With a jamboree last weekend, the Kenai Peninsula's high school volleyball squads got their first taste of interscholastic competition this season.
The jamboree's results aren't an indicator of what a team will do this season -- most coaches use the event to try some different combinations in their rotations -- but it does give teams an idea of their strengths and weaknesses before they begin region play.
Seward was the only peninsula squad to advance from the region tournament to the state championship last season, edging Nikiski at the Region III/3A tournament to make the State 3A Championships.
The peninsula's four 4A schools (Kenai, Soldotna, Skyview and Homer) achieved different levels of success during the regular season, but the Mat-Su Valley schools (Colony, Palmer and Wasilla) made a clean sweep of the region's berths at the State 4A Championship.
Things will be shaken up this year, however, with new coaches at all three Valley schools as well as a new staff at Homer. The following is a look at each of the peninsula's high school volleyball programs:
Beth Trowbridge takes over as the Mariners' head coach and has a fresh staff to work with as well, including JV coach Rebekka Hall and C-team coach James Seeger.
"Even though we have several seniors, we're pretty young in terms of playing together," Trowbridge said. "These girls have a lot of drive, though, and I see a lot of potential there."
Senior setter Alex Drathman will assume a leadership role on the floor, and senior Joy Epley bring some experience to the floor.
Senior Kelly Shields has developed as an outside hitter and senior Lindsay Babcock has been steady in the back row.
Christy Walkden will step in to the rotation as a setter, and junior Lindsay Horst has been strong and aggressive in the middle of the front row.
Junior Jami Epley, a back row player, has been the team's strongest passer, and junior Jessica Eller plays well hitting from the right side.
Junior Arinda Brooks is developing into a strong middle and right side player, and senior Julia Stutzer is finding her game after spending last year abroad as an exchange student.
"Each time we've played, we've gotten better," Trowbridge said. "I think the girls are feeling good about things -- I'm feeling good about things."
Kardinals coach Vanessa Gabel sees progress being made by this year's squad.
"We're already where we were at the end of last year," Gabel said. "We're strong all the way around. This is a well-rounded team. We don't have a weak rotation that we have to worry about."
Senior Catie Baldwin returns to the Kardinals lineup as a solid outside hitter and Natalie Mills, also a senior will anchor the back row as a defensive specialist.
After that, Gabel has a "huge pack of juniors" filling out the Kenai roster.
Jamie Montgomery will keep things organized as the Kardinals setter while Erica Shinn has been putting every ball she touches away from her middle hitter position.
Kirsten Ehrhardt and Laura Rhyner have been playing well at outside hitter and middle hitter, respectively.
Junior Amy Fischer and sophomore Holly McCune round out the Kardinals roster.
The Kardinals were just step away from a breakthrough season last year, and Gabel has the squad working on making that jump to the next level this season.
"I don't think we've gotten it yet, but we're going to get there," Gabel said.
The Kardinals will host the Region III/4A tournament this season, giving them an extra boost come playoff time.
"I think everything's in line for us," Gabel said.
The Bulldogs failed to advance to the state tournament for the first time in nine years a season ago, something that Nikiski will be using for motivation as it begins the 2000 season.
"We let a nine-year tradition fall by the wayside," said Nikiski coach Cherrie Hobart-Verkuilen. "That motivates us every day.
"After sitting out for a year and thinking about things, we're taking a different mental approach this season. ... We're working a little harder this year."
Hobart-Verkuilen has four seniors returning from last year's squad in Laura Berdahl, Jessica Arness, Laura Beth Covich and Ashlee Gillaspie.
"They were pretty much our core group of players last year," Hobart-Verkuilen said.
Also returning from last season is April Lofstedt, Kassie Thomson and Ashley Goff.
Jumping into the mix is sophomore Karen Rabung, a transfer student from Chugiak. Hobart-Verkuilen called Rabung a very coachable athlete.
Hobart-Verkuilen liked what she saw from the Bulldogs at last weekend's jamboree, but added that there was still plenty of room for improvement.
"We did some things well, but I've got a good idea of the things we need to work on," Hobart-Verkuilen said.
Hobart-Verkuilen said that the Bulldogs' attack looked good, but that aspects of the Nikiski defense could use some polish.
"We really need to work on our transition and our court communication," Hobart Verkuilen said, "and our serve-receive is something we need to work on."
The Bulldogs start the season with a challenging tournament in Anchorage before beginning their Region III/3A regular season schedule.
"We're really looking forward to this season to see what we can do," Hobart-Verkuilen said.
While the high school season has gotten off the ground quickly, Seward coach Angela Hammer said that her Seahawks are set to go.
The Seahawks have four seniors returning to anchor the starting lineup in Carri Fisher, Erin Carr, Paula Bannock and Bethany Campbell.
"That's a good nucleus," Hammer said. "Those are some pretty solid players."
Sophomore Tara DeRuwe played a consistent game for the Seahawks last season; this year, Hammer is working with her on hitting the ball harder -- something for which DeRuwe is showing great aptitude.
"Our defense always seems to be solid, so we're trying to focus more on our offense and getting out hitting strength up," Hammer said. "We've been focusing on our communication and making sure everybody's working together."
While the Panthers lost two key players to graduation, Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid has several returning lettermen to anchor the 2000 squad.
Kupferschmid said many of her returning players focused on volleyball during the offseason, doing things in the weight room to increase strength and quickness as well as attending summer camps to work on technique and tactics.
Middle blocker Beth Massey and outside hitter and setter Amanda Bauer, both seniors, return to captain the squad. Kupferschmid said that Massey has her fundamentals -- her footwork and her armswing -- down pat and that Bauer showed up for practice this season stronger, faster and smarter.
Angel Hollers and Christine Hayes will fill outside hitter roles, and Shari Isaac, a junior defensive specialist, is competing for the team's primary passer position.
Hollers brings a competitive attitude to the floor every time out, and Hayes is one of the Panthers' most versatile players.
Laura Tarbox, a junior middle blocker, increased her shoulder strength over the summer by taking up rowing and has become a better all-around player.
Junior Jessica Truesdale has played as a setter and a right-side player for the Panthers and may find herself playing in the middle of the back row. Truesdale also is one of the Panthers' most consistent players at the service line.
Christina Colvin, a sophomore, has the nod as the Panthers' starting setter because of her work ethic, and Jenny Carpenter, a sophomore transfer student from Soldotna, should find some time in the rotation as a middle and outside hitter.
"I do have very good athletes coming in," Kupferschmid said. "The challenge is to make them into a unit. They're great kids to work with -- they really get after it on the floor.
"We'll be a competitive team, but we also like to have fun."
Three starters from Soldotna's 1999 squad that went 8-2 in Region III/4A and 13-2 overall graduated, but coach Ron Becker has some young, athletic talent eager to fill those holes.
"I've got a bunch of young players that want to be good and want to learn to play volleyball," Becker said. "As they learn the game, they're going to be A-OK."
The Stars have four seniors ready to lead the 2000 team. Gretta Besse will fill the role of middle blocker and Toni Gilbert will handle much of the setting responsibilities. Outside hitter Danielle Kerrone returns from last year's varsity roster and Alicia Malchoff will make the jump up from the junior varsity squad and should make an impact as a defensive specialist.
Hillary Zobeck and Kathryn Becker, both sophomores, are expected to see some rotations in the back row and as a setter, respectively. Rachel Besse, also a sophomore, is an up-and-coming force in the middle at the net and Jenna Pitts, a junior, should add some punch for the Stars on the outside and from the back row.
Becker is also looking for contributions from sophomores Ashley Dewey, Christa Martin, a setter, and Lauren Christensen, a defensive specialist. Tabitha Strauss, a junior outside hitter and middle blocker also could see some time in the varsity rotation.
"I have a lot of girls that will play JV and help out with varsity," Becker said. "Depending on how things go, they'll have an opportunity to step up."
Becker likes the athleticism he sees out on the floor, though.
"I have some really diverse kids that are involved in a lot of other athletic activities," Becker said. "I have girls that are really nice kids, excellent students, and really like volleyball."
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