Winning a state title isn’t easy, but the Kenai Central volleyball team made it look that way Saturday in the Class 3A state title match at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
Kenai, which opened its doors in 1964, won the first state volleyball crown in school history by topping 10-time state champ Valdez 25-21, 25-21 and 25-22. The Buccaneers, who defeated the Kardinals for the title last season, were the only 3A team to take a game from Kenai this season.
The Kards were 8-2 in games against Valdez this season and went undefeated in full length matches at all classifications.
Kenai head coach Tracie Beck said assistant coach Shawnee Wisnewski said after the match that the victory seemed a little too easy.
Beck quickly corrected Wisnewski. Winning a state title isn’t easy. Beck has the battle scars to prove it.
“I’m like, ‘Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for this?’” Beck said. “No. It wasn’t easy. It didn’t feel like that. But we got it in three and that’s what we dreamed of.”
Beck took over the Kenai program in 2012 from John Kennedy, who served as an official for some of the matches at state and gave Beck a knowing fist bump in the tunnel after the match. The Kards were still playing 4A then, but Skyview and Homer had just moved to 3A, leaving Kenai and Soldotna as the smallest schools in the Northern Lights Conference.
SoHi was peaking under current Kenai assistant Bruce King and won its first conference title. Kenai had just one returning starter and went winless in conference.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” Beck said. “When I took over, I don’t think they had won in a couple years. I knew we were going to have to touch more balls if we were going to compete at that level.
“So we started working in the summer and opening gyms, and going to camps and trying to raise their IQ in battle.”
Kenai improved, but wasn’t able to make state by the time Beck took a season off after the 2016 season. In 2018, Beck returned and the Kards were in their first season at 3A. The team still didn’t make state, but Beck said she had three sophomores in Kaylee Lauritsen, Abby Every and Bethany Morris whose influence would carry over into Saturday’s breakthrough state title.
In 2019, Kenai made state for the first time in 14 years and lost in the 3A final to Homer. In 2020, Kenai was limited to Kenai Peninsula competition due to the pandemic and didn’t lose a game, but state was canceled. In 2021, the Kardinals went into state undefeated in full length matches, but lost twice to Valdez.
“I’ve been working on this project for a while,” Beck said. “And I’m super grateful that I’ve finally reached the goal of bringing a banner home to Kenai. There’s nothing more exciting for me.”
The games were all close. In Game 1, Kenai jumped to a 7-2 lead, but Valdez closed the gap to 23-21 on a kill by Masen Holmes. Cali Holmes, who had 12 digs, five kills and two aces, answered with a kill for Kenai. Then Emma Beck, who had 23 digs, 18 kills and five blocks, and Avia Miller, who had four blocks, closed the game with a stuff block.
Cali Holmes said there are a lot of factors that go into Kenai’s clutch late-game play.
“I have so much more experience and that makes it a lot easier,” she said. “Also, last year made us want it that much more to avenge the people who had come before us and leave a legacy for the ones that come after.”
Valdez only fought harder in the second game, forcing Kenai to call timeouts down 15-12 and 19-16.
“I’m so proud of my girls,” Valdez head coach Madison Alexie said. “They’ve worked so hard this season. They overcame a lot of illnesses and injuries, and we’re excited for next year.”
Kenai was leading 22-21 when Masen Holmes looked to have it tied with a kill, but Beck somehow got her hand on the ball and it trickled over the net and landed on the line. Cali Holmes and setter Jorgi Phillips, who had 29 assists, 12 digs and four kills, finished off the game with kills.
Beck’s quick hands were one example of a defense spearheaded by the 35 digs of Kimberly Chanley that consistently robbed Valdez of momentum with rub-your-eyes, cat-quick plays to get the ball back over the net.
Chanley said Kenai plays a game called “Touch 10” in practice, where coaches fire all kinds of shots at a lone player. The player has to touch the ball 10 times to end the session.
“You have to get it and you just can’t let the ball drop,” Chanley said. “I think that’s what was going through our mind. This is state. We’ve got to get this ball up no matter what, no matter who’s going to get hurt. We all just read the ball and were ready, on our toes.”
The Valdez program has won state titles in every decade starting in the 1980s, and though the Buccaneers already have the 2020s taken care of, they still didn’t give up the fight.
In the third game, Kenai trailed 20-19, but Beck recorded a kill to get the serve to Chanley, who served it all the way to 23-20. A Kenai hitting error and Masen Holmes service winner got it to 23-22, but Beck won a point at the net, then a Phillips kill set off a wild Kenai celebration.
“It means everything,” Chanley said. “I was shaking in my shoes before I went on this court. I was so scared, but it means everything to me to go out with a bang.”
Tracie Beck gave Valdez credit for playing a tough match and bringing out the best in her team.
“They rose to the occasion of the championship game, and I think you saw them play the best they’ve played this year,” Beck said. “And that’s what you dream of as a coach, that they peak at the right time. I’m super proud of them.”
Emma has spent her life watching her mom chase a title for Kenai. Tracie said she and her daughter also had a few sleepless nights after last season’s losses to Valdez, which are the only full-length match losses so far in the junior’s career.
“It’s just so amazing to do it with my mom,” said Emma, who was named the tournament’s top hitter and an all-tourney member. “She’s definitely the best coach I’ve ever had in any sport, and this just means a lot to our community. Our family finally got what we were chasing, so it’s very cool.”
The Kards lose four seniors in Chanley, Phillips, Holmes and Genesis Trevino, who added five kills. Phillips was named the player of the game, the tournament’s top setter and a member of the all-tournament team. Chanley and Phillips also were on the all-tourney team, as was Nikiski senior Savanna Stock. The Bulldogs, who tied for fifth, also earned the sportsmanship award.
Tracie Beck, a teacher at Kenai Middle School, said the seniors brought diverse personalities to the team and each will be missed.
“Emma is super tight with all these kids, and because they’re in your home you are more than just their coach,” Beck said. “You’re feeding them, you’ve watched them grow up. I’ve taught them. It’s a pretty deep connection with these kids.”
Beck also thanked assistants King, Maata Finau, Wisnewski and Brad Houser, the parents and the community for the support it takes to win a title. Beck also thanked her husband, Dan Beck, for allowing her to put so much time into volleyball.
“We have a group of people in Kenai that are so supportive,” Tracie Beck said. “Our community is amazing. Anything I need, they seem to find a way to make it happen for us.”