High school volleyball's second season starts today as the peninsula's teams gear up for their region tournaments.
Nikiski and Seward head to Anchorage Christian Schools where they are the top-seeded teams in the Region III/3A Championship. Homer, Skyview and Soldotna will converge on Kenai for the Region III/4A Championship.
Nikiski and Seward both take 11-1 region records into the 3A tournament, having split their season series.
Tournament organizers opted to look at competition against common non-region opponents, where the Seahawks had a slight advantage, giving them the top seed and the first-round bye.
Nikiski coach Cherrie Hobart-Verkuilen doesn't consider playing a first-round match a handicap, though.
"I don't feel like Seward getting the bye puts us at any disadvantage," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "Sometimes, when you've got young kids and you get to the tournament, they can get nervous. Playing ACS gives us a chance to get those nerves out of the way. We can make a few mistakes and it's not going to hurt us."
While Nikiski's first-round match against the last-seeded Lions will give the Bulldogs a chance to get into the swing of things, the bracket gets tougher the rest of the way. Chances are good that, if the Bulldogs play up to their abilities, they'll face Seward for the region championship.
"I believe it will" end up that way, Hobart-Verkuilen said. "I have all the confidence in the world."
Hobart-Ver-kuilen said Nikiski will continue to rally around its veteran players -- middle hitter Laura Berdahl, setter Laura-Beth Covich and outside hitter Jessica Arness.
"It will be exciting," Hobart-Ver-kuilen said, "I think it's going to be a fantastic finish. I'm looking forward to seeing just how much we've improved."
Palmer, 10-0 in Region III/4A play, is a favorite to take the region crown, but the tournament promises some very close, competitive matches.
"As a whole, the region is tighter than it's ever been," said Kenai coach Vanessa Gabel.
"The team that comes out with focus and confidence is going to win," said Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid.
The Kenai Kardinals are hoping that some recent improvement -- and a home court advantage -- will carry them through to a state berth.
"We've been working before and after practice, just getting the gym ready," Gabel said. "It looks pretty neat in there."
Kenai (2-8 in region play) plays Wasilla (6-4) in the final game of the evening, and a raucous crowd could give the Kardinals just the edge they need.
"(Momentum) is huge," Gabel said. "Once you get that crowd rocking in your favor, it can be a big boost."
Kenai will rely on the setting ability of Jamie Montgomery to coordinate a front-row attack that includes Erica Shinn, Laura Rhyner and Kirsten Ehrhardt. Gabel said that the team's serve-receive has come a long way, thanks to the back-row efforts of Amy Fischer, Shamra Bauder and Holly McCune.
Soldotna earned the top seed from the southern division with its 8-2 region mark and will face Colony (4-6).
The Stars are coming off a successful road trip, beating Wasilla in four games in the Valley Saturday. Coach Ron Becker said that the team made the trip into a special event, traveling to Wasilla on Friday to watch the Warriors play Kenai, and then taking in a movie (Remember the Titans) together on Friday night.
The Stars have been firing on all cylinders this season, from setters Toni Gilbert and Kathryn Becker to outside hitters Danielle Kerrone and Hillary Zobeck and middle blockers Gretta Besse and Rachel Besse.
Alecia Malchoff gives the Stars a boost when she enters the game to serve and as a defensive specialist.
Soldotna dropped a five-game match early in the season to the Knights, after which Becker said his team let Colony off the hook. After losing the first game of the match, the Stars won two straight, but couldn't close out the match. Colony tied the match in game four and won with extra points in game five.
Skyview (4-6) opens the tournament against Kodiak (6-4). Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid expects a much different match than when the teams met early in the season.
The Panthers have suffered a setback in their preparations -- in addition to a couple of players feeling a little sick, hitter Jenny Carpenter rolled an ankle in practice this week.
"That's not real good heading into regions, but those are some of the breaks you've got to work with," Kupferschmid said.
Skyview has played several five-game matches this season, including a pair last weekend, and Kupferschmid said she noticed something when games went long.
"In those matches, we served too many ball out," Kupferschmid said. "We know where we're losing matches -- that's good to know."
With that in mind, Kupferschmid had her Panthers spending some extra time at the service line this week.
Kupferschmid said the performance of her senior players, Beth Massey and Amanda Bauer, will be a key in determining the Panthers' fate.
"Amanda's always been consistent," Kupferschmid said. "If Beth can do the job at the net blocking and hitting, we'll compete.
"Then it boils down to defense for us."
The Homer Mariners (0-10) will have a chance to play plenty of defense themselves, having drawn the daunting task of taking on Palmer in the opening round. That match kicks off the tournament today at 1 p.m.
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