The Kenai Central volleyball team opens up play at the Class 4A state volleyball tournament today at West High in Anchorage against Juneau-Douglas.
The two squads have backgrounds at the state tournament that could not be more different. The Kardinals are such rare visitors at the tournament that coach Jason Diorec could not say for sure when the team had last played at state.
Meanwhile, the Crimson Bears won the Southeast Conference to make their 13th straight trip to state. As recently as 2002, Juneau won the state crown. The Crimson Bears are 18-0 this season in best three-of-five matches.
However, Diorec is glad to have drawn Juneau to play. The Kardinals played the Crimson Bears twice earlier this season, losing in four games each time.
Diorec said it is better to go up against a known quantity than against some other team with a ton of state experience that the Kardinals haven't played, and thus could build into an unreasonable challenge in their heads.
"They've got a well-put-together team with great coaches," Diorec said of the Crimson Bears. "They outsize us just as well as Colony does. We played Colony better the second time we played them. Our defense has changed."
When Juneau rolled through the peninsula, 6-footers Lesley Kalbrener and Jillian Hahnlen were doing a fine job of imposing their wills on opponents. Kalbrener was named to the all Southeast Conference-team along with Juneau setter Rochele Rodman.
Kenai middle hitter Amber McGlasson said Juneau's 6-footers definitely make life tough.
"I'll just try to tip over the blocks, or get quick sets and hope the block is late," McGlasson said. "They're really hard to hit over."
The 6-footers also are dangerous hitters.
"We're going to have to pick up more with our floor defense and be aggressive up at the net, just like how we got through regions," Diorec said. "The girls all have heart. They can do it."
Another way the Kardinals can try and keep the Juneau hitters quiet is with a strong service game. The Kardinals have a number of players with wicked serves. That could keep Juneau from consistently setting up its hitters properly.
"One of the keys to our game is our serve," said Kenai hitter Emily Kocinski. "We depend on our serve for a lot of life."
McGlasson said one other thing that could work in Kenai's favor is that the Kardinals tend to play well at tournaments. Kenai won tournaments at Homer and at Grace Christian this season.
Diorec said his players adapt well to being in an environment where they are constantly surrounded by volleyball competition.
"They'll definitely be up to the challenge," Diorec said. "Granted, we'll be going against schools that swing as hard, or harder, than Colony.
"We're going to have to pick up our level of play one big step. These girls like being the underdogs and proving themselves."
Diorec also said the Kardinals are aided at tournaments by the tremendous support of the players' families and by all of the conditioning they do.
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