The Northern Lights Conference volleyball tournament will not be one for the faint of heart.
"The kids have to play aggressive," said Skyview High School coach Sheila Kupferschmid. "They can't play not to lose. They have to go out and be more aggressive than their opponents."
The NLC tournament gets under way today at Soldotna High School, with the Stars, Panthers, Kenai Central Kardinals and Homer Mariners squaring off with Colony, Wasilla, Palmer and Kodiak.
Also this weekend, Nikiski will put its undefeated regular-season record on the line at the Southcentral Conference tournament, hosted by Grace Christian High School in Anchorage. The tournament starts Friday and the Bulldogs have a first-round bye. Nikiski will play at 6 p.m. against the winner of the 2 p.m. Seward-Houston match.
"I think we're confident, but I don't think we're cocky about it," Nikiski coach Bruce King said of his Bulldogs. "I think these players understand that if they play to their capabilities, they have a great chance of getting to the state tournament."
King said he didn't expect to breeze through the conference tournament on the way to state.
"I don't think it's going to be easy. Grace is a tough team. In their building they're going to be very confident and very tough," he said.
King said a return trip to the state tournament is just one in a progression of goals for his team.
"We have several goals when we start the season. The first one is to finish first or second in the conference so we can get a bye in the conference tournament.
"Then, the girls understand that the higher you finish at the conference tournament, the better chance you have of playing a lower-seeded team in the first round of the state tournament, so we would like to finish first in the conference tournament for that reason," King said.
King said his team has practiced well this week and played well against Grace last weekend. His biggest concern is the health of senior Georgie Heaverley as she works back from an ankle injury. King said Heaverley is at about 90 percent heading into the weekend.
"I think the face that Georgie was out for so long gave some younger players a chance to step up and show what they can do. As a team, that makes us more confident knowing they can step in and fill a role," King said.
King also noted the contributions of late from the rest of his seniors.
"Sasha Auldridge, Stacey Griffel and Amber Huhndorf have really turned it up in practice, and I'm pleased with the way the junior class has come along in the last few weeks. They all have gotten more serious," King said. "Amber Huhndorf is out there pushing everybody on every play. She's the best communicator we have on the floor, but everybody's been making contributions That's what it takes to win a title."
Kenai Central enters the NLC tournament as the top team from the conference's southern division. Kupferschmid said the senior-laden squad is playing with the type of aggressiveness that leads to confidence on the court.
The Kardinals clinched their first trip to the state tournament in recent memory by claiming third at last year's conference tournament. This year's Kardinals lineup is much the same as the team that went to the state tournament last season, except that now most of those players are seniors with another year of experience under their belts.
Still, Kenai coach Jason Diorec said there were some jitters this week in practice.
"They want to do so much better (than last year)," Diorec said. "The want to, of course, make it to state again, then do even better. They've been getting a lot of feedback from other teams and fans that they really want to see Kenai go all the way. That has a lot to do with it, as well as the fact that this is their last shot."
Diorec said team unity has been a strength for the Kardinals this season. Players not only work hard, but do their best to build each other's confidence and won't let each other get frustrated.
Diorec said senior Samantha Calderwood has come on strong since the team played in a tournament hosted by Grace a few weeks ago.
"She's been peaking at the right time, her as well as everyone else, but she's been keeping the team consistent," Diorec said.
Diorec said it should be an exciting tournament.
"We're not underestimating any team we go up against. The great part about regions is that every coach and every player is going to show up with the best they have, do the best they can and leave everything out on the court," Diorec said.
Kupferschmid said a trip to state is her team's ultimate goal, and the Panthers have been preparing well for the tournament.
"I think my goal is for the kids to be competitive, to play to their potential, to stay unified as a team and never overlook opponents," Kupferschmid said.
Skyview's attack has been a strength over the past several matches.
"I feel we've always been an offensive threat. I've got kids that can put the ball away it's not every year that's the case and we're always striving and working on the defensive aspect of the game. That comes with a lot of contacts, a lot of hours in the gym," Kupferschmid said.
Kupferschmid said junior Alex West will be a big part of any success the Panthers achieve at the tournament.
"She has come on tremendously this last half of the season," Kupferschmid said. "You can always say the setter dictates how well a team does so Melissa Fay is a key to our opportunities, and it's going to be a chore and a job for our opponents to contain Anna Bonebrake.
"The basic aspects of the game, serve and serve-receive, are crucial to every team to do well."
While the Stars enter the competition with an 0-10 mark in NLC play, coach Pako Whannell said she'd like to see her team finish strong. Without a senior on the roster, Whannell sees plenty of potential in her squad and would like to see them finish this season with an eye on next year.
"I really would like to have the girls play really well, not only to end the season on a high note, but to look forward to next season as well. We have so many young girls and so much potential. At the region tournament there's a little more pressure, but it will be a good experience for the girls," Whannell said.
Whannell said she'd love to see the gym filled with hometown fans when the Stars take the court for the final match of the evening.
Whannell noted that middle hitter Paige Blackburn has been consistent throughout the season, notching four or five blocks and five to 15 kills every match.
"All the girls give an all-out effort. Without the pass and set, Paige would not have an opportunity to attack. The last two days we have had great practices, and spirits are high," Whannell said. "We've made some changes to our lineup. The girls are excited and ready to play. We'll go 100 percent and see what happens from there."
Northern Lights Conference Tournament
Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Soldotna
Game 1 Palmer vs. Homer, 1 p.m.
Game 2 Kodiak vs. Kenai, 3 p.m.
Game 3 Wasilla vs. Skyview, 5 p.m.
Game 4 Soldotna vs. Colony, 7 p.m.
Game 5 Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 1 p.m.
Game 6 Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 3 p.m.
Game 7 Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 5 p.m.
Game 8 Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 9 Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 loser, 9 a.m.
Game 10 Game 5 winner vs. Game 8 loser, 11 a.m.
Third place Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 3 p.m.
Championship Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 5:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday
at Grace Christian High School, Anchorage
Game 1 Seward vs. Houston, 2 p.m.
Game 2 Heritage vs. Anchorage Christian Schools, 4 p.m.
Game 3 Game 1 winner vs. Nikiski, 6 p.m.
Game 4 Game 2 winner vs. Grace, 8 p.m.
Game 5 Game 2 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 9 a.m.
Game 6 Game 1 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 11 a.m.
Third place Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 3 p.m.
Championship Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 5 p.m.
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