Experience and success are often closely linked in a sport like volleyball, where the delicate, quick-trigger oneness of a team is molded by years of playing together.
But there’s a flip side to that.
Experience in high school means graduation, so the most successful teams often have many of their best players to replace the following season. At schools with relatively lower enrollments like those on the Kenai Peninsula, that means success is often followed by rebuilding.
But not on the Kenai Peninsula this season. Nikiski and Seward were the only peninsula teams to go to state last season, yet both teams return with plenty of experience for this season.
Meanwhile, the coaches for Kenai, Soldotna and Homer say they have a season of tinkering ahead in hopes of getting a steady lineup in place for the conference tournament and a possible state run.
The Bulldogs had the most success last season, yet still return a ton of experience this season.
Last season, Nikiski snapped an 11-year drought by winning the Southcentral Conference championship. The Bulldogs then finished second at the Class 3A state tournament, missing out on a first title since 2000.
Stacey Segura, in her sixth year at the helm, has six returners who were starters last season. Included in that group are conference first-teamers Melanie Sexton, a senior, and Kelsey Clark, a junior. Senior Jamie Yerkes, a second-teamer, also returns.
At state, Nikiski beat Mt. Edgecumbe, but then lost to the Braves in the championship and the if-necessary game.
“We’ve got a special banner in the gym that gives us a little reminder of that,” Segura said. “We didn’t play our best game in the championship, but when we beat Mt. Edgecumbe it was probably our best game at state.
“It was an amazing feeling, but I know it also left a bad taste in their mouths.”
Seward finished third at the Southcentral Tournament to claim its first state bid since 2011. The Seahawks pushed the Bulldogs to five games in a semifinal loss.
Jamie Fredrickson resigned as coach of the Seahawks, but Jodi Kurtz takes over after serving as the assistant coach the past three seasons.
Seward has four starters returning from the state squad, including conference first-teamer Maille Moriarity, a senior.
“They’re really ready to get out and show everybody they want to fight to get to state,” Kurtz said. “They saw how it was last year, and they’re going to fight as hard as they can to get back there.”
In her fourth season at Soldotna, Sheila Kupferschmid has five returning starters, but still finds her team in transition.
That’s because Northern Lights Conference first-teamer Ituau Tuisaula, a sophomore, will miss the season due to knee surgery, which has caused Kupferschmid to shuffle her lineup.
And there also is intense competition for playing time, with a group of freshmen that went 17-1 as a C-team now entering their junior years.
So even junior Cally Christianson, a conference second-teamer as a setter last season, is being challenged by junior Carsen Brown.
“I hope to get this team where it should be at the end of the season,” Kupferschmid said. “I think it will take me the season, but we’ve got some good athletes.
“If we remain healthy and stay together as a team we’ll make a difference in the end.”
Kenai Central also plans on doing a lot of improving. The Kardinals lost seven seniors and coach Tracie Beck after the season.
Though they both have full-time jobs, Pako Whannell and Jason Diorec stepped forward to coach the team. Whannell was head coach at Soldotna from 2001 to 2006, serving as a JV coach at Kenai before that.
Diorec was head coach at Kenai from 2003 to 2008 and has been coaching junior men’s national teams since then.
Whannell said athleticism, desire to learn and good coaching will quickly have the Kardinals making up for a lack of experience.
“We’re optimistic. Don’t count us out,” she said. “We know volleyball and we know how to coach and these kids want to learn and do their best.
“I’m really excited, as well as Jason, to see where we end up.”
Homer also welcomes a new coach in Erin Brege. Brege took a staff position at Homer and decided to use her experience with heading up a small-school high school volleyball program in Michigan to lead the Mariners.
Homer lost all of its all-conference talent from last season, when the Mariners missed a third straight trip to state when they lost in the third-place match at the Southcentral Conference tournament against Seward.
“There’s a lot of potential that needs to be developed and a lot of raw talent that needs to be developed, yet there’s such great potential,” Brege said.
The following is a closer look at the peninsula’s volleyball programs:
Brege arrived in the middle of last week, so she is grateful to JV coach Marianne Mooney, C-team coach Stephanie Carroll and assistants Marissa Horstick and Zoia Basargin for getting things up and running. The Mariners have about 30 in the program.
Brege said the varsity has a freshman, a senior and the rest are sophomores and juniors.
“It’s a younger group and a building year,” Brege said. “We’ll go as far as we can. We’ve got a couple of solid months to work.”
She said Raisa Basargin, Kelli Bishop, Brianna Hetrick and Marina Carroll currently have the best foundation in the fundamentals and are coming on as leaders of the team.
One thing that Brege is looking forward to, that is often overlooked by longtime Alaskans, is the travel that is so different from almost all Lower 48 teams.
“For me, the travel will be a new dynamic,” she said. “We’d have some two-day tournaments, but all these overnights will be new.
“I’m excited for some of that time away for team bonding.”
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Despite the coaching transition, the Kardinals are still carrying good numbers, with 30 players out for the program. Whannell said that’s a great number because Kenai can still have three teams.
With Whannell running her own training business and Diorec being notorious for his focus on fitness during his tenure with the Kardinals, it’s no surprise the duo is on the same page.
“We basically have the same coaching philosophy,” Whannell said. “We’ll really work the girls just like we ourselves would work out.
“We’ll start with fundamental skills and build up from that. We are all about team. Every player is equal and needs to work hard for what she gets.”
Whannell said the team bonded at two-a-day practices, which featured conditioning in the morning and courtwork at night.
“We are so lucky to have such great kids that are so coachable,” she said.
There are five players with some varsity experience — seniors Samantha Kompkoff, Denali Lockwood, Nikki Prior and Mayzie Potten, and junior Maddie Galloway.
Whannell said there also will be an infusion of talent from junior Haylew Maw, sophomore Alyssa Bucho and freshmen Vanessa Beck and Bethany Morris.
While Whannell and Diorec agree on the basics, they definitely haven’t agreed on a lineup yet.
“I think Jason and I have five different lineups,” she said.
While Soldotna, Seward and Kenai played at the Homer Jamboree on Saturday, the Bulldogs will not get any game action until today and Saturday at the Shayna Pritchard Memorial Tournament.
“I feel like we’re stuck in outer space with no contact,” Segura said. “There was one day in practice I said, ‘I don’t know what you guys need to work on. You look good from what I can see.’
“I’m excited to be compared to other teams.”
In addition to outside hitters Sexton and Yerkes, and libero Clark, starters returning for the Bulldogs are junior setter Emma Wik, sophomore setter Kaitlyn Johnson and junior middle hitter Bethany Carstens.
Carstens came on strong for the Bulldogs last season in volleyball, but then injured her knee in basketball season. Segura said she is expected back with the team in mid-September.
Segura, a former setter for the Bulldogs herself, loves what she has returning at the position.
“We have great setters and great leaders,” she said. “They’re both hard workers. Kaitlyn Johnson — I’ve never seen a kid so dedicated to sports in my life.”
Segura also is excited about the athleticism of senior Rylee Jackson, who could play in the middle or in the back row. Italian foreign exchange student Elisa Fardin will play in the back row, while senior Emilee Tiner will play opposite and senior Ashlee Tiner will be a middle hitter.
Kurtz said there are 27 players in the program, which is the most in her four years with Seward volleyball.
“My seniors that are graduating this year were freshmen in my first year of coaching,” Kurtz said. “The girls are all working well together.
“They’re all friends, and they play very well together.”
In addition to Moriarity, senior outside hitter Randi Tolson, junior libero Ashley Jackson and junior middle and outside hitter Riley Von Borstel return.
Kurtz also gets experience from senior middle hitter Jessi Hood and junior outside hitter and middle Coral Petrosius. Petrosius joined the Seahawks after cross-country last season, but will spend all of this season with the volleyball team.
The Seahawks have also seamlessly integrated younger players into the team.
“Even though they weren’t always on the same team, they play very well together,” Kurtz said.
Some of that young talent is junior middle Maggie Adkins, junior opposite and libero Allie Toloff, freshman middle and outside hitter Sequioa Sieverts, and freshman opposite Katelyn Sawyer-Lemme.
Kupferschmid has 35 players in a program that she said is extremely deep.
Opposite Ella Stenga, Christianson and Shaylynn Zener are returning senior starters for the Stars. Stenga is moving from outside hitter to replace Tuisaula, while Zener may move to outside hitter from libero.
The other two returning starters are junior middle Aliann Schmidt and junior outside hitter Kodi McGillivray. Kupferschmid said Schmidt has a great swing that will open some eyes, while McGillivray did a good job stepping up last season when Judah Aley had a season-ending knee injury.
“I’m going to have to piece the puzzle together because of my opposite being gone,” Kupferschmid said. “I tell my kids it starts with the opposite and the setter.
“The setter’s still being battled for but I’ve found my opposite and everything falls into place after that.”
Junior Brittani Blossom will get a crack at outside hitter, while sophomore Bailey Leach and junior Hannah Delker also will play middle.
Playing back row will be juniors Pauline Catacutan, Kalyn McGillivray and Haley Buckbee, and sophomore Holly Jaime.
“We should be a good, aggressive serving team but it will take our kids some time in the back row,” Kupferschmid said. “We’re pretty young with juniors and a sophomore.”