Nikiski’s Kaitlyn Johnson dives for a dig Nov. 10, 2018, in the Class 3A state volleyball championship final against Valdez at the Alaska Airlines Center. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Nikiski’s Kaitlyn Johnson dives for a dig Nov. 10, 2018, in the Class 3A state volleyball championship final against Valdez at the Alaska Airlines Center. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Season volleyball preview: Can Nikiski repeat as 3A state champs?

In the months since breaking an 18-year state championship drought in volleyball, the Nikiski Bulldogs and head coach Stacey Segura have had time to celebrate, hang a banner and soak up the glory that comes with earning the top step of the podium.

Segura returns to coach Nikiski’s varsity program for an eighth season, but winning the Class 3A state title last November with a close-knit group of juniors and seniors has set up a season that will have all opponents giving the Bulldogs their best.

“It’s a little intimidating,” Segura said about the pressure to repeat. “It’s not too bad really, it’s kind of exciting. It puts a lot of pressure on the girls.”

Segura said she felt that pressure starting last weekend at the season-opening Homer Jamboree, where the Bulldogs fended off the host Mariners to win the tournament. With the championship target squarely on their back, Segura said a changed group of players at Nikiski will need to bring their A-game every time they step on the court to face an opponent.

“Everyone wants to prove something to us, but everyone notices the girls when they walk in the gym,” Segura said. “They want to play us and beat us.”

Nikiski has earned a spot at the 3A state tournament for three years running, a tough feat considering only a quarter of the Southcentral Conference field is guaranteed of making it to the big dance.

Kenai Central, Nikiski, Homer and Seward all reside in Class 3A, which only selects two teams from the eight-team Southcentral Conference field to play at the state tournament. The 3A state tournament also chooses one at-large team, which would qualify based on record against fellow 3A opponents throughout the regular season and region tournaments. The at-large team is the school that finished third in the Aurora, Southcentral or Western conference tournament brackets, or the runner-up from the Southeast tourney.

Soldotna is the only peninsula school competing at the Class 4A level, which qualifies three teams from the Northern Lights Conference to the eight-team state tournament.

The 3A and 4A state tournaments will be held together Nov. 14 to 16 at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.

Soldotna’s challenge at the 4A level will be seeing how well the senior-laden Stars mesh under the guidance of a new, but familiar, head coach. Former SoHi assistant Luke Baumer takes over the varsity program after four years under the departed Sheila Kupferschmid, who stepped down after five seasons at the helm of SoHi and 20 seasons on the peninsula.

Baumer said after seven years assisting with high school volleyball teams at Skyview and SoHi, his vision of becoming a head coach has become reality.

“The biggest thing was I always knew I wanted to coach a varsity program,” Baumer said. “It was the end goal for me. Volleyball has been a big part of my life.”

Baumer’s track record in volleyball is impressive — he holds 10 years playing experience including two USA Volleyball open national tournaments for Team Alaska and the Midnight Suns.

Baumer, who currently works as a functional strength and conditioning coach at Train for Health in Kenai, was hand-picked by Kupferschmid to help out with the Skyview volleyball program before that school closed and reopened as a middle school in 2014. Having coached with the Skyview swim program, Baumer put his athletic prowess to use by helping train the SoHi program, which has gone to state in three out of the last five years.

Baumer has spent the last four seasons coaching the JV squad under the tutelage of Kupferschmid, and now will put his knowledge of the game to the ultimate test as one of the smallest schools competing at the 4A level.

“Our region is super tough,” Baumer said. “No team has it in the bag.”

Back at the 3A level, Kenai Central returns Tracie Beck as head coach and a slew of seniors that bulked up on experience last year on a team that didn’t have any seniors. Kenai missed out on state last year after losing the SCC third-place game to Homer.

“We’re just trying to get the chemistry down,” Beck said. “We have a lot of returners, so that gives us a lot of hope.”

Homer’s chances of making a return trip to state lie in the hands of new head coach Stephanie Carroll, who takes over as the program’s sixth coach in six years. Since Beth Trowbridge stepped down following the 2014 season, the Mariners have cycled through one-and-done coaches Pam Rugloski, Kristie Mastre, Erin Brege and Sara Pennington.

Carroll has been a Homer resident since 1995, and her husband Weston Carroll is the school’s boys basketball coach. As Homer’s C-team and varsity assistant coach for the past three years, Carroll said she has developed a level of consistency with the current players.

“It’s definitely new for me,” Carroll said about her new responsibilities as head coach. “But mostly I did it because I wanted these girls to have that consistency. The current seniors I’ve had since they were freshman.”

The following is a closer look at peninsula volleyball teams in 2019:

NIKISKI BULLDOGS

As reigning 3A state and Southcentral Conference champions, the Bulldogs will have all eyes on them throughout the season.

Nikiski has won two of the last three SC crowns and finished second the year the Bulldogs didn’t win. Each year the Bulldogs have played Grace Christian in the final, creating a riveting rivalry between the two schools.

Segura said 2018 was defined by a Nikiski squad that had years playing sports with each other, and the chemistry helped pave the way to a state crown.

“At that time at state, we were pretty equally matched with Valdez and a lot of other teams,” she said. “But the love and compassion the girls had with each other played a big role, and I know that sounds cheesy, but they had it for each other.”

Nikiski lost four seniors, including a potent trio of multiple-year starters in Kelsey Clark, Bethany Carstens and Emma Wik. Clark was conference co-MVP last year while Carstens was a first-team member and Wik was a second-team member.

However, last year’s junior class that has moved up returns no shortage of experience and talent.

Leading the way is senior setter Kaitlyn Johnson, a 2018 first-team all-conference member, and senior libero America Jeffreys, both team captains.

Senior Kaycee Bostic and junior Lillian Carstens (who was moved from the outside position) will start as middle hitters, while senior Tika Zimmerman and junior Savannah Ley take over the outside spots.

Senior Angela Druesedow will take over for Wik as a setter, while Rosalie Anderson and Elora Reichert will fill in as defensive specialists. Segura said Japanese foreign exchange student Kotori Miyoshi will join Anderson and Reichert as a DS and sophomore Jaycee Tauriainen will be slotted in on the right outside.

KENAI KARDINALS

After coming up short of a state berth last year, Beck returns for her second consecutive year and seventh overall as head coach at Kenai.

Beck said the good news for the Kardinals is that the team didn’t have a single senior last year, setting up a strong returning core this year.

The bad news, she said, is that two starters will miss the season for personal reasons — one due to a family move and the other due to a family member cancer diagnosis that will be treated outside the state.

But it’s still a solid group returning, Beck said.

“We’ve tried everybody at every spot, figuring out who’s going to fit where,” Beck said. “The biggest thing for us is we had a great summer of practice and camps.”

The Kardinals return one first-team member from last year in junior outside hitter Bethany Morris, who will be joined by seniors Savanna Wilson and Chelsea Plagge and sophomore Andie Galloway on the outside.

The middle hitters will be sophomore Erin Koziczkowski and junior Abby Every, while the defense will be comprised of junior DS Kaylee Lauritsen, senior setter Kailey Hamilton and sophomore libero Jenna Streiff, whose senior sister Jaden Streiff will primarily work as a DS and outside.

Beck said the team also got a new player from Montana in junior Bailey Skorupa, who will likely see a mix of setting and hitting.

HOMER MARINERS

After hosting the first real-game competition of the season last weekend, the Homer Mariners are looking ready for a return to state after falling to the defending champion Bulldogs in the final.

Carroll said her mission as new head coach is to keep the momentum going.

“I think their experience is going to help them a lot,” Carroll said about her team. “They know what it takes to get there.”

Of Homer’s two all-conference first-team members, one graduated and one returns. Carroll said the rest of the lineup is also returning.

The starting cast is loaded with seniors, including setter Kelli Bishop (who is making a move from the outside hitter position), outside hitter Marina Carroll, middle Karmyn Gallios and libero Kitri Classen. Juniors Laura Inama and Tonde Smude both are back as outside and middle hitters, respectively.

Carroll said in instances when Bishop is moved to the front row, she plans to have junior Hannah Hatfield fill in as setter, while sophomore Sela Weisser will come off the bench as a back row DS and juniors Amber Hull and Kaitlyn Vogl will also fill in as opposite hitters.

SOLDOTNA STARS

The Stars finished fifth at state last year for a second straight year, but as the smallest school, the team has been carrying its weight.

The Stars finished third at the NLC tournament as the last team to gain an automatic spot at state. Baumer hopes they can rely on another top-three finish this year at the tourney, preferably as NLC champs.

“We feel real good,” he said. “We’re looking strong, we’re definitely one of the top contenders in the region.”

SoHi graduated a list of key starting players, including Aliann Schmidt, Kalyn and Kodi McGillivray, Carsen Brown, Brittani Blossom and Paulyne Catacutan, along with bench player Megan Eskue, but with seven returning seniors on varsity, Baumer said the squad was able to reload with diverse weapons.

“Losing those seniors definitely hurts,” Baumer said. “They were so good for the program, and we built this program around them. They really did hold the teams together when they were out there.

“But these new seniors are having to learn to step in and help the varsity team.”

Leading the charge is outside hitter Ituau Tuisaula and middle hitter Bailey Armstrong, whose combined power Baumer said will make for a tough challenge for opponents. Tuisaula and Armstrong will be joined by Kylie Ness, who will also get time on the back row, and bench players Serena Foglia and Trayce Lyon, both seniors middle blockers.

The offensive power will be complimented by a defense that includes senior libero Holleigh Jaime, junior setters Hosanna Van Hout and Sierra Kuntz, and senior DS Casey Earll, who returns to the SoHi volleyball program after three years away.

Baumer said said Jaime and Armstrong played sand volleyball this summer, which he hopes will lead to strong campaigns. Baumer said he’s already seen a lot at the Homer Jamboree last weekend.

“We learned a lot,” he said. “We gave girls the opportunity to play with each other and wanted them to be able to play no matter who goes in the game. Everyone should be able to play with everyone, it doesn’t matter who goes in, and we had a new lineup in every match.

“We wanted this team to be close and tight-knit.”

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