Since success in volleyball depends so much on team-bonding and experience, losing a bunch of seniors can often make for a tough season the following year.
Well, all six of the Kenai Peninsula's volleyball teams lost a lot of seniors.
Soldotna, which made the Class 4A state tournament, lost seven seniors and coach Pako Whannell. Nikiski, which finished fourth at the Class 3A state tournament, lost six senior starters and coach Bruce King.
Skyview, which finished undefeated in nontournament play last year before missing state due to upsets at the Northern Lights Conference tournament, lost six seniors. Homer lost six seniors, three of which were starters, Kenai lost six seniors and Seward lost five seniors.
But none of the peninsula's programs are even close to being ready to raise the white flag as the season gathers steam. Tradition, coaching stability and the willingness of players to work in the summer have all six of the peninsula's coaches expecting to be competitive this fall.
At Kenai, coach Jason Diorec is now in his fifth season as head coach. "What's been exciting is the amount of dedication to the sport down here," Diorec said. "Seeing these players all through the sport that have went to college and played has generated more interest in the sport."
Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid is in her eighth year at the school and has noticed her players want to live up to the standard of excellence set by previous squads.
"I'd sure like to think the kids have paved the way for more success," Kupferschmid said. "They've built a tradition where Skyview volleyball is competitive. The kids coming up see that and want to work hard to fill those shoes."
While Homer also has the benefit of coaching continuity thanks to Beth Trowbridge's tenure of seven years, even the schools with relatively new coaches have stability on their sides.
At Soldotna, Bruce King takes over for Whannell. However, King has been involved in the area high school volleyball scene for over 20 years and also is heavily involved in club volleyball.
At Nikiski, Sharon Thompson takes over for King. Thompson has been a girls basketball assistant at Nikiski since 2004. She is just the third coach in Nikiski volleyball history and has been getting help at practice from Cherrie Hobart-Verkuilen, the architect of the program who won four Class 3A titles and finished runner-up three times before giving the program to King in 2002.
At Seward, Jennifer McDonald is in her second year as coach. She has carried over Seward's reputation as a scrappy team that enjoys success because players are never afraid to hit the floor.
"They've always been scrappy, for whatever reason," McDonald said of her players. "Last year our middle blocker would get down on the floor just as quickly as a player that's 5-foot-2. If it's in a game, and the momentum is going, they're all pretty scrappy."
Because the peninsula teams will have so many new faces playing key roles, all the coaches agreed that there will not be one dominant team on the peninsula like Skyview was last year.
"I think it will be kind of like a couple years ago, when we all had teams that were pretty equal in the North and South (divisions of the NLC)," Trowbridge said. "It seemed like every match went to five games. That's fun, competitive volleyball."
The following is a closer look at the peninsula's volleyball teams:
Volleyball squads bounce backAlthough NLC Southern Division coaches don't expect there to be a dominant team this year, most coaches give the edge to Homer due to height and experience. Of the six seniors lost, three were starters. Homer returns towering senior middle hitter Reba Temple.
Homer also gets height from junior outside hitter Jill Temple, junior middle blocker Lindsay Layland, junior setter Piper Daugherty and senior outside hitter Kasi Devaney.
Other key players will be senior right side hitter Emily Kizzia and junior libero Alivia Erickson.
"This group of girls they're all good friends and they've played sports together a long time," Trowbridge said. "They've grown up together, so they are a really cohesive group.
"Reba was on varsity as a freshman, so you're looking at four years of experience there. Some others have three years. So the experience is there."
All 6 peninsula teams lose many seniors, but still plan on success
Diorec has only two returning seniors, but the squad did get some valuable experience this summer.
"I had seven of them go to camp at Washington State University," Diorec said. "It was great. They learned a ton and really grew together as a team.
"We really gelled and really did quite well. They had a tournament there and we came in with the bronze. There were probably around 40 to 60 teams down there."
The two returning seniors are middle hitter and captain Kyla Steward and outside hitter Ronni Sounart.
Diorec also will be leaning heavily on sophomore setter Mariah Huhndorf.
"She's still slightly too quiet for what I would like as an all-around setter," Diorec said. "Skillswise, she's stepped it up this year. She's well-rounded this year."
The coach said junior Hannah Delaney is his go-to outside hitter, while other key players are junior middle blocker Kristi Louthan and freshman Christina Taylor.
Sharon Thompson became very involved with the Nikiski program while watching her daughter, Hannah, make the all-state tournament team for all four years of her career.
"I didn't have anybody that I was watching with Hannah leaving," Thompson said. "I wanted to stay involved in volleyball.
"It would have been great to keep Bruce here. He's an outstanding coach. But this is an opportunity to get into a great program with a great group of young girls."
The group Thompson will be molding this year is sophomore setter Hillary Bogard, junior libero Danielle Bowers, senior defensive player Rachel Bogard, senior middle blocker Tasha Thompson, junior power hitter Shalene Peek, junior weak-side hitter Rachel Romans, sophomore Maddie Knolls and sophomore Kassie Johnson.
"We're pretty young and there's not a whole lot of varsity experience," Thompson said. "They're working hard each week and they've gotten better. I'm excited to see where we'll be at the end of the season."
The Seahawks have plenty of time to adjust to the loss of five seniors thanks to playing in Alaska. "I'm from Washington. Up here, all the teams go to regions," McDonald said. "Basically, I can mess around with the girls until I figure out where to put them. We get into regions no matter what our record is."
No matter how much McDonald shuffles her squad, she won't be able to put a player taller than 5-foot-8 in the front row.
"I lost my two middles that were on the all-region team," McDonald said. "That's kind of hurt me. I don't have any blocking power."
Sophomore middle blocker Holly Ganser and senior outside hitter Michelle Buchanan are 5-8 and the tallest players on the team. Other key players will be senior setter Tarrah Beals, senior middle hitter Ivana Banic, senior defensive specialist Katie Kain and senior utility player Kylie Clemens.
The Panthers have a lot of building to do after their losses to graduation last year. Kupferschmid said her squad got started on the project a little early.
"We had a good group of kids play club ball, and three off our team went to the volleyball festival in Reno," Kupferschmid said. "Those things are key."
Junior Missy Massey, sophomore Jayci Lambourn and junior Jessie Bilderback attended the festival. The Panthers also have some varsity experience in junior Brittney Meyer. Kupferschmid also said the program gets a big boost from the return of senior setter Candace Penrod to the program.
Other key players will be senior Megan Revis, senior Jessi Pugh, sophomore Casee Penrod, freshman Jaxson Hill and junior Maddie Abbott.
Kupferschmid also pointed to the 30 players out for the program as a positive sign.
"Our program is constantly moving forward," Kupferschmid said. "I can say it's a rebuilding year, that's fine. But I think we've got some athletes and we'll be able to compete."
Even though the Stars lost seven seniors, they do return senior Paige Blackburn, the most valuable player in the NLC Southern Division last year.
"If you had to start a program, that's the one senior you would want," King said. "I'm not sure we're building the team around her, but we'll definitely make Paige work this season.
"As far as building is concerned, we're building around a couple juniors and a bunch of sophomores. We're looking for Paige to be a leader and do what she does best on the court."
Junior Jessi Stenga will be at libero this year, while junior April Heffner also has joined the varsity squad.
Sophomore Emily Rohloff will play the setter position this year for the first time. King said he held a three-hour clinic with Sherri Sanders, a former All-American setter at Long Beach State. At the end of the clinic, Rohloff was chosen as the setter.
Other key sophomores on the squad will be Mariah Hamilton, Shana Powell, Megan Hardy, Chelsea Wilbanks and Jessica Utrup.
"I'm very excited about this team," King said. "The athleticism is extremely high. Our task is to turn athletes into volleyball players.
"This group works hard every day. Their attitude is outstanding. I think they're making a lot of progress."
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