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UAA volleyball team eager to show off new arena

Beth Bragg

At the start of every new season, every team is 0-0 and dreams of winning it all. But when the UAA volleyball team opens its season Friday morning, the Seawolves might feel like they already have a mark in the win column.

Hours before the afternoon’s official dedication ceremony for the $110 million Alaska Airlines Center, coach Chris Green and his players will usher in a new era by becoming the first UAA team to compete in the arena. And already the shiny new digs have the Seawolves feeling like winners. 

“When I was younger I dreamed of playing in this big stadium, and walking into there for the first time, it was like a dream come true,” said sophomore setter Morgan Hooe of Anchorage.

“We’re definitely excited. This is our home, and I hope it makes you nervous to come in and play in here. We want to be a team where we walk onto the court and people fear us. Now when you walk into our stadium, you’re even more scared, because it’s very intimidating.”

The arena is 196,000 square feet of intimidation. The SpringHill Suites Invitational, a three-day volleyball tournament that runs Friday and Saturday, will be played in the main 5,000-seat gym, but there’s an auxiliary gym that can seat 800, a room for the gymnastics team to practice, plus locker rooms, weight rooms and sports medicine facilities that dwarf what was available at the old Wells Fargo Sports Complex.

The old place was so crowded that some teams had to share locker rooms — a situation that helped prompt a Title IX gender-equity lawsuit against the school, because most of the sharing was being done by women’s teams. That’s not happening at the new place.

“At the Wells Fargo, we were all a tight little family,” Hooe said. “This locker room, we have a lot more space. It’s quite amazing how much room we have just to walk around.”

Great facilities don’t guarantee great success anymore than insufficient facilities guarantee failure. Otherwise UAA’s volleyball team wouldn’t be experiencing an unprecedented run -- six straight winning seasons and four postseason appearances, all since Green became coach in 2008.

This year’s team appears poised to continue that success. Just two players are gone from last season’s 21-10 team -- setter Siobhan Johansen and middle blocker Jodi Huddleston. Johansen and Hooe shared setting duties and Johansen shined at the service line, where she led the team in aces. Huddleston was the team’s leading blocker and ranked sixth in kills.

Back are an army of quality outside hitters, including junior All-American pick Katelynn Zanders, UAA’s kill leader and second-ranked server and digger last season, and junior all-conference pick Julia Mackey, who missed nine of the last season’s final 10 matches with an injury.

Also back are senior libero Quinn Barker, who was the Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s Newcomer of the Year last season, and sophomore middle blocker Erin Braun, the GNAC Freshman of the Year last season.

Braun’s selection as Freshman of the Year marked the second straight year the honor went to UAA — in 2012, Mackey was named the league’s top freshman. A couple of new recruits could make a bid to make it three in a row for the Seawolves — Kristi Farley, a freshman setter from Las Vegas who will help Hooe run a 6-2 offense, and Leah Swiss, a Dimond High graduate who last year became Alaska’s first high school All-American in volleyball. An outside hitter, Swiss is a powerful front-line player who is also a valuable defensive player.

“All of us are happy we snagged Leah,” Hooe said. “She’s a hard worker and has a lot of intensity. She fits in well with our team.”

Expect more top recruits like Swiss and Farley to choose UAA in the future, Hooe predicted.

“Our team, a lot of girls will want to come play for us just because of our record and our coaching staff,” she said. “And when we start getting recruits up here this next year, they’re gonna want to play in that arena.”

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com.