In 1981, the Kodiak High School volleyball program debuted with coach Dutch Lawson roaming the sideline.
Five more coaches followed Lawson — Roxy Bringgold, Tina Genoff, Darcy Glagolich, Kevin Dyer and JD Cole — before the Bears qualified for the 4A state tournament for the first time in program history in 1996.
Who was at the helm? Amy Willis. The same Amy Willis who is still leading the Bears 24 years after that breakthrough moment.
“I inherited a really good group from JD Cole,” Willis wrote in a text message. “I think, at the time, I didn’t really appreciate what I was given, but looking back on it they were phenomenal girls because he had invested so much time and energy in them.”
The 1996 season — played in the spring between basketball and softball — was a magical ride for Kodiak. The Bears, armed with the best lineup in program history and a rookie head coach, romped through the regular season with a 13-3 record. The mark was second-best in Region III behind only superpower Colony, an undefeated team in regional play since 1993.
Something had to give, especially after the Bears took the Knights to five sets in the final match before the Region III Championships.
Both teams steamrolled through the early stages of the eight-team tournament — Kodiak disposed of Soldotna and Kenai, while Colony took out Homer and Palmer — to reach the championship match. Being played at Colony High School, the Knights held the upper hand and were the favorites to continue their streak of regional titles.
Colony first won the opening set 15-10 (sets were played to 15 and were non-rally scoring back then). Kodiak steamrolled back, taking the next two sets 15-3 and 15-8.
“At the end of game one, the kids came back on,” Willis told the Daily Mirror in 1996.
Colony, too good of a team to go down without a fight, tied the match with a 15-13 victory in set four.
That set the stage for the winner-take-all fifth game. The Bears turned what should have been a tense, emotional last set into a victory celebration, winning 15-1.
“We were pretty content with second and going to state, but we were on a winning streak,” Carrie Hamer told the Daily Mirror in 1996.
Hamer, Toc Soneoulay and Carolina Robancho were instrumental in helping Kodiak earn its first regional crown and were all named to the all-region team.
Hamer paced Kodiak with 19 kills and 16 digs in the title match, while Soneoulay had a team-high 25 digs and Robancho 19 digs and 16 kills.
“Those three definitely set the tone of the team,” Willis told the Daily Mirror in 1996. “If they’re up, everybody is up; if they’re down, everybody is down.”
Kodiak also received contributions from Lisa Pikus (16 kills) and 6-foot-3 Charlotte Steelman (12 blocks).
The Bears continued to roll at their first state tournament, knocking off Lathrop (15-3, 15-13, 15-3) in the opening round.
After recording six kills and six digs, Robancho had this to say in the Kodiak Daily Mirror: “It was amazing. It doesn’t feel like we’re at state. It wasn’t one thing that turned us around. We had a lot of players that came up together as freshmen, and we just perfected everything over the last couple of years.”
Following a semifinal loss to eventual state champion East Anchorage (15-8, 15-9, 15-9), Kodiak faced Colony again, this time in the third/fifth-place match. And once again, it was the Bears that came out victorious, this time with a thrilling comeback. After dropping the first two sets (9-15 and 11-15), the Bears won the next three (15-11, 15-13 and 15-12).
“We had to show that regions was no fluke,” Robancho said in 1996. “We just took it from point to point. We had to fight for everything. I’m pleased with the way all the players played with all their hearts.”
Robancho — named to the all-tournament team alongside Soncoulay — was unstoppable in racking up 21 kills, 18 digs and seven service aces. Hamer added 12 kills and 21 digs.
“I think we just had to wake up,” Hamer said after the game. “We worked too hard at regionals to let this match go in three games. We had something to prove. We had expected everybody else to look at us as a contender, but they didn’t. I think this will make teams know that they can be beat by us. I think it was our heart that won it for us.”
Willis stepped away from the program from 2001 to 2010. She returned in 2011 and added two more regional championship banners (2013 and 2015) to the high school gym rafters. The 1986 graduate of Kodiak High is responsible for seven of the program’s eight trips to the state tournament. Rick Carman (2003-2010) accounts for the Bears’ other trip to state.
Liz Carstens, Jessica Brown, Toc Soneoulay, Carrie Hamer, Ani Hough, Carolina Robancho, Lisa Pikus, Angelique Talbot, Lindsey Vorachek and Alison Putnam.