Kodiak volleyball has taken on a new role this season.
The Bears have gone from underdogs to favorites and along the way have gained a lot of fans. The team is not only playing for Kodiak but for all the small 4A schools across the state.
“When we go places, people are rooting for us,” veteran coach Amy Willis said. “People are patting us on the back and are excited … if we can be the representation of the small school getting there, that is awesome.”
This is Kodiak’s sixth 4A state championship appearance, but this is its first time with a genuine chance to lift the trophy. The Bears are Northern Lights Conference champions and are 17-1 in best-of-5 matches this season entering their opening-round match against Chugiak today at 3:15 p.m. in Chugiak.
Kodiak is hoping to join a short list of non-Anchorage schools to win a state title. Cook Inlet Conference teams have been crowned champions in 36 of the 42 volleyball state tournaments. Juneau (2002), Wasilla (2001), Colony (1998), Monroe (1988) and West Valley (1985 and 1982) are the only other schools to win.
‘In the Anchorage School District you have more athletes to choose from,” Willis said. “You are bound to get bigger, faster, taller stronger girls. I just have ones that have a lot of heart. In my case, size doesn’t matter.”
Kodiak has been blessed with a talented senior class and a few underclassmen who contribute in a big way. The Bears simply don’t rely on one player to carry the load, but instead have a team mentality that anybody can get it done. The team concept is apparent when looking at the statistics:
• Five players have at least 100 kills, and three have more than 200.
• Seven players have more than 100 digs, and four have over 400.
• Five players have 40 or more service aces.
“We have been playing together for so long and we all get along,” senior Summer McKechnie said. “If we stay positive, we are pretty much unstoppable.”
Kodiak breezed through the regular season undefeated in conference play and got a wake-up call with a loss to Palmer in the conference tournament. The Bears bounced back by beating the Moose the next day for the title.
“They have, a lot of times, surprised me with their courage and tenacity,” Willis said. “If we show up energized and ready to play, there is pretty much nothing that can stop them.”
CIC champion Dimond is the only team that has slowed Kodiak, taking two of three best-of-3 matches. The Lynx, winners of four of the past five state titles, narrowly edged the Bears for the West Spiketacular and Service/Dimond tournament titles. Kodiak had championship point in both tournaments but couldn’t close the door.
Undefeated Dimond showcases the state’s first Under Armour All-American in senior outside hitter Leah Swiss.
Willis isn’t setting her sights on Dimond just yet — that could come Friday night. She is focused on her opening-round opponent Chugiak, which is playing on its home court, and breaking Kodiak’s eight-match state losing skid. The Bears went winless in 2012, 2011 and 2009 and haven’t won a first-round game since 1998.
“We have been here a lot and we need to get through this first round,” she said. “That is all I want to focus on. Everything after that is another step toward that goal (winning state).”
The Kodiak/Chugiak winner advances to play the West Valley/South Anchorage winner at 7 p.m. today. The losers meet in a loser-out contest at 1 p.m. Friday. Since this is a true double-elimination tournament, a team can come through the losers’ bracket and still win.
“The last two years we just wanted to win a game, or at least do good,” senior Hannah Wandersee said, “but now we want to go all the way.”
Along with Kodiak’s success comes pressure to not only do well but to bring back the school’s first volleyball state championship. Kodiak’s highest state placing was third in 1996, Willis’ first year.
“I know people have great expectations for us and we have great expectations for ourselves,” Willis said. “When you get the entire community patting you on the back you feel weighted down by that. We are happy that we made people proud and we certainly want to play for our school and our community, but the bottom line is that these girls are playing for each other.”
Contact Mirror writer Derek Clarkston at firstname.lastname@example.org.