors return as middle hitters, Kiana Clemens and Misha Johnson, and seniors Maria Jackson and Carrie Anderson return as outside hitters.
“It’s great, we have six seniors, so I get a team that’s established,” she said. “I’m thinking about this year and next year, I’ll be losing a whole starting rotation next year, so it’s really nice to have them know what they’re doing. They take some tips from me and work with the rest of the team.”