Homer, Nikiski head off to state volleyball tourney

The Homer and Nikiski volleyball squads both punched their tickets to the Class 3A state championship tournament with big wins last Saturday, and both share the same goal of winning a state championship.

But the road to the postseason has looked very different for the two schools.

The Class 3A state tournament gets under way today with a slate of six matches at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex and the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage. Homer — the top seed out of the Southcentral Conference — and Nikiski — the No. 3 seed — start with morning games against formidable competition.

Homer surprised a few folks with a 3-1 upset of No. 1 Grace Christian in Saturday’s Region III championship match, while Nikiski came back from an opening day loss to earn its state spot in the third-place game. Homer entered the weekend with a 7-5 record in Southcentral Conference play in 2014, better than Nikiski’s 6-6 mark, but much further behind the 11-1 showing Grace had put up.

“We definitely felt good about winning the championship,” said Homer coach Beth Trowbridge. “They worked really hard and I felt like we earned it.

“But we’re not necessarily feeling like the favorites, I think we just feel like we played better than Grace, and played to our potential. It boosted our confidence, if anything.”

A conference title does not mean anything heading into the state tournament, where the big dogs reign supreme. Since 2010, Mt. Edgecumbe and Grace Christian have made the Class 3A state championship their own playground, meeting the final match each of the last four years, with both squads winning two titles apiece.

Nikiski coach Stacey Segura hopes to change that this year.

“It’s about time for someone new,” she said.

Nikiski opens up with Mt. Edgecumbe, the top seed from the Southeast Conference, and Segura said Braves are one of a few teams she sees as the favorite to win it all, along with Grace, Monroe-Catholic and Valdez. The Mariners begin their assault with a matchup against the second seed from the Western Conference, the Nome Nanooks.

The state championship game is set for 1 p.m. Saturday, with the last remaining team from the winner’s bracket meeting up against the final team standing from the loser’s “second chance” bracket. If the latter of the two teams wins, an “if necessary” championship game will be played at roughly 2:45 p.m.

“I think Grace is gonna be going after Homer again,” Segura said. “I just hope the third place seed kind of keeps us out of the spotlight. I hope other schools overlook us.”

Segura said Homer winning the Southcentral tournament over Grace didn’t really come as a surprise.

“I knew Homer would do their homework and study Grace,” she said. “They earned that game, they worked hard. Once they (won) that second game, Grace kind of slowed, and the intensity kind of settled down a bit.”

Before the championship game on Saturday, Homer had to beat Anchorage Christian Schools for the chance to move on to the Region III title game, and did so with a resounding three-game sweep. But more importantly, it represented the Mariner’s first state berth since 2003.

“I don’t know if it has,” Trowbridge said. “I think everybody realizes that it’s a pretty neat thing and a neat way to end the season, but we’ve been trying hard as coaches to not build it up too much and give them any unnecessary pressure.”

Trowbridge has been the coach of the Homer volleyball team before the school dropped down from the Class 4A level, and was with the team the last time the Mariners went to state. The veteran coach said her squad is experienced and mature enough to handle the big pressure situations.

It’s because of their patience and willingness to be coached that the Mariners have gotten this far, said Trowbridge.

“That’s been their goal, to win state, and they know they have to work really hard,” Trowbridge said. “They’re willing to be patient and work on skills they need to work on to be a better team.

At the Region III tournament, the Mariners got big games out of outside hitter Larsen Fellows and middle hitter Kyla Pitzman, which will again be important against the team they open the state tournament with today at 11:15 a.m. — Nome, a team that Homer has not played in years.

“I don’t know anything about them,” Trowbridge admitted. “We’ve seen other teams in their conference come out and play strong, like Barrow, and I know the western teams have strong serving and are strong defensively, because they’re not always the tallest.”

Nikiski sealed its fate Saturday in the Region III tournament with a dominating straight-sets victory over Cordova in the third-place game — the winner-takes-all match that decided which team goes to state and which team goes home.

“I was really pleased with how well we worked together,” said Nikiski coach Stacey Segura. “We really worked hard to make sure we were consistent, and that creates so much less stress for us coaches.”

The Bulldogs may have been lucky just to have been in the tournament third-place game.

After an extended October slump left Nikiski grasping for life in the Southcentral Conference, the odds of a state berth — let alone staying alive in the region tournament — began to quickly fade. Segura said it was a tough time for the team, as they struggled to figure out why the wins suddenly stopped coming.

“It became about whether they showed up and worked hard,” Segura said. “The big thing has been make sure you work hard now so you don’t really have to later. If you’re down two games because you didn’t show up and play, you’re going to have to work really hard to win three games.”

However, the snapping point came in late October in a nonconference match against Kenai Central.

Nikiski beat the Kards in five sets, and did so in style, as the Bulldogs rallied back from an 0-2 deficit by winning the final three games, including the final all-or-nothing set.

“That slump put us on that side of winning or losing, and it made them see it,” Segura said. “Once they got that win against Kenai, it changed things around.”

After the clutch victory over Kenai, the Bulldogs managed to find new life and finish the regular season strong enough to claim the fifth seed at the Region III tournament.

“I think it showed we were a young team and had a lot of work we needed to do,” said senior libero Laura Hufford. “The communication and chemistry was at a low point, but it came back in our game against Kenai. I mean, halfway through that game, I think we decided we’d play hard no matter what.”

Nikiski senior setter Rachel Thompson added that the key factor at the time had been not the oncourt play, but rather the intangibles.

“We decided as a team that night, we had a long heart to heart talk, no coaches involved, and we just talked about what was going wrong,” Thompson said. “I think that fixed it. We came back with team unity.”

Thompson is one of four players remaining from the 2012 Nikiski squad that went to state, and said the tight-knit nature of the current squad has helped to improve the crucial elements of a good volleyball team. In a sport in which communication and chemistry form the main backbone to winning teams, the closeness that the Bulldogs have exhibited have helped carry the team.

“I think we had more volleyball IQ on that team, because we had more seniors then, but we’re so close now,” Thompson said. “It’s like a family type situation, and I love that. I’ve learned you have to cherish those moments at state.”

Of the four players from the previous state team, only Thompson and Hufford actually return with on-court playing experience from the 2012 big dance. If they seem a bit nervous this time, they have good reason. They’ve been in this exact position before.

Nikiski begins its tournament with a 9:45 a.m. matchup with the top seed from the Southeast Conference, the Mt. Edgecumbe Braves. In 2012, the matchup was identical, and the Braves came away with a 3-1 win to propel themselves to the 3A state title that year.

Of course, Nikiski was a much different squad then, and Segura was only in her first year as a volleyball coach.

“Now, I feel like I have a little more experience with what to expect,” Segura explained. “I had a team then that didn’t have as much chemistry, but a lot of great athletes. This year, I think the girls may not be the best hitters, but they have really good chemistry, and that’s exciting.”

In the 2012 meeting between the two schools, Segura put Hufford in as a late addition at libero.

“It was an interesting experience,” Hufford recalled. “It was my sophomore year and I didn’t play a lot of varsity. In fact I didn’t go to regions, and coach put me in last second. I was a little rattled.

“But this time, I’ve had this position for two straight seasons.”

Thompson and Hufford both realize that in order to slow the Braves down, a lot of focus will be put on Mt. Edgecumbe senior Taryn White, a powerful outside hitter that has been the driving force behind the Braves’ string of championship runs.

“Taryn White is a phenomenal hitter,” Hufford said. “We’ll be matching our rotation to have a strong blocker, depending on where she goes. If she puts it down on the short court, it’s anybody’s ball to block.”

Thompson pointed to Nikiski sophomore Ayla Pitt as the leading candidate that will have to deal with White the most. Pitt, the leading blocker for the Bulldogs, may have her hands full on Nikiski’s front line, but coach Segura said the experience and leadership of Thompson and Hufford has helped her all year.

“You can see it rubs off on the other girls,” Segura said about the two seniors. “The other girls see that and idolize that and I think it’s important. Two years ago, we lost two games and were done.

“This year I told the girls we want to prove to other teams we belong.”

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