Volleyball is a sport heavily reliant on chemistry and cohesion, so experience counts.
Each season, teams with tons of returning seniors take the lead early, while teams that lost tons of experience try to gobble up enough court time to make a run at state come conference tournament time.
This season, all five Kenai Peninsula volleyball teams are tasked with replacing valuable experience before conference tournaments in early November.
The Northern Lights Conference tourney will select three for Class 4A state out of Kodiak, Colony, Palmer, Wasilla, Soldotna and host Kenai.
The Southcentral Conference tourney will select three for the Class 3A state tourney out of Houston, Anchorage Christian Schools, Grace Christian, Seward, Homer and host Nikiski.
Neither Soldotna nor Kenai qualified for state last year. The Stars lost six seniors, while the Kards had five seniors on the roster at the end of the season.
But early returns have been promising for both schools.
Even with the departed seniors, SoHi coach Sheila Kupferschmid said she has plenty of talent to fill in around returning starters Lindsey Wong — a senior setter — and McKenna Rosin — a senior middle blocker.
“With our setter and our middle back, I’m optimistic,” Kupferschmid said.
The Stars were the top team at last weekend’s Homer jamboree, which included Nikiski, Seward and Homer.
The Kardinals also were hot last weekend, taking the Palmer jamboree. The jamboree included a solid lineup of Palmer, Colony, Wasilla, Grace, ACS, Houston and Valdez.
“It was amazing,” Kenai coach Tracie Beck said. “We went into Saturday in fourth place, played through the bracket, and beat Grace for the championship.”
Beck was quick to note that most teams don’t have all the pieces in place at a jamboree, though.
“The hard work is just beginning,” she said. “That was just a synopsis of what we need to work on.”
Like SoHi, Kenai benefits from returning experience in key areas. Senior setter Alli Steinbeck traveled to the conference tournament her freshman year as part of the team, and has been on varsity ever since.
Junior Abby Beck also is in her third year of varsity play and can set on top of being a powerful hitter.
Nikiski is in the opposite position. The Bulldogs lost just two seniors, but both were key.
Rachel Thompson was a conference MVP and all-state setter, while fellow graduate Laura Hufford also made all-conference.
Those two helped the Bulldogs recover from a No. 5 seed headed into the conference tournament. Nikiski took third to make state for the second time in three years, then took fourth at state.
“The juniors and sophomores and freshman all got to experience that type of play and intensity,” said Nikiski coach Stacey Segura, whose team was second at the Homer jamboree. “They saw the will to get in there and do what they were supposed to do even though we did go in at fifth place.”
Homer won the Southcentral Conference tourney for its first state berth since 2003.
The Mariners then lost six seniors, five of which were starters. Beth Trowbridge also has stepped down as coach after 14 years to devote more time to her job as executive director for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.
Pam Rugloski, who actually was the coach right before Trowbridge took over, will retake the reigns. Rugloski said a return trip to state is within reach.
“Definitely with a lot of hard work and throwing some baggage to the side,” she said. “We’ve got plenty of time ahead of us.”
Seward had six seniors graduate, five of which were starters. But the Seahawks do return senior setter Jessica Honebein, and coach Jaime Fredrickson senses a hunger in her team.
“They’re pretty excited about it,” Fredrickson said. “When you have six seniors, the other players don’t get a lot of play time. They’re eager to start to see some play time.”
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula’s volleyball squads:
Rugloski said she will be looking to senior setter McKi Needham, the lone returning starter, to be the focal point of a team that builds throughout the year.
The other seniors will be Kelly Liebers and PK Woo.
The other help will then come from juniors Malina Fellows, Sophia Ramirez-Clark and Izabelle Hagge. Junior Mary Hana Bowe has not been cleared to play due to an ankle injury.
Although the Mariners had just six players on the floor this past weekend at the jamboree, Rugloski said with help from assistants Trowbridge and Chad Felice, plus some up-and-coming freshmen and sophomores, Homer should be a state contender by the end of the year.
Kenai Central Kardinals
Beck coached the current group of seniors to a Kenai Peninsula Borough title when they were in middle school, and won the next year again with the current juniors.
“This is a group with a lot of trust,” Beck said. “When I coached them in middle school they didn’t win a game their seventh-grade year. They then won boroughs their eighth-grade year.”
The group has continued to grow by playing volleyball out of season.
“We usually travel out in the summer so these girls have time together,” Beck said. “They’re playing club and doing the things small schools need to do in order to compete with schools triple their size.”
In addition to Steinbeck, senior play comes from Alexis Baker at outside hitter, Cori Holmes at libero and Jacey Ross at right-side hitter.
Included with Beck in the junior class are middles Cierra King and Emily Koziczkowski, plus outside hitter Kelly Jensen.
Junior Jill Kindred also transferred from SoHi to Kenai.
“We have some subs,” Beck said. “We’re going to have players fighting for playing time, which should continue to help them grow.”
With the two state berths in her three years at the helm, Segura has the volleyball program growing at Nikiski. Thirty players came out this season.
Despite the loss of Thompson and Hufford, Nikiski returns plenty of experience in junior middle Ayla Pitt, junior opposite Brianna Vollertson, junior setter Emily Hensley, senior outside hitter Brittany Perry, senior libero Zykiah Cooney, senior defensive specialist Hannah Love and senior libero Lauren O’Brien.
Segura said sophomore Melanie Sexton has turned into one of the best hitters on the team in the offseason, and freshman Bethany Carstens also is already a good player.
The coach added that the chemistry is great so far. She said that’s important because one or two players excelling will not be enough.
“We have like seven hitters this season,” Segura said. “We don’t have any specific, key player. We’re pretty good across the board.”
The last time the Seahawks made state was in 2011, and in her second season Fredrickson would like to get back to the scrappy style that made the state trip possible.
“We’re trying to get back there,” Fredrickson said. “That’s one thing that’s pushing me this year. Last year, I didn’t push them hard enough to get them to try real hard.”
In addition to Honebein, Fredrickson gets senior leadership from middle Michaela Osenga, outside hitter Chloey Baldwin and middle Jessica Fry. Fredrickson also said junior Tia Miranda is excited to show what she can do in a starting role.
Sophomore Maille Moriarity, a setter, also will push for playing time.
Fredrickson said many of the conference competitors have the advantage of doing club volleyball without traveling much.
“That’s why I had the UAA coach come down and do a camp for us,” Fredrickson said. “That should make us even more competitive.”
Kupferschmid enters her second season at Soldotna after 14 years at Skyview High School.
In addition to Wong and Rosin, Kupferschmid will get senior leadership from setter and defensive specialist Kjersten Yarnes and outside hitter Sylvia Tuisaula. Tuisaula moved to Soldotna from Wasilla.
Tuisaula is just one of four transfers to join the Stars. Junior outside hitter Taylor Earl moved in from out of state, junior Haili Allen moved back to Soldotna after spending a year in the state of Washington, and junior defensive specialist and libero Abi Tuttle came over from Kenai Central.
Add those players to junior outside hitter Judah Aley, junior middle blocker Drew Zeek, junior right-side hitter Abbey Kruse and sophomore defensive specialist Shay Zenner, and Kupferschmid has plenty of talent to mold.
That process has already started at summer open gyms and camps.
“It’s always a concern when you graduate your entire receiving corps,” Kupferschmid said. “Serve-receive is a process that takes a lot of ball control and experience.”
The coach said Wong is athletic enough as a setter that she will be able to recover from some serve-receive problems.
“I think our strength will be the front line,” Kupferschmid said. “The back court is going to be a process that takes time.”