Coaching (non) dilemma

The Juneau-Douglas High School volleyball team is without a head coach this season.

Yet the team hasn’t missed a beat this fall, already one month into the season.

A host of volunteer coaches and high-spirited seniors has the team ready to defend their Region V championship.

Two of Alaska’s longest-tenured assistant coaches, Dale Bontrager and Pat Gorman, have said they’re staying put where they are. Lesslie Knight, who replaced longtime head coach Sandi Wagner five years ago, elected to stop coaching before the start of this season.

“This is kind of an amazing year, we don’t have a head coach but we’ve got probably the best group of volunteers that I’ve ever seen,” said Bontrager, who’s coached at the school for three decades. “It’s partly because we don’t have a head coach that I’m willing to let volunteers come in as often as we do, but everyone that’s come in is super qualified.”

Besides Bontrager and Gorman, six other youthful faces regularly practice with the team, almost all program alumni: Lesley Kalbrener (2006), Krista Bontrager (2012), Chelsea Peterson (2013) and Patricia Enriquez (2017).

The remaining two, Sarah Johnson and Savannah Fletcher, accumulated over 50 wins in their distinguished NCAA careers. Johnson played for the University of Alaska-Anchorage; Fletcher for Columbia University.

“It just seems like the universe is sending us all this help. It’s pretty incredible it’s all coming together,” Kalbrener said.

With all this help, some concern was given to whether the team could remain unified.

“There’s the worry that these guys need consistent instruction from a singular voice,” Kalbrener said. “We were very worried about that, but these guys are so flexible and so dedicated and so energetic that it’s not a problem. They’re taking information from four, five different angles and assimilating it all and making it work. It’s just a testament to their adeptness.”

Senior Abby Meiners says the coaches have been a doing a fine job communicating. “(The coaches) talk outside of practice and compare their thoughts on volleyball or how we should be taught,” Meiners said. “So it’s not like we’re getting confused. So that’s really nice that they do that — but we do hear it from a lot of people.”

Adeptness in volleyball — and life — has been the focus of the program since the beginning. The fact so many alumni are ready to pitch in is a reflection on the strong tradition of the program.

“That’s really what our program is all about,” Bontrager said. “We’ve got a good varsity program, but it’s more about teaching lifelong skills to young women so they can play volleyball for rest of their lives. We’re not just about winning regionals or whatever.”

One year Bontrager recalls over 100 girls coming out for volleyball. He’s always stuck to a “no-cut” policy, in which every player gets to play on the varsity, junior varsity or C team levels. For several years, the program housed around 80 players.

The lessons of sportsmanship and positive self-esteem at the heart of the team’s philosophy has already shown in many players.

“I feel like a lot of the void that might be there on another team without a head coach is filled by the leadership that we have with our older players, our juniors and seniors,” Kalbrener said. “They supply the energy in the gym and they are really the ones that make or break a practice. I think having that void this year has inspired them to fill it themselves.”

• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or

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