Soldotna volleyball coach Sheila Kupferschmid has been coaching the sport for 33 years.
In the Alaska portion of that career, she’s brought teams to state seven times, including three times in the last four years.
And yet, even Kupferschmid says she doesn’t know how good her team will be this year.
The reason? In volleyball, team chemistry, and not talent on paper, once the actual matches start is so important.
With Soldotna set to start its season today and Saturday with a trip to defending Northern Lights Conference champion Kodiak and other Kenai Peninsula programs starting Saturday at the Homer Jamboree, all coaches are in the same boat.
They’ve got some exciting talent, but don’t know how that will translate on the floor during matches.
Last season, Soldotna was third in the NLC regular season and tournament, earning a first trip to state since 2012.
The Stars lost first-team all-NLC players Lindsey Wong and Makenna Rosin, and second-team player Sylvia Tuisaula.
Second-teamer Judah Aley does return, and SoHi has talent coming up from a JV squad that went 16-2 last year.
“We’ll see,” Kupferschmid said. “They’re good athletes, but I know we’ll have to get game experience under us to compete with the big 4A schools.”
As the smallest school in the NLC, Kenai also has a big challenge in competing with the bigger 4A schools.
The Kardinals return first-teamer Abby Beck and both middle blockers after finishing fifth in the NLC regular season last year, but did lose second-team setter Alli Steinbeck.
“Some of these schools have twice the number of kids we do, so we have to put in the time out of season to compete with them,” Kenai coach Tracie Beck said. “These girls have fought and put in the time it takes to compete, so it’s up to me to find the right combinations.”
In the Class 3A Southcentral Conference, Homer was the lone Peninsula school to make state last season.
After not making state since 2003, the Mariners have now gone in 2014 and 2015, but now have a third head coach in three years.
Gone are Southcentral first-teamers McKi Needham and Paige Snyder, but libero and second-teamer Isabelle Hegge does return to lead the defense.
“We have a really young team and also a really young coach,” Homer coach Kristie Mastre said. “We’re going to grow together and hope it works out for the best.”
Nikiski coach Stacey Segura, who has guided her club to state in two of her first four years at the helm, also is anxious to see the Bulldogs’ chemistry on the floor.
First-teamers Ayla Pitt and Melanie Sexton return from last year, and Segura said this squad is as complete in offense, defense and setting as any she has had since her first year.
“The first year I coached I had a good feeling about the team, but unfortunately the chemistry between them was kind of negative,” Segura said. “I have a good feeling about this team and know they are going to work hard.
“I know they are going to have a good chemistry.”
Last season, in just her second year at the helm, Seward’s Jaime Fredrickson brought her squad within one game of the state tournament.
But the Seahawks lost four seniors and another key contributor from the team.
Fredrickson, like all Peninsula coaches except for Kupferschmid, is happy she has the jamboree to kick the tires a bit.
“We have a young team, so the jamboree is a great thing to do,” she said. “The new players might panic a bit, but at the jamboree all the players will be doing that.
“Our emphasis will be on building team unity.”
The following is a closer look at the peninsula’s volleyball teams:
Mastre graduated from Homer High School in 2013 and played volleyball for the Mariners. Her previous coaching experience is teaching youngsters to play the game.
In addition to Hagge, senior right-side hitter Malina Fellows and senior outside hitter Mary Hana Bowe have plenty of varsity experience.
Senior setter Elsie Smith, junior setter Raisa Basargin and defensive player Brittany Harshfield also will step up into key varsity roles.
“We have some amazing hitters, and I think we’ll have an awesome offense this year,” Mastre said. “We’ll also be growing in the back row.”
Mastre added the team as a whole will have to grow to make state.
“That would be amazing, but we have a really young team this year,” she said. “We have strong hitters and passers. It’ll be a challenge, but maybe we can get there again.”
Kenai Central Kardinals
Beck, in her fifth year, will be led by her daughter and senior middle hitters Emily Koziczkowski and Cierra King as the Kards try and improve on a 3-7 record and fifth-place finish in the NLC last year.
Senior Bethany Coghill will take over setting duties, while senior outside hitter Caleigh Jensen and senior defensive specialist Jill Kindred also will step up to key roles.
Beck said all of the above six players have extensive club volleyball experience, which should help this season.
Senior Patricia Catacutan also will be a key defensive player at libero.
“We also have a lot of juniors fighting for varsity spots and that’s exciting, too,” Beck said.
Beck said the seven seniors all have extensive experience with her as the coach.
“We have the guns in front, we’re just working on the quarterback making the decisions,” Beck said. “I coached this crew in junior high, and some of them I haven’t seen until varsity.
“But getting to coach this core group I started with is exciting.”
Segura returns a nice amount of varsity experience and gets a nice infusion of youth as she looks to get back to state.
In addition to Pitt and Sexton, senior opposite hitter Brianna Vollertsen, sophomore setter Emma Wik and senior opposite hitter Emily Hensley all saw plenty of varsity time.
Stepping up on defense for Nikiski will be sophomore libero Kelsey Clark and senior defensive specialist Dessy Napoka.
The infusion of youth comes from freshman Kaitlyn Johnson and sophomore Bethany Carstens. Carstens, a sophomore middle hitter, was lost very early last season to a knee injury.
“I have a lot of girls that have worked really, really hard,” Segura said. “I don’t think I’ve had a day where I’ve been disappointed with a practice.”
Segura said the key will be all the players getting comfortable with each other during matches.
“My concern right now is team chemistry,” Segura said. “Not that it will be bad team chemistry, but that they won’t want to step on anyone’s toes or feelings.
“It’s going to take a certain leader to get us through each game together.”
Fredrickson said that at a small school like Seward, a cycle is inevitable. One year, the squad has a lot of seniors and excels, the next year the team must deal with a lack of experience.
The team has four seniors and three juniors this year, and also an intriguing group of sophomores.
“You want each year to be great, but you are always looking at the future,” Fredrickson said. “I’m excited to see the sophomores get some good play time this year.
“They’re quite an athletic group.”
The team will be led by senior outside hitter Tia Miranda, senior libero Kimmie Hubbard and junior setter Maille Moriarity.
“The strength is this team is pretty athletic,” Fredrickson said. “The weakness is we’ve got young athletes that are not quite ready to be at that varsity level where all that pressure is there and you’ve got to keep up with the pace of play.
“That’s true of anybody that age.”
Kupferschmid said she has the powerful hitters she needs, but the big question is all the experience the Stars lost at setting and on defense.
In addition to Aley, senior middle blocker Drewe Zeek returns with plenty of varsity experience to lead the attack. Junior libero Shaylynn Zener also got a lot of varsity experience last year, while senior defensive specialist Abi Tuttle saw some varsity time.
“The key is controlling the ball,” Kupferschmid said. “That’s what I really emphasize in practice.
“We’ve got the power, but can we control the volleyball?”
Kupferschmid will be relying heavily on players from that 16-2 JV squad, players she calls “the new kids on the block.”
Junior Cally Christianson was the setter for that team and will most likely be SoHi’s setter. Senior Taylor Earll was an outside hitter and defensive specialist.
Also key on that JV team were sophomore middle blocker Aliann Schmidt, sophomore outside hitter Kodi McGillivray, junior outside hitter Ella Stenga, junior outside hitter Darrion Derflinger, junior middle blocker Emily Pieh and sophomore setter Carsen Brown.
Kupferschmid noted that some of those athletes played crucial minutes at the conference and state tournaments and looked good in doing so after Rosin went down with injury.
Another compelling prospect is freshman Itua Tuisaula. Kupferschmid said in her 33 years of coaching, she has never seen an eighth-grader play like Tuisaula.
Unfortunately, Tuisaula comes into the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament which she hasn’t had repaired yet because she is still growing. Kupferschmid said she still looks good despite the injury.
“I’m excited for my seniors because they’ve put in the time and effort,” Kupferschmid said. “Then it will be the new kids on the block — the new kids in new roles. Can they come through and produce for us?”