It's a whole new season.
For high school volleyball teams playing in the Region III/4A and District 3/3A tournaments starting today, all the regular season has proved is that the battle for the three state berths in each tournament is wide open.
"There's hope," said Kenai Central coach Vanessa Gabel. "In the past Wasilla, Colony and Palmer have been such forces, it's made our lives difficult down here. It's fun going into the region tournament with a decent chance to go to state. You still have to work hard for it, but it's there."
Kenai finished the regular season as the No. 3 seed in Region III's Southern Division and will start off against Palmer, the No. 2 seed from the Northern Division.
Skyview clinched the top spot in the Southern Division and will face Northern Division No. 4 Kodiak in the opening round, Homer has the No. 2 spot in the Southern Division and will face Northern Division No. 3 Colony and Southern Division No. 4 Soldotna will play the Northern Division's top seed, tournament host Wasilla, in the opening round.
In the District 3/3A tournament, Nikiski is the top seed and has a bye through the first round.
Seward opens the tournament against Anchorage Christian Schools, Houston plays host Heritage Christian and Susitna Valley plays Grace Christian.
"You never know what happens when tournament time comes around," said Seward coach Angie Hammer. "One thing I've learned is that you can never discount anyone. Tournament play is a whole different animal.
"It makes it more fun -- you can go through a season and have it be pretty dull except for a couple of games, but then in a tournament, it's anyone's game."
Nikiski and Seward have owned the District 3/3A tournament in recent years. Nikiski, the defending state 3A champion, defeated the Seahawks in the championship match of last year's tournament while Seward took the 1999 title en route to a runner-up finish in the state tournament.
Hammer said that the Seahawks' season has been tough, but the tournament should make for some interesting volleyball.
"The whole season has been a lot of work," Hammer said. "We've had so many more four- and five-game matches. It will probably help us out at state."
The Bulldogs have had to work hard themselves over the past week, scrambling to fill holes left by key players out with illness or away due to family commitments. By drawing the bye through the first round, Nikiski coach Cherrie Hobart-Verkuilen has an extra day for the Bulldogs to get healthy and organized.
"After the Dimond-Service tournament, I felt like we really started to gel and come together," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "Now, instead of focusing on team goals we're trying to adapt and scramble."
With three games last week, Hobart-Verkuilen did say that her squad was able to get in the work needed to be competitive at the district tournament.
Region III/4A teams also should have a competitive tournament in store as the gap between the top of the region and the bottom has narrowed considerably.
The Skyview Panthers potentially could take the same path to reach the state tournament they did last season. Round 1 is a rematch with Kodiak, and a win would produce a semifinal against the winner of the Kenai-Palmer match. Skyview defeated Palmer in dramatic fashion last year to reach the title game, where the Panthers lost to Wasilla.
A pair of challenging matches against Colony and Palmer last weekend has the Panthers brimming with confidence heading into the tournament.
"Hard games like this get us ready to go into regions," said Skyview's Angel Hollers after the Panthers' win over Colony. "Coach keeps saying she wants us to have confidence going into regions."
The rest of the Southern Division also is brimming with confidence and all eyes are on the three state berths up for grabs.
"Most of the teams are pretty even," said Homer coach Beth Trowbridge. "It's just going to be who is playing their best game this weekend. A lot of teams have been up and down."
Soldotna, which finished at the bottom of the Southern Division standings, gets a fresh start with the tournament.
"Anything is possible since the region is so tight," said Stars coach Pako Whannell. "It doesn't matter what happened all season. We've been improving. All season we've been preparing for Thursday, Friday and Saturday. That's what counts."
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