Qualifying for the state volleyball tournament out of the Southcentral Conference will be harder this year.
Cordova, which has won the last three Class 1-2-3A state titles, has moved into the six-team conference, which gets three berths to state.
"I think it's going to be tight between the top four or five teams," Nikiski coach Sharon Thompson said. "It's going to be who plays well on a given day."
The Bulldogs were able to earn their fifth straight trip to the state tournament last year by defeating Seward in the third-place match of the conference tournament.
Nikiski, which won state titles in 1992, 1994, 1998 and 2000, is not the only program in the conference with an illustrious history. In addition to winning the past three state titles, Cordova won state in 1995.
Seward won a state title in 1996, while Grace won a state championship in 1999. Anchorage Christian Schools has no state titles but, led by Anna Simmers, the Lions will be tough this year.
At the state tournament last year, three of the top five finishers will be in the Southcentral Conference this year.
"You don't want someone who's gone to state all the time coming into your conference," said Seward's Laura Beck. "It's going to make the kids work harder."
The four Class 4A peninsula squads -- Homer, Soldotna, Skyview and Kenai Central -- also annually face a tough road to state in the Northern Lights Conference.
Last season, the four teams from the Northern Division -- Kodiak, Colony, Palmer and Wasilla -- finished as the top four teams in the conference tournament. The conference gets three state bids.
Although the Southern Division teams lost some top-notch players, led by two-time Southern Division Player of the Year Paige Blackburn of Soldotna, Southern Division coaches are optimistic because their teams have more experience this year.
"Overall, the conference will be better this year," Soldotna coach Bruce King said. "Kenai's more experienced, we're more experienced, there's a lot more experience all-around. Last year, there were a lot more young teams overall."
While the Northern Division teams have larger students bodies and tend to restock faster, the Southern Division teams go through cycles.
"It changes every year or so," Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid said. "When you get a group of seniors that are strong for you, it seems like you need to rebound for the next year or so."
Homer coach Beth Trowbridge said there should be a lot of tight matches for fans to enjoy this season.
"I think in the south, all the teams seem to be pretty solid," Trowbridge said. "I see it as a little bit of a dogfight between us. We should be right in there with the northern teams."
The following is a closer look at the peninsula's varsity volleyball teams:
Even though the Stars lost Blackburn, King, in his second year at Soldotna but at about 20 years coaching volleyball on the peninsula, said the experience the whole team gained last year could make for a better squad this year.
He said the Stars had just one player other than Blackburn who had NLC tournament experience going into the tournament last year.
"We will definitely be more experienced, especially at the conference tournament," King said. "Even though I thought we played very well at the conference tournament, in key situations a lack of experience hurt us."
Opposing teams will not recognize the Stars offensively this season. Last season, King said the opposition knew Blackburn would be set each time, but still could not stop her.
"We have a bunch of kids starting to come on offensively," King said. "Even though we don't have a Paige Blackburn, all around we should have better hitting than we did at the end of last season -- for sure as a team."
The coach said his team went to the Volleyball Festival in Reno, Nev., this summer, which is equal to a half or two-thirds of a high school season's play in one week.
The offense will be run by junior Emily Rohloff, who King said should be much better now that she has a year of setting experience. Some of Rohloff's targets will be junior Shana Powell, junior Mariah Hamilton and senior April Heffner.
King also said senior Jessi Stenga's defense will be important. King said Stenga may be the best defensive player in the conference.
Kenai Central Kardinals
A familiar face takes over the head coaching position for the Kardinals this season.
Stacia Rustad, a 1992 graduate of Kenai Central, moved back to the peninsula this summer and is teaching and coaching at her alma mater.
Rustad helped the Kenai girls basketball team to a state title in 1991. In both 1991 and 1992, she was the Alaska state player of the year. She went on to play basketball at the University of Maine. She graduated from college in 1996 and has been teaching and coaching ever since.
"I'm very proud to be back at Kenai Central," Rustad said. "There's only one state title across the board in girls athletics. I say, 'Let's win some more state titles.'"
Rustad was most recently the head basketball coach at Southwestern Oregon Community College, so she said it's nice to get back into volleyball.
"I had a great experience here through junior high and high school," Rustad said. "I want to give back the same opportunities I had to the young ladies coming through the school system."
The Kardinals will be led by Mariah Huhndorf, who has been setting on varsity since her freshman year. Seniors Hannah Delaney and Khelby Kennedy will key the attack from the outside, while junior Lexi Beeson will play the middle.
Senior Britt Kiser will see time as a defensive specialist, while junior Lierin Flanagan will contribute her all-around ability to the team.
"We have some work to do," Rustad said. "We certainly have a great group of kids with a great spirit about them. They want to get better and improve every day on the practice floor."
Kupferschmid enters her 10th year as the coach of the Panthers with a number of experienced, solid hitters returning to the team. The big question is: Who is going to get them the ball?
The Panthers lost just one starting senior from last year's squad, but it was setter Candace Penrod. Kupferschmid has long said setter is the most important position on the floor.
"We have to answer that question," Kupferschmid said. "That position takes a lot of experience and athleticism. I'm hoping to be strong in different areas. I think we have good size."
Senior Melissa Massey will play the outside and middle and earned first-team region honors last year.
So did senior Jessie Bilderback, a libero with plenty of experience. Senior Brittany Meyer, an outside hitter, and senior Maddie Abbott also bring plenty of experience.
"Three of my seniors are looking to play college ball -- Missy, Brittany and Jessie," Kupferschmid said. "To say you've got that many college-bound volleyball players is kind of exciting."
Kupferschmid said solid candidates to fill the setter's position are juniors Casee Penrod and Jaci Lamborn and sophomore Elisha Hollers.
Other key players for the Panthers will be sophomores Jaxon Hill, Rebecca Egan and Alicia West; freshmen Brittney Whippell and Naomi McMullen and junior Monica Hutchison.
Kupferschmid said many of the players gained valuable experience at the Volleyball Festival in Reno this summer.
"I've got a good nucleus and numbers in the program are up in the 30s," Kupferschmid said. "I'm just counting on my seniors to compete and hopefully make us one of the competitive teams on the peninsula."
Second-year head coach Thompson is excited about having some players with varsity experience this season.
Last season, the Bulldogs were able to make a state appearance even though the team had no returning starters from the year before. Nikiski lost both games at state.
"It's definitely a lot more comfortable," Thompson said. "Last year was a total rebuilding year.
"We advanced a lot further than a lot of people thought we would. We've still got an unfinished task. We should have performed better at state."
The Bulldogs lost two senior starters from last year's team. Thompson also thought she was losing weakside hitter and defender Danielle Bower to early graduation, but Bower decided to return for her senior year.
Junior Hillary Bogard will be in her second year of varsity setting for the Bulldogs. Bogard, who attended the Reno festival, will be the catalyst for the team, according to Thompson.
One of Bogard's favorite targets will be senior Shalene Peek. Other key players will be seniors Rachel Romans and Sarah Ralston, junior Kassi Johnson and freshmen Kinsey Martin, Savannah Griffel and Minna Bogard.
Beck, who has plenty of experience with the program at the middle school and high school level, takes over as the head coach.
The coach said the strength of the team will be at the net with freshman Maggie Fleming and junior Holly Ganser.
Beck said Fleming has the height and talent to make an impact as a freshman. Ganser has been playing varsity since she was a freshman.
Other key players for the Seahawks will be junior Jenna Clarke and sophomore Michaela Atherton.
The Seahawks lost five seniors from last year, but Beck said the current team should be fine because they have been playing together since middle school.
Trowbridge, in her eighth year as head coach at Homer, lost four seniors from last year's club, including three starters.
"They did leave some holes," Trowbridge said. "But I did have a strong junior class last year."
At the valuable setter position, Trowbridge returns senior Piper Daugharty.
Daugharty has a pair of solid weapons in seniors Jill Temple and Lindsay Layland. Both have been on the varsity for four years, and last year Temple quietly had one of the highest hitting percentages on the team.
Trowbridge also has a bunch of seniors ready to fill open slots. That group includes Deanna Weaver, Gale Disler, Ashley Needham and Ana Leach.
"This is a great, cohesive group," Trowbridge said. "These girls are all really good friends. What they might lack in height and volleyball finesse, they make up in heart and cohesiveness."
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