With the high school volleyball season under way, one thing already had been made clear: There will be no easy matches on the Kenai Peninsula this season.
"All the teams (on the peninsula) are really scrappy on defense, so we have our work cut out for us this year," said Soldotna coach Pako Whannell following her squad's season-opening victory over Skyview on Aug. 26.
That match illustrated how many coaches expect much of the season to go this year the Panthers and Stars pushed each other to a five-game match, and just about every game could have gone either way.
The Panthers and Stars, along with the peninsula's other class 4A schools, Kenai Central and Homer, play in the newly renamed Northern Lights Conference this season. The conference, formerly known as Region III/4A, also includes Palmer, Colony and Wasilla from the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, and Kodiak.
The Nikiski Bulldogs and the Seward Seahawks, class 3A schools, now play in the Southcentral Conference, formerly District 3/3A, and compete with Mat-Su school Houston, as well as Anchorage Christian, Grace Christian and Heritage Christian from Anchorage.
Nikiski coach Bruce King, in his third season as head coach of the Bulldogs, is excited about the season.
"It's an unusual year for us," King said. "We won five matches our first season with this group of kids, and 13 last year, so I feel like we're ready to make a run at a region title, and perhaps at a state title."
King said many of the teams around the conference lost quite a few players from last year's campaigns, and expects perennial powers Grace and Seward to pose the biggest challenge to his Bulldogs' goals.
Unlike the rest of the conference, Nikiski has quite a few players returning from last year's team.
"We lost two seniors, so we've got our core group back," King said. "This group of girls is seniors and juniors and they've been part-time or full-time starters on varsity for two years now."
Returning players include middles Hannah Thompson and Krystal Gladden, outside players Georgie Heaverley and Racheal Gerke, setter Stacey Griffel, and defensive specialists Sasha Auldridge, Amber Huhndorf, Saharai Thompson and Eirleen Lee. Sherra Pritchard has jumped up from the junior varsity to play the opposite position.
"This group of girls, they think they've paid their dues. They're ready to make a statement this year," King said, whose squad is off to a 4-0 start.
In Seward, coach Angela Hammer said her team is in a rebuilding mode after graduating seven seniors from last year's squad. Returning players include setter Amy Reierson, Lara Loomis, Janessa Anderson and Serena Hoogland.
Hammer said struggling early will have long-term benefits for the Seahawks as she now knows the areas in which her team needs to improve.
"With each match you see what you have and what you have to work on," Hammer said.
Seward and Nikiski each made it to the state 3A championships last year, Seward as the District 3 champion and Nikiski as the district's No. 3 seed.
The peninsula's 4A teams were shut out of the state tournament, though, as none were able to place in the top three at the region tournament. This year's region tournament is in Homer, though, something peninsula teams are hoping will play to their advantage.
The peninsula's 4A teams each have a mix of veteran players and newcomers, though the ratio isn't the same for any of them.
Homer has just three players returning from last year's varsity lineup and a group of underclassmen getting plenty of court time. Kenai has much of its roster intact from last season, though coach Jason Diorec still considers his squad a young, up-and-coming team. Soldotna is led by a trio of seniors with several sophomores and a freshman rounding out the roster, and Skyview has a slew of new faces to go with a few returning players.
Bailey Lowney, Amanda Conley and Brittney VanSandt return to lead the Mariners. While her squad is young, Homer coach Beth Trowbridge is excited about the team's potential. Middle hitter Rachel Bornheimer has impressed, as has Reba Temple, a freshman holding her own at the net for the varsity squad.
"I think that even with this young team, we'll be competitive with everybody in our region," Trowbridge said. "If they keep progressing at this rate, by the end of the season, we're going to surprise some teams. Our goal is to be competitive this year, and come back next year even stronger."
The Mariners are 0-2 and will look to pick up a win as they host the Peninsula Challenge tournament this weekend.
With just a couple of new faces on the roster this season, second-year Kenai coach Jason Diorec said his team is building on last year's progress.
"We're starting out where we left off last year," Diorec said. "We're still young, but we're still excelling, and that's all I can ask for."
Samantha Calderwood, Katie Foley, Emily Kocinski, Amber McGlasson, Jamie Peterson and Kaitlin Walker all played major roles for the Kardinals last season. Kendra Steiner and Rochelle Stretch saw varsity time last season while Kelsey Brewer and Lindsay Keener make the jump to the varsity roster this season.
"So far, so good," Diorec said of his squad's start.
Kenai won the preseason Homer Jamboree and is 1-0 heading into this weekend's matches with Juneau and Kodiak at Kodiak.
Anna Bonebrake and Amber Kunz return to lead the Skyview Panthers. Cady Bon and Melissa Fay also saw some varsity playing time last season, but coach Sheila Kupferschmid has quite a few new faces in her lineup. Amy Arestad, Kendra Groves, Jennifer Holland, Chelsea Martin, Kim Massey and Alex West fill out the varsity roster.
Skyview dropped its first two matches of the season before beating Houston in three games for its first win.
The Stars are led by a trio of seniors, Stacey Foster, Kala Fowler and Megan Needs. Allyssa Roach, Christa Kennedy and Lauren Sennette also played for the Stars varsity last season, while Dani Donaldson, Laura Harro, Jess Hintermeister and Liz Rohloff swing up from the junior varsity. Paige Blackburn makes the varsity roster as a freshman.
"We have a young team this year four sophomores that says a lot for their athletic ability," Whannell said.
The Stars took advantage of their athleticism to win their first three matches of the season before falling to Nikiski this week.
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