The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The 2003 high school volleyball season got under way in earnest last weekend with quite a few changes, from the graduation of many of last year's top players in Region III/4A and District 3/3A to the change to rally scoring.
Still, teams will be faced with familiar challenges, namely staying focused through the season and figuring out which players will step up to fill the holes left by last year's departing stars.
"Everybody lost all their big hitters and big blockers," said Homer coach Beth Trowbridge, whose Mariners made the trip to the 4A state tournament last season. "It was evenly competitive last year, but it evened out again this year."
As for the switch to rally scoring, most peninsula coaches are excited by the change.
"I like rally scoring," said Soldotna coach Pako Whannell. "It keeps the game exciting. Every mistake, every error is a point, so it keeps you on your toes. There's no way you can give away five or six points and expect to stay in the game. You have to be focused and concentrate on your basic skills."
Under the rally scoring format adopted by the Alaska School Activities Association for this season, matches will be decided by the best three out of five games. Game point in the first four games will be 25, though a team must still win by two points. The fifth game, if necessary, will be played to 15, and a team must still win by two points.
The major difference from the side-out format of seasons past is that a point will be awarded on every serve. A team does not have to be serving to earn a point, eliminating the scoreless periods when teams would trade side-outs without scoring points.
The other major change for this season is that let serves, serves that hit the net but continue over the net into the opponent's court, will be live, playable balls.
"That's going to be the hardest thing to get used to," said Trowbridge, explaining that players have an ingrained tendency to relax for a split second if a serve hits the net.
"It means that players have to stay focused on every single play," said Nikiski coach Bruce King. "One of the keys to our success (at the Homer jamboree) is that we were able to do that.
"Plus, (rally scoring) is an incredibly fun format to watch."
Nikiski was the top team at the Homer jamboree, but King expects a battle ahead of the Bulldogs to return the the 3A state tournament.
"Grace was one of the two strongest teams in our region last year, and that was a team made up primarily of juniors," King said. "And of course, Seward is always strong. Those two teams will own the top until someone can prove otherwise."
The Mariners and the Skyview Panthers represented the peninsula at the 4A state tournament last season, and earning a trip to this year's championships should be just as competitive.
"It is going to be a really tough year," Whannell said. "It's exciting. All the teams (in the region) are going to be really tough, but they're all going to be young, with two or three seniors per team. All the elite players are going to be young."
The following is a closer look at each of the peninsula's high school volleyball teams:
The Bulldogs missed out on a trip to the state tournament last season, but second-year coach Bruce King said despite the loss of five starters, he'll have a more experienced team on the floor this season.
"We were a really young team, and a lot of kids got playing time," King said. "We're probably more experienced this year than we were last year.
"I think we're a better team now than we were at the end of last year. Our goal, as always, is to be the most improved team at the end of the season, and give ourselves a shot at making it to the state tournament."
Leading the charge for the Bulldogs this season will be junior Krystal Gladden, a middle hitter, sophomore Stacey Griffel, the team's new setter, and sophomore Sasha Auldridge, and outside hitter.
The Seahawks will try to defend their District 3/3A title, but they'll do it with a new cast of characters. Coach Angela Hammer said she lost six players from last year's team to graduation, but she's got seven seniors and six juniors to work with this season.
"I've got a few returners from last year, not necessarily starters, but girls that have some experience," Hammer said. "It'll take some working to get through this new offense and get the combinations right out there."
In the mix for the Seahawks will be senior setter Krista Boulden, junior setter and outside hitter Amy Reierson, senior outside hitter Lisa Steinbrecher and senior middle hitter Breanna Bardarson.
Hammer said she'll be looking for her team to continue to improve over the course of the season.
"In the past couple of years, we've been really strong right away, but then we haven't gone any further," Hammer said.
The Mariners are looking to make another trip to the state tournament.
"That was one of our first goals" set by the players, coach Beth Trowbridge said. "Before, we kind of had to pry it out of them, but definitely, there's the attitude that we can do it. At the same time, there's a weight on our shoulders. We made a name for ourselves last year, and we have to prove it wasn't a fluke."
The Mariners, who went 7-3 in region play last year, have four returning varsity players, including two starters, and several seniors who have been away from the game for one reason or another.
Returning players include junior setter Bailey Lowney and senior outside hitters Gretchin Duggar and Sarah Manilisay. Senior Chrissy Eller also returns.
Trowbridge also is looking for contributions from senior Candi Findino, a strong hitter who played junior varsity last season, and Chantrelle Cousins, a senior who went out for the Homer football team last year.
"We're not going to be flashy, but we're going to be solid," Trowbridge said. "We're going to be competitive. It might take us a little while to get it all together, but we'll be strong by the end of the season."
Jason Diorec takes over the Kardinals program and is excited about his new team.
"We're a young squad, with three seniors," Diorec said, "and we have a lot of sophomores and freshmen that are very talented, and we have some strong juniors."
Calling the shots will be senior setter Ali DeMello, whom Diorec said was ready to lead the team.
Other players to watch will be junior Emily Kozcinsky and senior Heather McIntyre, as well as two transfer students from Nikiski, Jamie Peterson and Samantha Calderwood.
Diorec also was excited to have his father, Jose, working with the team as the junior varsity coach.
"We've got a young squad, but the girls are so athletic, we're going to be a powerhouse, I think," Diorec said. "They're anxious (to get started). They got a little taste of it at the jamboree, and they're ready."
The Panthers lost three players from last year's Region III/4A championship team to graduation, but have been hurt even more by school district cuts parents of two players who were expected to contribute this season had their positions cut and have moved out of the district.
"So what that means is we have a young group," said coach Sheila Kupferschmid.
Returning letter-winners include seniors Lindsay Gephardt and Amanda Fay, junior Amber Kunz and sophomore Anna Bonebreak.
Kupferschmid said players to watch this season include sophomores Jessie Kloote, Jackie Bates, Shelley Hefner, Michelle Hicks and Amy Arstead.
"They're young kids and hungry to learn," Kupferschmid said. "They're coming in and doing the things that are important to succeed. I'm really encouraged."
Kupferschmid said her team is familiar with Skyview's recent success three straight trips to the state tournament with a runner-up finish in 2001.
"I've got on our practice T-Shirts, 'Hungry for more?'" Kupferschmid said. "It's something they are aware of, and something that they also can strive for, so really, it's a question mark."
Coach Pako Whannell said a big incoming freshman class has given the program a jolt of energy.
"This group of girls is ready to work," Whannell said of her team. "They're positive, they're excited, and they just have a really good chemistry. It's nice to see them encouraging and supporting each other."
Returning seniors include Jacquelyn Cowan and Heather Roach, while junior Stacey Foster returns to her setter position.
Junior Megan Needs also will do some setting while Kala Fowler, Taryn Moeglein and Alyssa Roach will move up to the varsity roster after playing JV last season.
Whannell said that freshmen Christa Kennedy and Lauren Senette will see some varsity time as well.
"It's really exciting this year, "Whannell said. "The 14 incoming freshmen are very athletic and very positive. I'm lucky that I have a great group of girls to work with after losing six seniors from last year."
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