The Homer volleyball team booked a return trip to the state tournament by defeating Seward 25-16, 25-20, 20-25 and 25-12 in the third-place match of the Southcentral Conference tournament Saturday at Nikiski High School.
In the tournament championship, Anchorage Christian Schools pulled out a thrilling 11-25, 25-21, 26-24, 18-25 and 15-13 victory over Grace.
Despite losing six seniors and changing head coaches after last season, the Mariners were able to build on last season’s state berth, which was the first for the program since 2003.
“It feels good,” said Homer coach Pam Rugloski. “We came in with huge expectations. I don’t know what caused our slump, but we were able to work our way back.”
The slump to which Rugloski is referring came Saturday morning, when the Mariners woke at the hotel and traveled to face Nikiski at 11 a.m. Rugloski said one of her assistants commented that the squad looked like its puppies had died.
“There wasn’t any energy,” Rugloski said. “I thought, ‘Well, I guess that means we’re not going to state.’”
But the coach said her squad was able to regain its footing in a 14-25, 25-20, 25-15 and 25-15 victory over the Bulldogs.
In that match, Paige Snyder had eight kills and six aces, Mary Hana Bowe had nine kills and two aces, and Malina Fellows had six kills and an ace.
In the match before that, Seward had moved to the third-place match with just its second conference victory of the season, topping Houston 25-22, 26-24, 17-25 and 25-22.
Seward coach Jamie Fredrickson said Tia Miranda and Jessica Honebein came up huge in the match.
“They had a look in their eyes that they were going to do everything they could to win and their team followed,” Fredrickson said.
Houston was the No. 5 seed coming in, but knocked off Nikiski in the first round, then took No. 2 ACS to five sets in the semifinals before losing. But Seward, the No. 6 seed, cooled off the Hawks.
“We had studied Houston,” Fredrickson said. “We knew what to do, executed it and they didn’t adjust.”
Fredrickson said the problem is that, due to a lack of recent success, Seward is not used to playing two emotionally draining matches in one day.
Meanwhile, Homer came to the third-place match with the advantage of having Bowe back in the lineup. An ankle injury had kept her out for all but the final two weeks of the regular season.
She had 17 attacks against Seward, and turned that into 12 kills.
“She’s a big gun,” Rugloski said. “She’s loud and very vocal. She knows what’s going on and stays very positive.”
When Seward took Game 3, it was Bowe who got the Mariners going again with a couple early kills in Game 4.
McKi Needham then served out six straight points to give Homer a 22-11 advantage and put them on state’s doorstep.
Rugloski said Needham’s serving and running of the offense was pivotal. She had 20 serves in the match, with eight aces and only one error.
Fellows also served tough against Seward, with four aces on 18 serves, and only one error. Snyder added seven kills in the match.
Finally, Rugloski said Raisa Basargin did a good job filling in at middle hitter for Kelly Liebers, who had some muscle tightness in her back.
Meanwhile, Fredrickson considered the tournament a step forward for her program.
At the beginning of the season, Fredrickson said she wanted to see grit and hustle on defense, and that’s what kept the Seahawks in the match against Homer.
“That’s what I asked for and we did it well in both matches — we were aggressive and hustled and went for it,” Fredrickson said.
The coach liked the screaming, knuckling serves of Riley Von Borstel and added that setters Maille Moriarity and Honebein did a great job of balancing attacking and setting responsibilities.
With two freshmen and three sophomores on the team, Fredrickson said the future is looking up for the squad.
Grace 3, Homer 0
Grace Christian earned itself a spot in Saturday’s championship final with a three-set sweep over Homer on Friday.
The Grizzlies won with scores of 25-20, 25-13 and 25-19.
ACS 3, Houston 2
The determined fifth-seeded Hawks nearly toppled No. 1 ACS in Friday’s semifinals, but the Lions prevailed with a gutsy effort.
ACS won with scores of 25-10, 15-25, 25-10, 26-28 and 15-7.
Houston 3, Nikiski 2
The host Bulldogs opened their tournament with a loss on Friday, relegating them to the consolation bracket with a Saturday morning matchup with Homer.
Houston, the No. 5 seed, beat Nikiski, the No. 4 seed, with scores of 25-22, 23-25, 24-26, 25-12 and 15-10.
Homer 3, Seward 1
The Mariners opened their tournament with a comfortable victory over sixth-seeded Seward on Friday afternoon, winning with scores of 25-15, 18-25, 25-16 and 25-11.
Coach of the Year — Heidi Peters, Grace.
MVP — Annie Vanderweide, Grace.
First team — Annie Vanderweide, Grace; Bridget Broderick, Grace; Tanner Ealum, ACS; Ayla Pitt, Nikiski; Alexis Quick, ACS; Hannah Edmonds, ACS; Paige McCaffrey, ACS; McKi Needham, Homer; Kaitlin Cowell, Grace; Paige Snyder, Homer; Melanie Sexton, Nikiski; Alisha Gail, Houston.
Second team — Izabelle Hegge, Homer; Amanda Lorenzo, Houston; Brittany Perry, Nikiski; Jessica Honebein, Seward; Hayley Hagen, Grace; Michaela Osenga, Seward.