This year’s volleyball team took to their new home court with the noise of saws and sanders echoing from the rafters and heavy lifting equipment still stationed in the lobby. They’re the first UAA team in action this year—starting practice three weeks before the Alaska Airlines Center officially opens—but they certainly don’t have the place to themselves just yet. “They’ve been doing some test work on the fire alarms and the lights,” said All-American Katelynn Zanders of the construction crews still circling the upper decks. “They’ve been going on and off, but we’re just practicing through it.”
In a few short days, the work crews will make their final additions and headphones will replace hard hats as all the athletes move in to start training. Of the many upgrades in the new arena, each athletics team now has its own locker room (a feature the volleyball team is already putting to good use).
Katelynn, who is coming off an impressive season, will help lead the team in 2014. During her sophomore year, she earned All-American honors (only the third athlete in program history do so) and was named MVP by her teammates. She plays outside hitter and ranked third last year in the 10-team GNAC conference in kills per set (3.69) and she’s already climbing the ladder of all-time career kills for the Seawolves program (she starts the season 16th on the list with 676 kills and counting). With two more seasons to go, she could very likely become one of the top outside hitters in the program’s 34-year history.
Playing volleyball in Anchorage is nothing new—she’s a hometown girl and has been playing here for over a decade. She even grew up right next door to long-time teammate Morgan Hooe, whose father just happens to own the city’s only club team, Midnight Sun Volleyball. She and Morgan have been playing together in-state and at annual Outside tournaments since 5th grade.
Katelynn and Morgan both attended South High School in Anchorage, along with fellow Seawolf teammate Sarah Johnson. Katelynn’s senior season, the South High Wolverines won the state 4A tournament and went undefeated—25-0—against in-state opponents. All three now play for the Seawolves, meaning 20 percent of the UAA team hails from the halls of South High School. “We’ve been playing together since middle school, so it’s been a while for the three of us,” Katelynn added.
Katelynn started high school as a three-sport athlete (including soccer and track) but graduated with only eyes for volleyball. The common thought among her high school teammates was leaving the state. “All of us were like, “we’re not staying here, we’re all going Out,” she said. “But the best opportunities were here, and I love the team. And I can stay home near my family.” Katelynn was the first one to decide on UAA, which encouraged Sarah to stay in Anchorage as well. Morgan, a grade below, decided to sign at UAA the following year. “It all worked out,” Katelynn smiled.
The new arena is only the latest bonus for a program on the rise. The Seawolves have posted winning records the past six seasons and qualified for the NCAA tournament in four of the last five. Katelynn sees the new arena as a huge boost for recruiting new players and maintaining the program’s recent success. “It’s so spacious, and I love the jumbo-tron. It all seems so new and fresh and clean,” she pauses to take in the room again. “And legit.”
The team moved in this August, but they hadn’t been together in the arena since the previous August, just before kicking off their 21-10 season that saw them clock an impressive 9-0 road record against league opponents. “Last time we saw it there was nothing. There were walls and basically that was about it,” Katelynn said. “We still had to wear hard hats.”
She had a second opportunity to check out the arena in April. As one of the school’s top tweeters, she was invited on a social media tour of the building-in-progress. “There wasn’t any floor or anything down yet, panels were all piled up, seats weren’t in yet either.”
Today, hard hats are no longer necessary, the floor is finally in place and the Seawolves are ready to lock down another winning season.
“It should be a good year. It’s going to be a great place for people to come and watch,” Katelynn noted. “Everyone’s going want to come here, and we’re part of the opening week of the building.”
The Alaska Airlines Center will celebrate its grand opening with not one, but two home volleyball games as part of the Springhill Suites Invitational on Sept. 5. The Lions of St. Leo University will fly all the way from Florida’s Gulf Coast to face the Seawolves in the arena’s inaugural match, slated for 9 a.m. Long Island University-Post plays the Seawolves at 7 p.m., just after the ribbon-cutting ceremony winds down. From there, it’s a sprint to Thanksgiving with several matches a week held across six states (and one province) before regional championships start on Nov. 20. The team was tapped to finish second in the GNAC’s preseason coaches poll, but have even higher expectations for their debut season at the new arena.
With 14 home games from now through mid-November, Seawolf fans have plenty of opportunities to catch the volleyball team in action on their new home court. The first public match is an exhibition against volleyball alumni, set for Friday night, Aug. 29 at 7 p.m. The annual alumni game gets a boost this year, as it’s the first public event in the brand-new arena.
Katelynn is confident about the season ahead: “We’re just playing well, we have a lot of great players from last year and great players who came in as transfers,” she said. “Its just connecting really well.”
“I’m hoping we can get a championship this year,” she smiled. “It’s looking pretty good already, and it’s only week 2.”
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement.