After 14 years of missing the state tournament, the Kenai Central volleyball team made the wait worth it.
The Kardinals defeated peninsula rivals Nikiski 3-1 Friday night to secure their spot in the championship final at the Class 3A state tournament.
Nikiski dropped into the loser-out bracket, setting up a Saturday morning match against Homer. The Mariners ousted Sitka 3-0 Friday night, guaranteeing an all-peninsula final.
Friday night in the semifinal, Kenai came out like a wrecking ball, scoring the first eight points en route to a dominant 25-9 win in the first set. Kenai then won the second set 25-18, lost the third 25-23 before clinching the match with a 25-19 win in the fourth.
“I can’t really even think of any other word other than unbelievable,” said head coach Tracie Beck. “We rewrote our goals after regions, and looked at our numbers and stats and came up with a plan to get us here. So far so good.”
Kenai junior Bethany Morris torched the Nikiski defense with 18 kills, to go along with 14 digs, and said the key to toppling a tough, and familiar, opponent like Nikiski was to keep the energy up.
“We had to keep our focus and celebrate every point, even if it wasn’t our point, we still had to celebrate it,” Morris said. “Even if it was bad and we messed up, we’d come to the middle and cheer.”
Morris’ firing partner, junior Abby Every, knocked out 12 kills herself, along with three aces and three stuff blocks.
“They came out and executed the plan perfectly,” Beck said. “Of course, you can’t just execute one plan against (Nikiski head coach) Stacey (Segura), you have to have backup plans. We had to pull out others and had to change things.”
Another player that helped keep the Kardinals engine firing was setter Kaylee Lauritsen, who set up numerous kill points for Every and Morris. Beck has praised Lauritsen previously for orchestrating the Kenai offense, and Lauritsen said Friday that she was just one part of many that make a successful group.
“Our coach always says our setters are the conductors of the team,” Lauritsen said.
Lauritsen said the team knew how long the state drought had been — it’s been since 2005, when Kenai played at the 4A level — and said many of her friends were tuning in on the action Thursday.
“It’s a giant deal at school, everyone was watching the live stream during class,” Lauritsen said. “First year at state, going into the state championship, I think it’s super cool.”
Kenai also got a big game from the the Streiffs, as sophomore libero Jenna Streiff led the Kards with 27 digs while senior hitter Jaiden Streiff notched 17 digs, as well as three serving aces. Savannah Wilson added nine kills and Erin Koziczkowski had four stuff blocks.
Senior libero Jeffreys recorded 24 digs for Nikiski, which also got 21 assists and seven aces from Kaitlyn Johnson, 11 digs from Elora Reichert, 11 kills and two stuff blocks from Kaycee Bostic and six kills from Tika Zimmerman.
While Kenai celebrated a spot in the final, Stacey Segura said her Bulldogs missed out on that opportunity with the slow start.
“I think we showed up with good intentions, but I think maybe we were under the expectation that Kenai was going to make the mistakes for us,” Segura said. “Our girls just sat back and didn’t execute our plan and focus on what we needed to do to get the ball on the floor. That’s the downfall that happened to them in their mind. You don’t just come out thinking a team’s going to make mistakes for you.”
Kenai’s plan may have also thwarted Nikiski’s efforts. Morris said the Kards were intent on avoiding hits to Jeffreys, and always kept a block on middle hitter Bostic, two players from Nikiski that can make life difficult for the opposition.
After scoring the opening eight points, Kenai continued to hammer the Nikiski defense to take a daunting 19-3 lead, forcing the Bulldogs into mistakes.
After the opening set dismantling, Nikiski found its legs in the second set, taking a brief 7-6 lead before Kenai answered back with an 11-4 run. While Nikiski came back within six points of the lead, the Kards showed no mercy as they took a 2-0 match lead.
In the third set, Nikiski finally got off to a good start with an 8-0 lead, but Morris answered back to get Kenai back into it. Later in the set, the Kards led 23-20, but the Bulldogs scored the final five points to win it and force a fourth set, thanks to a pair of service points by Jeffreys that ended it.
Nikiski again got out to a fast start in the fourth set, leading 15-8 before Kenai rallied back. Nikiski led 19-16 in the late stages, but the Kards ripped off the final nine points to finish the match in impressive fashion, getting several kill shots from Every and Morris. It was Morris who knocked out the final point to end it.
Homer 3, Sitka 0
The Homer Mariners kept their season alive Friday night with a lopsided win over the Sitka Wolves, winning with scores of 25-20, 25-16 and 25-23.
The victory slots Homer into Saturday morning’s matchup with Nikiski, with the winner moving on to play Kenai Central for the Class 3A championship.
Head coach Stephanie Carroll said the Mariners are feeling confident headed into championship Saturday.
“This is where we wanted to be, so we’re just so happy to get to Saturday,” Carroll said. “Last year we finished fourth and we didn’t want to be done on Friday this year.”
After knocking off Nikiski in the Southcentral Conference semifinals (en route to winning the region title) but losing to the Bulldogs in Thursday’s state quarterfinals, Carroll predicts an all-out war with their peninsula rivals on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a fight,” Carroll said. “I expect it to go four or five sets.”
Homer took charge late in each set against Sitka to command the match, showcasing a battle-tested squad. Senior hitter Marina Carroll led the Mariners with 18 kills, while Karmyn Gallios tallied seven kills to go with 10 digs and three aces.
The win also guaranteed an all-peninsula final in what has become an impressive showing by Southcentral teams. Carroll said she wasn’t as surprised as others might be.
“I thought that from the beginning of the season, I knew we had three really strong teams,” she said. “Last year, our conference finished one three and four, so this year, I had that sense that it’d be all Southcentral.”
Homer also got 27 assists from hitter and setter Kelli Bishop, five kills from middle hitter Tonda Smude and three kills from Laura Inama.
Homer 3, Barrow 0
The Mariners started Friday with a sweep over the Whalers to advance to Friday night’s game with Sitka. Homer won with scores of 25-6, 26-24 and 25-6.
The Homer attack was led by Marina Carroll with 11 kills and Laura Inama with seven. Also for Homer, Karmyn Gallios had six kills and three aces, Tonda Smude notched two kills and Sela Weisser chipped in two aces.