Strong mixture of youth, experience to power Alaska volleyball

Photo by Alaska Media Relations
Senior outside hitter Keri Knight

Chris Brooks

Plenty of fresh, new faces will mix with a core of solid veterans this season to form the base upon which the Alaska Nanooks women’s volleyball team builds its success in 2013.

Alaska returns four players who started at least 10 matches last year to lead a skilled group of newcomers and redshirts that will give first-year head coach Mallory Larranaga plenty of energy and expertise to work with.

Larranaga stepped into the head coaching role back in January after spending two years as an assistant for the program and a four-year playing career from 2001-04 as she still stands as the Nanooks’ only All-American in history. She will be joined on the sideline by first-year assistant coach Jamie Foland, who had served as the team’s volunteer assistant coach since 2003 and also played for the Nanooks from 2000-02.

“Jamie and I are new together as a team in this coaching position, but we’re very fortunate to have known each other in the competitive world of volleyball, as well as the coaching world,” Larranaga said. “I think trust and loyalty go hand-in-hand with a partnership, and Jamie and I complement each other really well.”

Alaska’s new coaching staff went right to work on a rebuilding process after the team lost four starters from last season, making sure to address an immediate need – height. Four of the program’s six newcomers eclipse the 6-foot mark, including freshman middle blocker Lilah Hudson (Seattle, Wash./wildlife biology and conservation), who comes in at 6-3.

“Our height is nice, so it’s going to help us fill a few holes in the front line that we haven’t had before,” Larranaga said.

Veteran outside hitter Keri Knight (Arvada, Colo./business administration) is the lone senior this season and will take an important leadership role on the young Nanooks squad to go along with her presence on the court. Knight finished third on the team with 154 kills in 2012. She also contributed 69 digs, 14 service aces and 10 blocks.

“Leadership is necessary, and it’s proven in different ways,” Larranaga said. “Keri had that captain mark on her back all year, and it’s something that she’s not only stepped up to the plate to do, but she has also encouraged others to be leaders in their own ways.”

Outside hitter Sam Harthun (Oregon City, Ore./art) returns for her sophomore season and looks to lead the Nanooks’ offense once again after a wildly-successful rookie campaign in which she was named GNAC Co-Rookie of the Year and All-GNAC Honorable Mention at season’s end. She started all 24 of the team’s matches and led the Nanooks with 314 kills. She was also among the team’s best with 199 digs, 32 total blocks, 27 assists and 17 service aces.

“Sam Harthun is a leader by example,” Larranaga said. “She is a strong, offensive go-to player, but she also takes care of business all around the court. She’s a competitor, which is always a necessity.”

Outside hitter Ixchelle Oleson (Mead, Wash./justice) and middle blocker Morgan McGrath (Queen Creek, Ariz./business administration) also return for their sophomore and junior seasons, respectively, after starting a combined 28 matches in 2012. Oleson suffered a season-ending injury in the Nanooks’ 11th match of the season but still tallied 91 kills with a .183 hitting percentage and contributed 49 digs, 14 assists, 12 aces and six blocks. McGrath led the team with 40 total blocks and also had 74 kills, 25 digs and two aces while playing in every match with 18 starts.

“Ixchelle Oleson is somebody that will always fight for whatever she wants,” Larranaga said. “She’s an extremely tough individual. She’s going to be in a defensive role this year, which she and I are really excited about. She has a lot to give to this team, even coming off of an injury.”

Other key letter winners back include redshirt sophomore liberos Kylie Dickerson (Fairbanks, Alaska/business administration) and Samantha Hesterman (Ormiston, Saskatchewan/social work), and redshirt junior middle blocker Britt Glaeser (Fairbanks, Alaska/business administration). A year ago, Glaeser played in 72 sets after appearing in 22 of 24 matches. She tallied 84 kills, 33 total blocks and had a .151 hitting percentage. Dickerson had 60 digs in 73 sets and Hesterman had 44 in 36 sets.

The Nanooks also return three other defensive specialists in redshirt sophomores Jordan Ferland (Beavercreek, Ore./emergency management) and Elisha Hollers (Soldotna, Alaska/elementary education), and redshirt freshman Meagan Olsen (Fairbanks, Alaska/general studies).

Setter Katelyn Camp (Newton, Iowa/general studies), outside hitter Maddie Davis (Puyallup, Wash./wildlife biology and conservation), setter Janelle Feller (Anchorage, Alaska/general studies) and middle blocker Cassidy Brewer (East Wenatchee, Wash./business administration) join Hudson to make up the team’s freshman class. Tessa Butterfield (Grass Valley, Calif./justice) rounds out the newcomer group as a junior college transfer from San Diego City College and should make an immediate impact at the libero position.

“I think we’re going to rely a lot on Tessa Butterfield,” Larranaga said. “She is a leader by design, she is somebody that has a vision in front of her of what she wants, and on the first day she has already been pushing our athletes. Her athleticism alone is going to carry her into a different type of role, a leader-by-example role.”

Larranaga is excited about the team’s youth and looks for it to be a positive factor this season, especially from individuals like Davis.

“Our team is going to rely on our youth, but it’s the excitement of the youth,” she said. “All they know is positivity. All they know is the excitement to come in their collegiate career. They’re going to always work as hard as possible and they’re going to ask a lot of questions.

“I’m really looking forward to Maddie Davis,” Larranaga added. “I think she’s a very consistent, strong athlete. She’s a six-position player. She’s somebody that’s been a go-to player for her club and her high school team for a long time, and so she’s had a lot on her shoulders. I think she can handle a lot.”

The Great Northwest Athletic Conference released its 2013 preseason women’s volleyball poll Thursday, and with their strong mix of newcomers and returners, the Nanooks look to surprise plenty of teams this season.

Alaska, which finished 6-18 overall, including 4-14 in GNAC play last season, was selected eighth in a voting of the conference’s 10 head coaches after finishing in the same position back in 2012.

“As a sports team, we’re always judged on our wins and losses, and wins are really important to us,” Larranaga said. “We’ve done a really good job these last couple of years, and especially in the spring, of working on character and getting great people to the University. We’ve recruited phenomenal athletes, phenomenal people and phenomenal students.”

Western Washington, the reigning conference champion, received seven first-place votes in being selected as the preseason favorite. Central Washington received two first-place nods to come in second, with Alaska Anchorage and Western Oregon (one first-place vote) not far behind. Seattle Pacific, the 2011 GNAC champion, rounded out the top five, followed by Montana State Billings, Northwest Nazarene, Alaska, Saint Martin’s and Simon Fraser.

“I really like having this whole, ‘starting at eight and moving up’ kind of thing. I think it’s going to be really fun to build this team from the ground up. I accept that challenge and I think it’s going to be really neat doing it together (with coach Foland).”

Alaska opens its season Saturday with a three-set exhibition match against the Alumni as part of the 2013 Spike Fest at the Patty Center. The match begins at 4 p.m., with Spike Fest activities, including dinner, demonstrations and player interviews, following afterwards.