Sandpoint High volleyball coach Karen Alsager said she may never coach another senior class as talented and dominating as the class of 2010.
Or as tight knit.
Setter/right-side hitter Kortney “Koko” James and outside hitter Piper Wahlin have started every match in their prep careers. Middle hitter Kaiti Lunde is a four-year letterman and three-year starter, and outside hitter Christina Johnson is a three-year starter.
The other seniors – defensive specialists Alissa Millard, Emilie Kuester and Maddy Emmer – have had supporting roles along the way.
“I haven’t seen a class come in and make an impact like they have for four years,” Alsager said. “The character of these girls impresses me more than their talent – and they have talent.”
The seniors started together in club back in seventh grade. Some were together earlier, but the core has been playing with each other since early middle school.
“We’ve had lockers side by side each other since we started high school,” James said.
They do as many things together as possible. They sat with each other at Sandpoint’s big home football showdown with Coeur d’Alene last week.
“Being close off the court helps us be close on the court,” James said. “Sometimes you watch players on the other teams and you see them being catty with each other. Girls are girls sometimes. We just don’t have all the drama.”
The seniors hope to conclude their careers with a third 4A state championship. James, Wahlin and Lunde were instrumental as freshmen in the Bulldogs winning a state title. Sandpoint finished second the following year before returning to the top of the state heap last season.
“We want to go out with a bang,” Johnson said. “We’ve wanted to be a team for future (Sandpoint) players to watch.”
The seniors are 85-12 overall and should conclude with more than 100 victories.
It’s not the most successful span by a senior class in school history, not in this tradition-rich program that boasts 14 state titles. But it may be the second-best run. Former coach Irene Matlock, who went on to a highly successful career as coach at Community College of Spokane, coached four consecutive state champs in the early 1980s.
James, Wahlin, Lunde and Johnson want to go on and play in college. James gave the University of Montana an oral commitment last winter, and the other three are being recruited.
James is the third sister to play at the NCAA Division I level. Sisters Jennie and Kelsey played at Idaho State University and Idaho, respectively.
The James sisters have had a handprint in Sandpoint’s success. Jenny played on one state title team (1999) and Kelsey played on two (2002 and ’03).
Koko isn’t the only senior with ties to Sandpoint’s tradition. Lunde’s mother, the former Jodi Parsons, was a middle blocker on the Bulldogs’ 1989 state title team.
Former Sandpoint athletic director Jack Dyck, whose daughter Amy was a four-year starter at setter/right side for the Bulldogs and went on to play at Arizona, has coached the seniors in club the last four years. The seniors remember watching Amy Dyck’s teams play and wanting to be on winning teams like hers someday.
The seniors give much credit to Jack Dyck for their development.
“He’s had a huge impact on me,” Wahlin said. “He’s been around volleyball his whole life. He doesn’t do anything fancy. He just makes sure you’ve got the fundamentals down – which is more important than you think.”
“He’s one of the most influential people in my life,” she said. “He’s made me the player that I am.”
The seniors also sing the praises of Alsager, who was inducted into the University of Idaho’s hall of fame last year based on her outstanding career.
“She’s made me stronger mentally,” James said. “She’s very structured. She’s taught me to be on time, to be disciplined.”
“She can put pressure on you in practice that makes you be your best all the time,” Wahlin said. “I’ve never seen a coach be able to do that like she does.”
Alsager admittedly is pushing her team harder in practice this fall, because she didn’t believe North Idaho teams would provide the stimulus for the Bulldogs to be the best they can be come state.
Sandpoint’s lone loss this season was to Pullman in the final at the Lakeland Invitational. The Bulldogs (9-1) beat Pullman, a team that should challenge for a Washington State 2A title, earlier in pool play.
To Lunde, the loss shows her that the Bulldogs have much work to do before reaching the level they desire this season.
“The loss to Pullman was a good eye-opener,” Lunde said. “Now we know what we need to work on. We didn’t play as good defensively as we could. We have minor details to fix if we want to reach the top again.”
That’s music to Alsager’s ears – not having a team content with resting on its laurels.
“I don’t want us to focus so much on the end result that we don’t enjoy the journey,” Alsager said. “They’re not just coasting. You can feel it in practice. They’re moving forward. We need to get better. We know what’s at the end of our season.”