If there’s one thing opposing volleyball teams should never do, it is never count out the Nikiski Bulldogs.
Thanks to another five-set barnburner, Nikiski advanced to the Class 3A state championship game with a victory over Mt. Edgecumbe Friday night at the Alaska Airlines Arena in Anchorage.
The Bulldogs overcame a slow start to topple the Braves with scores of 13-25, 26-24, 25-21, 18-25 and 15-9.
Saturday’s title game is scheduled for 12 p.m. with an “if-necessary” tilt at 1:45 p.m. should the Bulldogs lose the first match. Nikiski will face either Mt. Edgecumbe or Grace Christian in the finale, depending on which team wins out in the second-chance bracket Saturday morning.
Grace and Mt. Edgecumbe have combined to win five of the last six state 3A volleyball championships, and the two have battled each other in four of them.
The achievement puts Nikiski in the state title game for the first time since 2000, when the Bulldogs won it all.
“My girls handle pressure so well,” said a cheery coach Stacey Segura. “I feel like if we don’t have pressure, we lose.
“We’ve been up two games in every (match) we’ve gone to five in, and we lose those games and we don’t have any pressure.”
The Bulldogs own a 5-3 record in five-set games this year, with losses only coming to 3A powerhouse Grace Christian (twice) and 4A opponent Soldotna.
After a three-game sweep of Monroe Catholic on Thursday, Nikiski has played in and won consecutive five-game matches over Barrow and Mt. Edgecumbe, drawing every ounce of energy from the team, which apparently has not felt the wear and tear.
“Coach said we had to flip the switch,” said senior Emily Hensley, who joined fellow senior Ayla Pitt in the gamewinning double block at the net. “We all had to mentally zone in and move and talk.”
In the winner-take-all game 5, Nikiski came through with big play after big play, highlighted by several edge-of-your-seat saves on the ball. Outside hitter Jamie Yerkes notched three points in a crucial opening 7-4 run that forced the Braves to call timeout, then Melanie Sexton got in on the action with a tip point out of the break, followed by two more kill points to build on the lead.
Pitt and Hensley then clinched it all on a block at the net that ricocheted the ball out of bounds off the Braves.
“The fifth set is all mental,” Sexton said. “Our team wanted it more.”
Segura said Sexton was strong in the corner position as a hitter, and she finished with eight kills, along with 15 digs.
Bulldogs libero Kelsey Clark led the defense with 35 digs, a number of them by the scruff of her neck, and fellow sophomore Emma Wik contributed 20 assists.
Pitt put on a powerful attack with 13 kills and four blocks, while Bethany Carstens had nine kills, Yerkes had three aces and Kaitlyn Johnson notched 15 assists.
The opening set looked troublesome for Nikiski early, as Mt. Edgecumbe middle Zhane White pelted the Bulldogs with kill points. When White wasn’t hitting, it was libero Rachelle Persson working the floor with dig plays.
“They’re very defensive,” Hensley said. “Their libero is awesome.”
In the second game, Sexton got up and running with a string of hits that set the Braves back, giving Nikiski a 16-13 lead at the first timeout. Mt. Edgecumbe battled back to tie it up on three different occasions, but a hideout and a kill by Yerkes ended the close set for the Bulldogs, which knotted the match up at 1-all.
Carstens showed up to record multiple kills in game 3, helping the Bulldogs to a 17-10 lead. The Braves got as close as 23-21 near the end, but Pitt scored on a set point kill to end the game and take a 2-1 match lead.
Just as it looked as if Nikiski would coast to the win, Mt. Edgecumbe fought back to tie it up, just as Segura feared.
“I try to give them the scenario that they play like they’re two games behind,” Segura said. “But Edgecumbe was just hitting in the seams of our defense.”
Yerkes served out an ace to tie the set at 17 apiece, but Mt. Edgecumbe proceeded to take eight of the next nine points to win it and force a game 5.
Ultimately, Nikiski proved to be too tough to tame.
Monroe 3, Seward 1
Seward’s season quietly came to an end Friday morning after a loss to the Monroe Catholic Rams, but the Seahawks still left the court at the Alaska Airlines Arena with a feeling of accomplishment.
After all, they had snapped a state tournament drought of five years, so most everything after that was icing on the cake.
Following a 3-0 loss to Barrow on Thursday, Seward pushed Monroe through four sets of action Friday morning in the second-chance bracket, losing with scores of 16-25, 25-21, 19-25 and 23-25.
Seward coach Jamie Frederickson said she felt her team was able to walk away with their heads held high because they got the most of what they worked for.
“When you walk off with tears, it’s because you feel like you failed,” Frederickson said. “They don’t feel that way.”
With seniors Tia Miranda, Kimmie Hubbard and Victoria Piro leaving the team after this year, Frederickson said that still leaves a lot of room for growth for her returning players in 2017.
Miranda, a four-year varsity starter, said the squad’s first state experience was positive in multiple ways, as the seniors got the chance to put a state trip on their resume and the younger players were able to get game time experience under the bright lights.
“I’m going to miss the times I spend with Randi (Tolson), Maille (Moriarty) and the others,” Miranda said. “We’re like a sisterhood.
“I’m just super proud of my team.”
After reaching a 12-7 lead in game 1, Seward saw its lead quickly slip away as Monroe went on the attack, getting big kill points from Marian Nelson and middle blocker Chloe Maynard. Eventually, Monroe took a ten-point lead after the 16-1 run subsided.
Frederickson believes the Seahawks had trouble dealing with the pressure of the big stage.
“I think we were playing it a little safe, which may have more to do with the pressure of state,” Frederickson said. “We haven’t been to state in a while, so there’s going to be a little tenseness, but I feel like we were trying to do too much.”
Any nerves felt in game 1 went away in the second set, when Seward turned a 12-7 deficit into a lead thanks to suffocating blocking and hitting from the front row by Coral Petrosius and a wicked service game by Miranda.
The Seahawks went from trailing by five to leading by five after a 5-0 run put Seward up 23-18, just two points from tying up the match.
Petrosius’ entrance into the game played a big role, and Frederickson said her appearance, along with splitting up the defensive duties of Riley vonBorstel and Petrosius, helped spread the floor.
“Coral joined the team late because of cross-country, and of course she’s tall and athletic,” Frederickson said.
Seward won game 2 to tie up the match on a service point by Hubbard.
However, Monroe roared back with a fierce intensity in the third game, streaking out to a 17-5 lead. Seward managed to claw back with a 13-6 run, but the Rams held on to take a 2-1 match lead.
Seward threatened to force a decisive fifth set by staking out a 21-16 lead in game 4, only to see it slip away when the Rams scored the next six points to take a 22-21 lead. Miranda tied the game at 23 apiece with a kill point, but a kill by Monroe’s Madlyn Leslie and a point by Maija Hajdukovich ended the set and the match.