Juneau’s high school volleyball programs underwent a changing of the guard in the offseason.
In addition to the regular turnover of seniors, Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain High School feature new head coaches, each hoping to capitalize on the energy and excitement that comes with a coaching change.
Brandee Gerke will lead a young team brimming with athleticism at JDHS, while Julie Herman will guide a hardworking and determined squad at TMHS.
“This has always been my dream, is to coach in the community I grew up in,” Herman, the junior varsity coach for the past two seasons, said this week at practice. “So I’m very excited, I’m very excited.”
TMHS returns seven varsity players from last year’s team, including seniors Audrey Welling, Hannah Harvey, Leilani Eshnaur and Marissa Tanuvasa-Tuvaifale. Tanuvasa-Tuvaifale, a setter, made first-team all-conference and will play a big role in the Falcons’ offense, which will be without two of its most powerful hitters from last season: Maxie Saceda-Hurt (graduated) and Gabby Sloan (moved away). Herman affirms the team doesn’t have any missing pieces though, pointing to Welling, sophomore Lily Smith and junior Tasi Fenumiai as players who can pick up the slack.
“We did a summer workout program, gave them a packet, told them to be in shape, be ready for tryouts for three days and a lot of them took it seriously,” Herman said. “I think the overwhelming word (for the team) is passion, I think there’s a lot of passion in the gym to play, to be at their best level, to learn the skills to up their game across all of our teams.”
Kylie Stevens is a senior who’s played most of the last two seasons on junior varsity under Herman, a health and physical education teacher at TMHS. She said in that time she’s gained an appreciation for how Herman likes to run things.
“She demands your best — I guess would be a good way to put it,” Stevens said. “She doesn’t settle for less than what she knows you can do, which is really important in a coach because you know she believes in you but she’s not going to just tell you’re doing great if you’re not.”
Over at JDHS, Gerke, fisheries manager with the federal government for the last two decades, is also building trust with her players. The Crimson Bears are returning six of their 10 varsity players from last season, including all-conference setter Shaylin Cesar.
“I feel so lucky, there’s a lot of leadership in these kids and they’re very coachable,” Gerke said. “As a first-time coach of high school students, I could not imagine a better group of attitudes, personalities, leaders.”
This will be the seventh consecutive season in which Cesar has shared the volleyball court with Skylar Hickok and Riley Stadt. The three played at Floyd Dryden Middle School before all going to JDHS.
“It’s our last season together but we’re all really excited and want to make it our best season,” Stadt said.
“Playing with them for the last seven years has built a lot of trust on the court and you know they’re always there when they need to be,” Cesar added.
The Crimson Bears went 15-7 last season but will be without the elite middle blocking duo of Jessica Pierce (5’10”) and Cassie Dzinich (5’11”). Stadt hopes what the team lacks in height it will be able to make up with its athleticism and versatility.
“We have a pretty good team just for agility,” she said. “We can kind of play anywhere, like we don’t have a specific person who can’t pass and can only play front row. We all are pretty good at playing every position and picking up slack for our teammates if they’re having a bad play.”
JDHS and TMHS went 2-2 in the regular season last year. JDHS won two straight matches against TMHS to win the Region V title and advance to the state tournament. The team won one of its three games in the state tournament.
JDHS has had a firm grip on the Region V conference: winning 23 of the last 24 Region V 4A championships.
JDHS plays in its first home games next Friday and Saturday against Ketchikan. Junior varsity plays at 6:15 p.m. and varsity at 8 p.m. on Friday. Junior varsity plays at 5:45 p.m. and varsity at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. TMHS hosts Sitka in two weeks.