For the past two decades, every Alaska high school volleyball state champion crowned at the 4A level has hailed from the Cook Inlet Conference.
The vast majority of those titles have been claimed by two perennial powerhouse programs: Dimond and South Anchorage. While either the Lynx or Wolverines have won each of the last 17 dating back to 2005, this season has seen a rise in the level of competition across the league.
“All the teams are great, so we can’t overlook anybody,” longtime Dimond head coach Kim Lauwers said. “It’s great for Alaska volleyball. It’s exciting and you have to play very well to win this year.”
The defending state champion Lynx first witnessed the improved talent during scrimmages at the Chugiak Invitational at the beginning of the school year.
“Lots of teams can go out and win it and whoever is playing the best that night, more so this year than we’ve ever seen it,” Lauwers said.
After being downtrodden for over half a decade, Bettye Davis East has gone from basement dweller to being arguably the hottest team in the state, emerging as a prime championship contender.
The Thunderbirds won their first nine matches of the regular season prior to being swept by Chugiak in a shocking upset on Tuesday night. To that point, they had swept their opponents in five of their first 10 contests, and even handed the Lynx their first loss of the season.
“East is doing amazing, and we respect every team,” Lauwers said. “East has got talent across the board. They’re keeping the ball off the floor, they’re making fewer errors, and they’re playing together and really gelling.”
Growth and development lead to parity
Service is another surprise success this year. After being swept at home by East early in the CIC season-opener, the Cougars pushed the Thunderbirds to the brink in East’s gym last week.
“We’re halfway through the season, so a lot has changed,” Service senior outside hitter Paige Miller said. “A lot changes with dynamics and skill-wise in general. Just being together as a team and working on team bonding has really made us a better team overall. That really helped us to stick together to really push East and scare them a little bit.”
East junior outside hitter Jirah Boma had 20 kills in that thriller and felt like it was the wake-up call her team needed to sharpen its focus.
“I think it was a good push but also a good motivator and reminder that nothing comes easy,” she said. “We still have to push and give 110% every game regardless of the opposing team.”
Head coach Austin Osborne is in his third year with the Service volleyball program and his first season at the helm. He was pleased with the growth his team showed from its first matchup against East to the second.
“I think coming into the season, we didn’t know who was going to be the top team,” Osborne said. “I figured a lot of teams would beat each other or have a chance to beat each other, and we’re seeing that now. The top five or six teams have kind of beat each other here and there.”
He’s encouraged to see other schools competing with perennial powers such as Dimond and South.
“They’re great programs and they always have been, but to see teams like East and Service up there fighting it out in the top four of the standings is really exciting,” Osborne said.
Senior defensive specialist and libero Rylie Widener credits Osborne’s coaching contributions as a major catalyst for their improvement and success since the beginning of the regular season.
“He has pushed us so hard at practice each day wanting us to get better, and we all have that desire,” she said.
Even though they came out on the wrong side of that five-set thriller with the Thunderbirds, the Cougars still viewed the experience as a confidence booster because it was a testament to all the work they’ve put in and how far they’ve come as a team.
“It proved that (East) is vulnerable,” Widener said. “Volleyball is a game of changes, and I think any team can beat any team at any point, and I think Service has something to prove.”
Osborne feels like East and Service are prime examples of two programs with “nothing to lose and a lot to prove.”
“I think this year is a really even playing field, and it’s a lot more difficult for all the teams to really figure out where they might end up for regions,” Miller said.
Lauwers believes that there’s no room for “average” play in this league because too many unforced errors could cause a team’s downfall on any given night.
“You have to play hard and almost flawless volleyball to be able to win a set,” Lauwers said. “To win three out of five, you have to be on top of your game that night.”
As is the case with most prep sports, the teams with players who compete throughout the year tend to fare the best during the high school season. However, opportunities to join competitive club teams and attend skills camps during the offseason haven’t always been available for players from across the region who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
The addition of several more local club volleyball teams over the last few years is a factor Osborne credits as a major catalyst that “has helped make club volleyball accessible to more and more players from around the region.”
“(That) could be part of the reason we’re seeing a lot of different schools having success,” he said in an email. “Having the opportunity to play volleyball year-round is huge.”
Despite the balance in the league, Dimond will still be a team to be reckoned with during the second half of the season.
Dimond senior setter Amelia Muhlbauer is one of the few returners from last year’s varsity team, and she says it hasn’t taken long for this year’s squad to come together.
“It’s such a younger group, and we’re all learning how to play together, but I think the connection is really strong, and that’s what Dimond does best — being a family and working together,” she said.
Several of the Cook Inlet Conference’s finest teams will be taking part in this weekend’s West Spiketacular, which dates back over three decades and is the largest and longest-running high school volleyball tournament in the state and will take place at West Anchorage high school. In addition to Anchorage schools, teams from Mat-Su and all over the state will be participating as well. Friday’s action will run from 2:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday’s from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.