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By Amy Farnum Patronis
Alaska is known for its beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife — and of course the snow and ice — but volleyball?
Not so much.
However, University of Alaska Anchorage head coach Chris Green has been working hard to change that perception in his eight years at the helm of the Seawolves’ program.
He’s doing a pretty good job of it and doing it with plenty of players from Alaska.
At 12-0, the Seawolves are off to their best start in program history and, after starting the season unranked, the team has climbed to No. 8 in the AVCA Division II Top 25 — UAA’s highest ranking ever.
In its first 28 years of existence, UAA earned NCAA Tournament berths only twice (1989, 1990), but since Green took the reins in 2008, the Seawolves have made five NCAA appearances in seven seasons — and are well on their way to another.
Green, a 1991 graduate of the University of Nebraska, is accustomed to building powerhouse programs. A practice player and a statistician for the Huskers’ woman’s team, he was a big fan then-head coach Terry Pettit, who built Division I Nebraska into a national power.
As the head coach at Western Nebraska Community College, Green led the school to the 2007 NJCAA Division I national title and finished in the top 10 at the national tournament in each of his nine seasons.
It hasn’t been easy recruiting talented players at either school.
“It was hard to recruit there in a small town like that and I don’t know that it is much different here,” Green said.
There are obstacles like the long distance to the U.S. mainland, the freezing winters and a lack of volleyball club competition. These aren’t simple to overcome.
For that matter, Alaska Fairbanks — the only other Division II volleyball program in the state — is winless in its first 11 matches.
But Green has been able to keep several of the state’s best athletes and attract some out-of-state players who love the outdoors. Seven of UAA’s 12 players are Alaska natives who played for the same club team, Midnight Sun, in Anchorage. It’s the most in-state players Green has ever had on the roster. The Seawolves’ setter, Morgan Hooe, is the daughter of the Midnight Sun director Virgil Hooe.
Because of the costs, clubs like Midnight Sun can’t afford travel to a lot of tournaments in the lower 48, so the players from Alaska are just not as exposed to club volleyball competition. And, most of them are multi-sport athletes who focus on volleyball later in their high school careers.
“I think we’re lucky that they weren’t recruited as heavily as they would have been if they were in the lower 48,” Green said. “I think that gives us a little bit of an advantage. The limited exposure of athletes up here has helped us to recruit them without as much competition.”
In high school, senior Julia Mackey traveled from Fairbanks (it’s a six-hour trip) to practice and compete with Midnight Sun.
“(Midnight Sun) only traveled once every summer,” Mackey said. “That was tough, only seeing competition once a year. We couldn’t believe how good the girls (on the mainland) were.”
Those club experiences are paying off now.
“We use that as an advantage now because we bonded while we were playing on the club team together,” Mackey said. “That carried through to college and I think it is pretty cool how close we are because we have been together for so long.”
Mackey, fellow senior Katelynn Zanders, and Hooe have been contributors to the Seawolves’ program from the start of their careers at UAA, even though they may not have been completely ready for collegiate competition.
“It was shock, but I think we are true competitors because we loved it — we wanted to be out there and get better,” Mackey said. “That helped us mature in a volleyball aspect.”
Their success is a nod to Green’s focus on developing young athletes into really good volleyball players.
“I think the Alaska kids who are now older in our program are finally catching up,”
While cultivating homegrown talent has worked for UAA, Green and assistant coach Sheldon Carvalho also are heavily recruiting the West Coast and Hawaii.
The roster consists of players from California, Oregon, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.
“We try to recruit players that want to experience some adventure,” Green said.
“Alaska is beautiful and we’ve done a pretty good job there.”
When those out-of-state recruits visit Anchorage, Mackey says they typically have questions like “how do you stand these winters?” and “what do I do here?”
While not everyone is cut out to brave the harsh Alaska winters, there is a lot to explore in the nation’s 49th state.
“There are a lot of outdoor activities to do, so when girls come on recruiting visits we take them on hikes or go sledding,” Mackey said. “We try to introduce them to the outdoors in Anchorage.”
With only one other Division II program in the state, most road trips are plane rides to the mainland for the Great Northwest Athletic Conference member.
But Green doesn’t look at the travel as a drawback. Most teams are riding on a bus to away matches for at least three-and-a-half hours. UAA spends the same amount of time on a flight to Seattle.
“I don’t look at it as much of a disadvantage,” Green said. “Teams coming up to Alaska always complain about the travel, but we do it every other weekend so they shouldn’t complain too much.”
While travel time is not much of a factor, the cost of travel is. For its home tournament in September, UAA pays guarantees as an incentive to offset travel costs. No other Division II tournament does that.
“I think it is a great destination for kids to come to and see wildlife and the beautiful scenery,” Green said. “It’s a cool place to come, but the expense is sometimes a little bit more than teams can afford.”
UAA hosted Azusa Pacific (Calif.), Rockhurst (Mo.), Nebraska Kearney and Cal Poly Pomona for the SpringHill Suites Invitational to open the season and Green says it was the most competitive tournament they’ve ever had.
The Seawolves also have a two-year-old facility — the 5,000-seat Alaska Airlines Center — that is arguably the finest Division II volleyball venue in the nation.
“We packed our old gym pretty well, but this is a bit of an intimidation factor for teams coming in,” Mackey said. “They see this huge arena and I think it helps give us a home advantage.”
UAA plays host to two conference foes at the Alaska Airlines Center this week. Seattle Pacific visits Thursday and the Seawolves welcome Saint Martin’s on Saturday.
Then, the schedule heats up against GNAC foes — first, a road trip to defending-conference champion Northwest Nazarene in Idaho followed by Central Washington (receiving poll votes) two days later. Then, No. 15 Western Washington comes to town Oct. 15.
“In our conference any team can beat anybody — we have a pretty tough conference,” Green said.
With a victory Thursday, UAA can tie the program-record winning streak of 13 matches. The Seawolves are one of the last five remaining unbeatens among the 274 Division II squads. They are joined by Northern State (13-0), Florida Southern (12-0), Cameron (11-0) and Valdosta State (9-0).
Thanks to Sam Wasson/UAA Athletics for the photos of the Seawolves.