With all of Region III/4A present, this weekend's high school volleyball jamboree in Homer should help dispel some of the rumors about who has what as teams prepare for the upcoming season.
Still, this season's team to beat is anybody's guess.
"I've been hearing rumors," said Kenai Central coach Vanessa Gabel. "It'll be nice to at least have a guess as to what we're up against. From what I hear, maybe Colony is not as strong as they were, but Kodiak is strong, and Soldotna, Skyview and us are getting stronger. Our division is catching up with the Northern Division.
"It makes it interesting with nothing set in stone from the get-go."
Meanwhile, the peninsula's two District 3/3A teams, Nikiski and Seward, are going to be taking things one game at a time.
The Bulldogs are coming off a Class 3A state title, and while coach Cherrie Hobart-Verkuilen has several seniors on the roster, just two starters from last year's team are back on the court this season.
"Chronologically, we're an old team, but we're pretty inexperienced," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "We'll take some knocks early, but I hope it will build character down the stretch."
Seward coach Angie Hammer sees plenty of potential in her Seahawks, but said it may take a few games for some of it to surface.
"It's there somewhere. It'll come out," Hammer said. "I have a lot of girls that just don't have a lot of varsity experience. It will be nice to see how they grow. It will be nice to work into the season. It'll be interesting to see how it turns out."
The Skyview Panthers will attempt to duplicate last year's run to the 4A state tournament, but coach Sheila Kupferschmid expects plenty of competition along the way.
"My feeling is that the Valley team to beat is Wasilla," Kupferschmid said. "Teams that were down last year are going to be up, like Homer and Kenai. SoHi is always up, so I foresee a very competitive Southern Division."
The following is a closer look at the peninsula's volleyball teams:
Second-year coach Beth Trowbridge opens the season with what she said was a good core group of players to build around.
Senior Chaunna Deitz will handle the setting chores after honing her skills with the Mariners JV squad last season. Junior Chelsea Ward saw plenty of varsity time last season, as did senior Jami Epley and senior Arinda Brooks.
Trowbridge also was excited to add Holly McCune, a transfer from Kenai, to the roster.
"She stabilizes everything," Trowbridge said. "She's a smart player with good hustle and a great attitude.
"I feel like a have a pretty solid corps of juniors. There's still a lot of learning to do, but I can round them out with my seniors."
Homer opened its season with a three-game win over Nikiski, and Trowbridge thinks this year's team will be able to shake off last season's 0-10 Region III/4A mark.
"They're hungry to do well," Trowbridge said. "Girls that played last year were frustrated with the season. They're hungry to have a good season this year."
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
The Kardinals opened the season with a tough win over Seward, and Gabel said she has an experienced, athletic team that should be very competitive after going 2-8 in Region III last year.
Senior Amy Fischer is handling the setting chores and Erica Shinn, also a senior, is back in the middle of the front row.
Senior Laura Rhyner starts the season as an outside hitter, senior Shamra Bauder is a solid defensive specialist and Kamilla Goggia is developing into a strong right-side hitter.
Junior Crystal Morris joins Fischer and Shinn as team captains.
"It's a great group of girls. We're meshing very well as a team," Gabel said. "We don't have too many huge girls, but we have a lot of height overall, and we'll keep building on our strengths."
The Bulldogs earned a state title in dramatic fashion last fall, but this year's team has plenty of new faces. While taking the state title is still fresh in Hobart-Verkuilen's mind, the loss of a junior varsity player in a car accident on her way to watch the state championship game weighs heavily on the Bulldogs' hearts.
Hobart-Verkuilen has two starters returning from last year's team in senior April Lofstedt and junior Ashley Goff. Seniors Joy Carr, Mindy Cason and Kassie Thomson and junior Karen Rabung will be making bigger contributions than they did as role players last year. Senior Lyndsy Pritchard and juniors Sam Roofe, Rainey Reilly and Liz Golia will be making their debuts as full-time varsity players.
Hobart-Verkuilen said the Bulldogs made some early season mistakes in their season-opening loss to Homer, but Nikiski was able to pull things together to beat Seward Friday.
"We have to understand that where we are today is not where we'll be come tournament time," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "The kids want to perform well and with that kind of attitude, they'll get there. They're great kids. We definitely have a tremendous amount of untapped potential."
If the Bulldogs can continue to find ways to tap their potential, Hobart-Verkuilen expects them to be competitive in District 3/3A competition.
"It's hard to wait for the season to play out and see how it's going to end," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "We came off our greatest triumph, and our greatest tragedy. It's time to focus on a new year and new opportunities."
With 36 players in the Seahawks program, one of Hammer's biggest challenges is making sure everyone plays the position they're best-suited to play.
Hammer has several returning players to build around, including senior outside hitter Amara Liggett and juniors Alder Olive and Tara DeRuwe. Hammer said that Jamie Fredrickson, a solid defensive player for the Seahawks, surprised the Seward coaches with her versatility at outside hitter during Seward's first matches of the season.
The Panthers are hoping to make a repeat appearance in the state 4A tournament, and Kupferschmid said her team opened the season with lofty goals.
"The kids came in with high expectations and a lot of enthusiasm," Kupferschmid said. "If there's three words to describe my team, they would be experience, balance and depth. We have a lot of good athletes. It's a great bunch of kids. I've had these seniors for three years, so they've grown up with me in our program. I expect it to be a fun year."
Kupferschmid has seven retuning letter winners. Senior Christine Hayes has been a defensive specialist but may be seeing more action as an outside hitter this season. Senior Angel Hollers also is competing for an outside hitter position, and Laura Tarbox, also a senior, brings more attacking skills to the court this year, in addition to her talents as a middle blocker.
Senior Shari Isaak, a defensive specialist who plays centerback for the Panthers, is one of the team's best servers as well as the primary passer.
Jessika Truesdell, a senior defensive specialist and centerback, also is in the running for a spot on the right side, and senior Brandi Aldridge is looking to make the jump to the varsity level as a right-side player.
Kupferschmid expects Jenny Carpenter, a junior outside hitter, to be a big part of the Panthers' offense, and junior setter Christina Colvin brings a great deal of experience to the court.
"A lot of times, the setter is an indication of how good a team can be," Kupferschmid said. "With her experience and athletic ability, she brings a lot to this team."
Kupferschmid called Stacia Pfaffe her dark horse, adding that other coaches may mistake the middle blocker for a transfer student. Actually, Pfaffe has been in the Skyview program and made a dramatic improvement during the off-season.
Kupferschmid called Laurel Creel one of the most athletic players on the team, and sophomores Lindsey Gephardt and Amanda Fay round out the varsity roster.
Pako Whannell takes the reins as head coach at her alma mater after serving as an assistant in Kenai for seven years.
"I'm excited to get the season started," Whannell said. "The opportunity came up, and I thought it was the perfect time to get back over here."
Whannell said the transition has been relatively easy because she already was familiar with most of the players on the Stars roster.
"The girls are so positive and eager to learn," Whannell said.
Whannell said junior outside hitter Hillary Zobeck was one of her top players, and along with seniors Tabitha Strauss and Jenna Pitts, provided strong leadership.
Junior Rachel Besse returns as a blocker and middle hitter, and Whannell called junior setter Christa Martin a quiet leader.
Freshman Stacey Foster also plays setter for the Stars, and while she doesn't have much experience, Whannell said she picks things up very quickly.
"With my girls and their attitude, we're going to have a good year," Whannell said. "As long as you improve every time you're on the court, you're successful."
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