NASELLE — Coach Rebekah Wirkkala scribbles key words alongside names on the roster, trying to describe her volleyball stalwarts’ roles or temperaments.
Senior Peyton Dalton, Comet enthusiasm personified, is inevitably captain.
She’s a skilled setter, like Bella Colombo, one of five junior standouts.
Kaylin Shrives — who can throw a shot put better than most boys on the track team— is easy: “Dominant hitter.”
Lauren Katyryniuk: “Athletic.”
Delaney Kragerud: “Hard worker.”
Her attention moves to Brynn Tarabochia.
How should the coach describe her libero, she asks the giggling mass in the gym.
Brynn and sister Kylee have been fixtures in Naselle athletics on the court and the softball field. They’ve even been cheerleaders.
In 2019, Kylee was named first-team All-League and Brynn selected for the Columbia League second team. But Kylee has graduated, so the mantle of leadership is on Brynn, now a junior.
Teammates rush to yell words too fast to note down.
“Observant” offers one.
“She’s dialed in” suggests her coach.
“Determined” shouts another, and they all agree.
Instead of basking in the limelight, Tarabochia is somewhat contemplative. Like many student-athletes right now, she’s simply glad to be back in the gym.
“I am super excited just to play a normal season with everybody to be able to watch — and have a student section,” she says.
In volleyball, look up the definition of libero and you’ll learn it is a defensive specialist who controls the action from the back court. Tarabochia relishes that pressure. “It’s reading the ball and learning to stay low to the ground and be in ‘neutral mode,’” ready for whatever happens.
Wirkkala is figuring her starting lineup options, happy with senior Morgan Reitz, a blocker alongside powerful Shrives, and knowing Mia Watson offers potential off the bench.
Two seniors, Ayrianna Walters and speedy track athlete Echo Cenci, and more juniors, Haley Eastham, Amera Larson and newcomer Destiny Gifford, are also on the squad.
Wirkkala and assistant coach Hanna Higginbotham are looking at a full JV. Because there are so many girls turning out for volleyball, the district has brought in Kayti Updike to coach a C Squad.
In the mix will be sophomores Nancy Haataja, Nicole Steenerson, Avalon Sullivan, Gladys Wilson, Kayli Wirkkala and freshmen Hannah Haataia, Analiisa Laine, Audry Muessig, Ava Myers-Marshall, Evelyn Normand, Abbi Sabey and Mylinh Schell.
At practice, the buzz in the Lyle Patterson Gymnasium is palpable.
It is led by Dalton. “I am at 100 percent excitement level for the season,” the Comet captain beams.
It will be her first full year in varsity. As a sophomore she was injured, then she played this year’s covid delayed-and-shortened season wearing masks with few watching.
“I feel we are getting close,” she replies, when asked about unity. “There’s no drama. We are friends outside of volleyball and that helps.”
Team members like Katyryniuk share that spark.
“I am excited,” she says. “There’s a lot more energy. There’s no more masks. We are excited to be with each other with so much energy.”
Friendly local rivals
Naselle was beginning its season with a trip to Ocosta before hosting back-to-back “bragging rights” games against neighboring rivals Wahkiakum Sept. 8 and Ilwaco Sept. 9.
Katyrniuk is thrilled the Fishermen will be early in the schedule. “That is a real rivalry — we are excited,” she says. “We played them in summer league and won.”
Wirkkala anticipates a competitive league with Mossyrock, Willapa Valley and Pe Ell likely to provide the toughest challenges. One “obstacle” is missing. The last couple of years, 1B Southwest Washington volleyball has been dominated by Katie Kogler, a 6-0 award-winning middle blocker. After a stellar sports career, she has graduated from Firm Foundation, a private Christian school in Battle Ground (as valedictorian), and enrolled at Washington State University in Vancouver.
Coaches’ important roles
Wirkkala has coached the volleyball team since 2016; she has coached Comet softball since 2010.
As they lead their players through drills and skills tests on opposite sides of the gym, Higginbotham’s contribution to the success of the program is clear. She brings volleyball expertise from her playing days at Multnomah University, a Portland Bible college. “I appreciate her so much,” Wirkkala says.
Wirkkala played three sports in high school and two at Concordia College in Portland.
Her two sons, aged 6 and 9, hover around practice. Her other “family” is on the court.
“They fill my life as much as I contribute to theirs,” Wirkkala says. “They keep me young!”
The atmosphere the two coaches set in the gym balances intensity on hitting and blocking skills with occasional giggly fun.
When the conversation shifts to the philosophical, Wirkkala’s answer is immediate. “The reward for me is everlasting,” she says. “It’s more than just a game. You are important in their lives, not just their playing abilities.”