Nine head coaches will be departing peninsula high school varsity sports programs this spring, and eight of them leave behind 16 combined years of head-coaching experience.
The ninth — Soldotna volleyball coach Sheila Kupferschmid — is a veteran presence that has dominated the peninsula volleyball scene for 20 years and plans to keep going in the middle school ranks.
While she never won a state championship in 20 years of trying in Alaska, Kupferschmid’s legacy lies with the hundreds of middle and high school students she motivated and inspired to not only become better players but better people.
Attempts by the Clarion to contact the Soldotna administration were unsuccessful. Kupferschmid acknowledged that disagreements with the SoHi administration led to her leaving the program, but noted that she plans to stay involved in the sport at the middle school level, and stressed that she is leaving with positivity as she focuses all her energy into coaching the Skyview Middle School volleyball program, where her impact will still be felt as she sends young players to the high school level.
“It’s always been about the kids and seeing them being challenged and striving to reach team goals,” she said. “The toughest challenge is always meshing the girls and their different personalities and different commitments that each of them have.”
In other coaching changes, the Kenai Central Kardinals are bidding adieu to Cary Calvert as girls basketball coach after four years on the job, and Maria Calvert will be leaving cross-country running after four years as head coach and six years total in the program.
Maria Calvert led the Kards to two state titles in those four years, and also coached her daughter, Jaycie, to an individual state title.
Cary Calvert leaves after helping snap a lengthy 17-year state tournament appearance drought for the Kenai girls. The team played well enough in the regular season to pick up the sole at-large bid in the Class 3A level to go to state, where they went 2-1 and secured third place at the state tournament.
Jacob Newton is leaving the Kenai hockey program after two years. Newton guided a program that never qualified for the state hockey tournament in his time, but perennially battled against bigger schools with sometimes two or three times the student population.
Nikiski’s lone coaching change will see Anna Widman return to coach the cross-country running program after two years away. Widman will be replacing Dylan Hooper.
In Homer, longtime Mariners wrestling coach Bubba Wells is leaving after two seasons at the head coach position, while Walter Love is stepping down as head football coach with former Voznesenka football coach Justin Zank coming in to replace Love, and Sara Pennington is leaving the volleyball program after one season.
Wells played an integral role in the Homer wrestling team winning two Division II state championships in four years, and helped dozens of Homer wrestlers win state titles.
Love’s impact with the Homer football program lasted just two years as head coach, but he did a lot in his short time. In his first season in 2017, Love coached the Mariners to an 8-2 season that ended with a Division II state title game appearance, where Homer narrowly lost 20-14 to the Barrow Whalers.
In Seward, cross-country coach Aaron Sorensen exits the program after one season.
Also for SoHi, cheerleading coach Jeannie Young is leaving the cheer program.
Kupferschmid leaves behind a trail of success. SoHi athletic director Kyle McFall spent time as a high school basketball coach at Skyview, and said Kupferschmid’s legacy at Skyview and SoHi is cemented in her ability to take up a program that draws from some of the smallest schools in the region and land them in the state tournament.
“She had the ability to build a program that’s built for success over a couple of years,” McFall said. “She’s a good skills coach and has a lasting impact on our community here. She’s been involved with generations of kids, and her ability to reach out and leave a positive change is huge.”
In 20 years as a volleyball coach in Alaska, Kupferschmid guided high school teams to state nine times – six with Skyview and three with SoHi — with a best finish of runner-up in 2001, when the Panthers lost to Wasilla in the state title game at the Class 4A level.
Skyview eventually dropped to the 3A level due to school population numbers, and in her final season at Skyview in 2013, Kupferschmid led a Panthers team that went 17-0 in the regular season and finished up third at state.
Kupferschmid has been in the business of coaching volleyball for 34 years, dating back to her earliest stint in Texas, but her body of work reaches beyond that realm.
“When we got started, I wanted to be a coach, a pastor’s wife and a mother,” Kupferschmid said in a recent interview.
But for all the passion she has inspired in middle and high school players through the years, her heart naturally lies with her own children — son Jeremy, 19, and daughter Jessie Bilderback, 25, both of whom were adopted as children with her husband, Paul Kupferschmid.
“Both Paul and I put our heart and soul into those two kids,” she said. “To see Jeremy come around and do what he has done gives me a lot of joy.”
Kupferschmid said getting time to spend with her own family is something she has cherished through all her years as a parent, starting after she and Paul adopted Jeremy and Jessie.
Kupferschmid said she wanted her kids to always reach their goals and fed their passion for the outdoors with family hikes. She recalls a hiking adventure with family friend Dave Michael up Resurrection Pass when Jeremy was young, and said Jeremy took to it like a natural.
“He said, ‘Dad, this is what I want to do!’” Kupferschmid recalled. “So we chose to put our time into our kids.”
Kupferschmid, who graduated in May, has since blossomed into one of the top nordic skiers on the SoHi ski team and one of the top hitters on the high school and Legion Twins baseball teams.
Kupferschmid’s journey to Alaska began when she met Paul in Texas when Sheila was in the early days of her coaching career. Kupferschmid’s coaching career in volleyball began inconspicuously for someone who earned their stars in softball and basketball. Kupferschmid played both sports well, softball in particular, and is in the Iowa High School Hall of Fame as a 100-win pitcher.
Her coaching career began in 1985 in Plano, Texas, at Vines High School, and she also coached the eighth-grade volleyball program at Wilson Middle School. At that level, Kupferschmid’s teaching shone through.
“You’re teaching them the game, but you’re teaching them to love the game,” she said. “Once kids get the passion they think, ‘This is fun. I’m going to keep doing this.’”
Kupferschmid also spent time learning and taking in the sport at the collegiate level at the University of Nebraska in Kearney, going to practices and picking up valuable lessons and life experience that would serve her well for 20 years in Alaska.
“I learned the game there,” she said. “Nebraska volleyball is outstanding. When you think Nebraska, a lot of time you think football, but the volleyball programs are great.”
Kupferschmid spent five years in Kearney as a high school coach before making the big move to Alaska in 1999 with Paul, who was taking up a position to become pastor at Kasilof Community Church.
In her second year coaching at Skyview, the Panthers went to state and finished sixth out of eight teams, then took it a step further in 2001 with a runner-up showing, only losing to Valley school Wasilla in the 4A finals. Kupferschmid developed a talented squad that included three All-State players in Jenny Carpenter, Laura Tarbox and Christina Colvin.
Skyview returned to state in 2002 but couldn’t find redemption for the previous year’s close miss, finishing fourth.
From there, the Skyview program fell short of state for five years before making a return in 2008, where Kupferschmid coached the team to fifth place. Her final two seasons in the Skyview program saw state finishes of fourth and third, including the undefeated 2013 season.
After transferring to SoHi following the closure of Skyview High School, which changed to Skyview Middle School, Kupferschmid worked her magic with the Stars, which went to state three out of five years, including a pair of fifth-place finishes in 2017 and 2018.
Now leaving behind a high school coaching career at SoHi, Kupferschmid said working in unison with school personnel, parents and kids became a delicate balance, a challenge she enjoyed.
“Just because you know the game doesn’t mean you’ll be good,” Kupferschmid said. “You have to be able to develop and work with teachers, parents and athletes.”