Everybody has a chance.
When it came to getting to the state volleyball tournament, even in peak cycles, that couldn’t be said of all the Kenai Peninsula’s teams in recent seasons.
Now that Kenai Central, which hasn’t been to state since 2005, has moved to the Class 3A Southcentral Conference from the Class 4A Northern Lights Conference, the path to state has reasonable obstacles for everybody.
Tracie Beck returns to the Kenai sideline after a season off. Before that, she spent six years trying to make state at the Class 4A level without success.
The new playing field was driven home at the Homer Jamboree — which included all Class 3A teams — Saturday. The Kardinals finished second to Nikiski, but also finished ahead of Seward and Homer.
“At 4A, would we be able to compete without a returning senior? It’d be a tough year,” Beck said. “It was fun to go to the jamboree and see what everybody has.”
The Kardinals only have a few players with any varsity experience.
In Class 4A, even when Kenai had a talented class that played club volleyball and went to tournaments in the Lower 48, that squad wouldn’t make state.
So it’s not hard to imagine what this year would have been like.
Beck said her husband once told her that out of every 500 kids, there’s one all-star.
“He said, ‘Tracie, you have an all-star. And you’re playing teams with 2,000 students and four all-stars,’” Beck said.
Nikiski coach Stacey Segura has had plenty of all-stars in her seven years at the helm, making state in four of the past six seasons.
Even after losing the conference MVP and two other all-conference players, the Bulldogs are loaded for another run led by senior all-conference returnee Bethany Carstens.
Homer also has state experience in its recent history, going to the big event in 2014 and 2015.
In 2016, Seward earned its first state bid since 2011. Last season, in her first season at the helm, Jodi Kurtz led the Seahawks to third place in the conference tournament only to be denied an at-large berth to state.
This year, five hungry seniors return for Seward, including all-conference outside hitter Riley Von Borstel.
Two state berths go to the eight-team Southcentral Conference, while the six-team Aurora Conference and four-team Western Conference also get two. The two-team Southeast Conference gets one, and there is an at-large berth.
“It doesn’t make any sense that we have eight teams and there’s only two going, but that’s not going to change this year,” Segura said. “Hopefully, we do well enough during the season that if something happens at regions, we still get an at-large berth.”
Seward’s fate last season shows how cruel the system can be. The Seahawks were the No. 2 seed at the conference tournament, winning a tiebreaker over No. 3 seed Grace Christian.
In the semifinals, Seward lost to Grace in five games, with the fifth game at 15-11.
But when Mt. Edgecumbe was upset by Sitka in the two-team Southeast Conference, the Braves got the at-large state berth and Seward stayed home.
Soldotna is on the other side of the numbers game. With Kenai gone, only five teams remain in the Northern Lights Conference, but three of them will go to state.
Last season, the Stars tied for fifth at state, coach Sheila Kupferschmid’s best result in her four seasons at the school. It was SoHi’s first appearance at state since 2015.
The Stars lost two first-team all-conference players to graduation, but get a nice bonus with the return of Ituau Tuisaula.
Tuisaula was first-team all-conference as a freshman, missed last season due to injury and returns for her junior season.
She is joined by a senior class that went 17-1 as freshmen on the C-team.
“I have seven seniors and I love working with seniors,” Kupferschmid said. “They’re typically kids that have committed through the years, and it’s their last season, so there’s more urgency for them.
“I think seniors are more focused.”
The following is a closer look at the Kenai Peninsula’s volleyball teams:
Homer High School’s varsity volleyball team has a fresh face for a fresh season.
When 21-year-old Sara Pennington started looking to get involved in the community by helping out with the volleyball team, she had no idea just how important her contribution would end up being. Hailing from Savannah, Georgia, Pennington came to Homer this year to be closer to her fiance, who is stationed here in the U.S. Coast Guard.
The pair have another year here before moving on, and Pennington said she wanted to stay busy during that time. She contacted Homer Athletic Director Chris Perk about getting involved in volleyball. Two weeks later, she said she got an email back saying the head coaching position was open. Last year’s coach, Erin Brege, moved back to the Midwest this year.
And so Pennington picked up where Brege left off, molding the Lady Mariners into a stronger version of themselves. At 21, she said she feels like she has an added connection to the girls, since it wasn’t that long ago that she stood where they are now.
Pennington first got into the game in middle school and continued playing through high school.
“As a kid I never wanted to do anything in front of people,” she said, explaining that as soon as a public meet or concert came up, she would quit whatever activity she was in.
Then, she discovered volleyball. Pennington fell in love with the sport, she said, and it stuck. She returned to her high school after she graduated to coach there as well.
“I didn’t want to let go of it so I decided to come back and coach,” she said.
The team, heavy last year on sophomores and juniors, could be poised for a more successful season. Brianna Hetrick, Ksenia Kuzmin and Kelsea Scott provide the senior leadership this season, for a team with five juniors and two sophomores.
Pennington said she’s told her players not to assume they’ll be staying where they are all season — she’s prepared to move players up from the junior varsity squad if necessary.
Such was the case last year with sophomore Lauren Inama, who was pulled up to be the only freshman on the varsity team by former coach Erin Brege about halfway through the season.
The Lady Mariners have a long season ahead of them after placing third in the Homer Jamboree earlier this month. Pennington said she has a good group of girls who are excited to learn and improve.
Beck has 32 players in the program and a bunch of help to get them up to speed.
Jason Diorec and Pako Whannell co-coached the team last season and are still helping whenever possible. Bruce King, a former longtime head coach in the area, also has helped out, and former Kenai player Sierra Hall is coaching the C-team.
“That tells you the quality of these kids,” Beck said. “These adults are taking their own time and doing what they can to make it happen for them.”
Sophomore outside hitter Bethany Morris, junior setter Kailey Hamilton, junior defensive specialist and outside hitter Jaiden Streiff and sophomore middle Abby Every all saw some varsity playing time last season.
Beck also is excited about sophomore middle Lexi Reis, who is new to the area.
Junior outside or right-side hitter Chelsea Plagge, sophomore versatile hitter Vanessa Beck and sophomore setter Kaylee Lauritsen also will be key for Kenai.
“It’s definitely a young group but they’ve got great personalities and they’re excited to learn and want to do well,” Beck said. “They just had a great time at the jamboree getting back into volleyball.
“It’s probably unexpected that some pretty young kids could go down there and compete as a team.”
The recent success has Segura’s program flourishing, with 38 players coming out for the team.
“I’m super flattered to have that many, but super nervous to do cuts this week,” she said.
The Bulldogs went 12-0 in the conference regular season last year, but then lost in the championship game of the conference tournament, then lost the first two games of the state tournament.
“I’m sure they’re still thinking about it because it stresses me out when I think about it,” Segura said.
She said her team was outworked in the conference championship game, getting kicked into the harder half of the state bracket.
“They’re very competitive girls,” Segura said of her team. “I told them this year, whether it’s a scrimmage, tournament or jamboree, we can’t get outworked.”
In addition to the ferocious hitting in the middle of Carstens, the Bulldogs return key pieces in seniors Kelsey Clark and Emma Wik, and junior Kaitlyn Johnson.
Clark will be in her third year starting as varsity libero, including a trip to the state title game two seasons ago.
Wik has been setting on varsity for four years, and will stay on the court to play opposite hitter and back row. Johnson will do the same.
Junior middle Kaycee Bostic saw some varsity time and is working to improve, while juniors America Jeffreys and Angela Druesedow will be key on defense.
The key for Nikiski will be rebuilding the outside hitter position, where junior Tika Zimmerman and sophomores Savannah Ley and Lillian Carstens will get baptism by fire.
“I definitely do think we’ll have our bumps at the beginning of the season but I think that’s a good thing,” Segura said. “After being undefeated going into regions and then losing, I think it’s more humbling for the older ones and the younger ones if they lose along the way.
“I’m not saying that’s what I want them to do, but I feel like it may happen along the way.”
Kurtz has 28 players in her program in her second season.
The five returning seniors are Von Borstel, middle and outside hitter Coral Petrosius, libero Ashley Jackson, setter Allie Toloff and middle Maggie Adkins.
“This team works well together,” Kurtz said. “Those five seniors have played together four years now and in middle school.
“They’re good at working together. Even though I yell at them to talk more, they still seem to pull it off.”
The tough end to last season, which came at a conference tournament where Toloff could not play due to a concussion, has only hardened resolve.
“This year they really want it,” Kurtz said. “I have a feeling they’re really going to come after it.”
But the team is far more than the seniors, with a talented group of sophomores to augment the effort.
Sophomore outside and middle Sequioa Sieverts gives the Seahawks another potent hitter to pair with Petrosius and Von Borstel.
Sophomore outside and middle Calysta Lohman saw some varsity time last year, as did sophomore setter Marisa Phasomsap and sophomore setter Katelyn Sawyer-Lemme.
Sophomore setter Anavey Ambrosiani is new to varsity.
Kupferschmid, who begins her 34th year coaching volleyball in a career that has ranged through Texas, Nebraska and Alaska, has 30 kids out for the team.
All that experience has taught her the dangers of experience. She said sometimes seniors simply want to get to the postseason and miss out on the journey.
With three key losses to graduation, Kupferschmid said the Stars can’t afford to do that.
“That’s why I’ve preached patience with the kids,” she said. “You’ve gotta be patient.
“You may have the tools but it takes a lot of reps to put it together.”
In addition to Tuisaula, the Stars return a bevy of seasoned varsity talent led by senior middle or opposite Aliann Schmidt, senior outside hitter Kodi McGillivray, junior middle Bailey Leach and junior libero Holleigh Jaime.
Senior outside hitter Brittani Blossom, senior defensive specialist and setter Kalyn McGillivray, senior setter Carsen Brown and senior defense specialist Paulyne Catacutan are all ready to step up and contribute more at the varsity level.
Senior right side and defensive specialist Megan Eskue, junior middle blocker Serena Moore, junior outside hitter Kylie Ness and sophomore setter Sierra Kuntz give the Stars further depth.
Like Kupferschmid said, she has some tools.
Soldotna has the smallest school size in the NLC, but with Leach at 6-foot-0, Schmidt and Tuisaula at 5-11, and Moore at 5-10, the Stars have the size to compete.
Jaime, Kalyn McGillivray and Catacutan also give Soldotna coveted experience passing in the back row.