Eagle River junior Brianna Howard jumps her highest during a vertical test at practice earlier this week. Wolves coach Katie Hulse said this year's team will rely on its athleticism and defense to win matches.
STAR PHOTOs by matt tunseth
Three volleyball programs haven't dominated the Cook Inlet Conference in recent years they've owned it.
Dimond, South and Chugiak have been the CIC's representatives to the state tournament in each of the past three seasons, and Mustangs coach Kelly Kavanaugh thinks his team has a great chance to make it back to the big dance again this season.
"I think we're going to be right in there again," Kavanaugh said.
Kavanaugh said he had 73 girls try out for the squad, and he kept 50. Many of those players have been with the program for several years now, and Kavanaugh said he's happy with how the team is shaping up.
"We really do have a strong crew," he said.
Chugiak lost just three seniors, but they were all starters and key contributors. Laila Hansen and Krysten Labrecque were each first-team All-CIC players, while April Labrecque was honorable mention.
But with a program bustling with year-round players, Kavanaugh said he has no reason to believe the team can't compete for conference and state titles.
"I think our defense may be even better," than last year he said.
Kavanaugh said he'll rely heavily on junior setter Kathleen Gill to run the offense, while seniors Anna Matthews, Karlee Kavanaugh and Kristy Howard should give the team an imposing front line. Also back from last year's team are junior outside hitter Shannon Rasic, junior setter Allison Baumgartner and senior setter Mollie Matthis. Kavanaugh said he also added a key tranfer in sophomore Bailee Hughes, who moved up from North Carolina.
Over at Eagle River whose qualification in 2007 was the last time a CIC team other than South, Dimond or Chugiak has advanced to state head coach Katie Hulse said she's looking forward to another season of trying to break into the top three spots.
"You never know," she said.
Hulse said teams will get a much better idea where they stack up on Saturday, when Service will host a jamboree beginning at 9 a.m.
Chugiak's Allison Baumgartner digs the ball out during Mustangs' practice. Coach Kelly Kavanaugh said more than 70 players tried out for this year's squad.
"It'll be interesting to see what happens next weekend," she said.
Eagle River, which advanced to the conference semifinals last season, also lost three key players to graduation. First team All-CIC performers Megan Harvey and Alyssa Klaameyer are gone, as is honorable mention selection Kristen Dulik.
But Hulse does have honorable mention pick Lexie Curtis back, as well as several players from last year's varsity including junior outside hitter Morgan Wohrle, junior middle hitter Gabbi Lecates, junior setter Cheyenne Yaw, senior setter Lindsey Fukuoka, senior libero Kelsey Reeves, senior setter Eyna Chacon and senior middle hitter Kathy Michalski. Hulse said she's also keeping a freshman on the team, outside hitter Tess Anderson.
"She's a good player," Hulse said.
Hulse said she thinks her team's strength will be its ability to scramble and play good defense.
"I think we're very athletic," she said.
Hulse pegged Dimond, South and Chugiak as the favorites in the league, but isn't ready to hand anything over to the "big three" just yet.
"Everybody lost some of their big guns," she said.
Hulse said three of her players went Outside with traveling teams over the summer, and she was happy with the work the entire team did between last year and now.
"There's a lot of players who got better over the summer, so that helps," she said.
Kavanaugh said most of his varsity players were on summer traveling teams. That's become the norm with many of the top players, he said, as athletes move more toward one-sport specialization.
"Most kids are playing nine plus months a year," he said.
When kids are focusing that much on volleyball, he said, his job is made that much easier.
"It's great to see 'em coming back every year looking better than they did the season before," he said.
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, August 17, 2011.