By CRAIG GIAMMONA
Courtesy of Daily Sitka Sentinel
The Mt. Edgecumbe volleyball team finds itself in a somewhat unusual spot heading into the 2010 season opener this weekend.
The Lady Braves have dominated the 3A Southeast conference the last three years, capturing three Region V titles and winning 49 straight conference matches. Not even graduation has managed to slow coach Rich Calkins’ squad. Between 2008 and 2009, Calkins lost nine seniors, but last year’s squad barely missed a beat, finishing fourth at the state tournament. This year is a little different, with a noticeable absence of seasoned players on the Mt. Edgecumbe roster. Two players from last year’s team decided to stay home in Kotzebue and Calkins has just one starter back the 2009 team, junior Brenna Johanson, a returning all-conference player from Hoonah. For the first time in recent years, the Lady Braves’ roster is dominated by sophomores and juniors, with not a single four-year senior on the squad.
But Calkins is not lowering expectations. He does not like the term “rebuilding year” and said he expects the Lady Braves to be competitive once the Region V tournament rolls around in November.
“Our goal is the same as it is every year and that’s to compete for the state title,” Calkins said. “Some years you start closer than others.”
He said calling the season a rebuilding year would be “selling the program short and selling the girls short.” Calkins said his players have experience, just not as a unit. He has a player who was on the team at Thunder Mountain last year, and another from Craig High. Kristin Johanson (Hoonah) and Kailyn Kashevarof (Fairbanks), the team’s two seniors, didn’t see significant playing time last year, but were part of the varsity roster.
The last few years, Calkins has relied on four-year seniors to set the tone at practice and help younger players understand the expectations at Edgecumbe. This year, the team will have to work hard to get into postseason form, Calkins said.
“If we work hard, we’ll accept where we are at the end of the season,” Calkins said. “We see a lot of room for growth and hopefully by the end of the year we’ll see that.”
Also on the roster for the Lady Braves this year: Mariah Martin (10th grade, Hoonah), Donnita White (11th grade, Hoonah), Katelyn Cook (10th grade, Craig), Aquilina Active (11th grade, Nanwalek), Maggie Okakok (10th grade, Anchorage), Leilani Saena (9th grade, New Stuyahak) and Elena Beans (10th grade, Mountain Village).
The Lady Braves could get a test this weekend, when Petersburg comes to town for a pair of matches Saturday and Sunday at B.J. McGillis Gymnasium. Petersburg has talented players returning from a team that went to state last year and recently split a pair of matches with Sitka High. The Lady Braves need a win Saturday for the streak, which dates to the beginning of the 2007 season, to hit 50 games. Calkins said the girls are aware of the winning streak, but he’s much more concerned about success at the Region V tournament, when two bids to state will be on the line.
“It’s something we’d like to see continue,” Calkins said, adding: “It has the potential to be a real competitive year.”
Calkins said that the past two years, his teams have “reached midseason form pretty quickly,” with the Lady Braves not taking much time to gel as a unit. It could take a bit longer this year, but Calkins expects Mt. Edgecumbe to be in the mix for another Region V title. It would be the school’s fourth straight. Calkins said he has spent the first few weeks of practice working on service, and serve returning and has already seen improvements.
“We’re not where we need to be, (but) we’ll get there,” Calkins said. “We’re playing for the end of the season.”
The Lady Braves were supposed to make a trip to Metlakatla to open the season, but the games were cancelled, pushing Petersburg to the front of the schedule. After two matches against the Lady Vikings, Mt. Edgecumbe will make a trip to Haines. The Region V tournament is scheduled for Nov. 4-6 in Ketchikan, with Wasilla hosting the state tournament this season.
As Calkins noted, the competition in the 3A Southeast Conference could be tight this year. Wrangell and Metlakatla have struggled in recent years, but Sitka High, Haines, Petersburg and Craig should all be solid, along with the Lady Braves. Calkins said it would be a mistake to “sell Wrangell short.” He said the Lady Wolves have a few returning players and could be better in 2010. The Braves will also face Sitka High twice during the regular season, matches that could be extremely competitive.