Following an early-season slate of nonconference matchups against smaller schools, the Kenai Central volleyball squad had yet to prove its improvement against equal competition.
After pushing the Kodiak Bears to four games on Thursday and five on Saturday, the Kardinals were close to a breakthrough.
That breakthrough came Wednesday night on Cliff Massie Court in Kenai, when the Kards toppled the Colony Knights in four games, with scores of 25-21, 25-16, 22-25 and 25-20.
The 3-1 win gave Kenai its first Northern Lights Conference win over Colony in at least six years, and following five seasons that have seen Kenai go a combined 2-48 in conference play, the Kardinals are trending in the right direction.
“You’ve got to start somewhere, so this win is important,” said Kenai coach Tracie Beck.
Kenai improved to 1-2 in conference play and 2-2 overall outside of tournament play in 2015. Colony dropped to 0-4 in conference play this year.
Perhaps the biggest thing that suggests Kenai is on the rise is coach Beck’s attitude after the game. Beck said she knew she ought to be happy for the win, but instead was picking out Kenai’s mistakes and coming up with ways to improve.
“They’ve executed games better, and I don’t know if I’m just getting picky now,” Beck said. “I should be happy with a win, you know, just walk away and be happy with it.
“I just want them to play to the best of their ability.”
Kenai beat Colony at an early-season tournament in August, but Wednesday represented Kenai’s first NLC win over the Knights since at least 2009.
Junior outside hitter Abby Beck led the attack with 22 kills, while senior teammate Cori Holmes celebrated her 18th birthday (not including the obligatory birthday song post game) with 27 digs and three aces.
Senior setter Alli Steinbeck notched 23 assists, junior Emily Koziczkowski had four kills and Cierra King had two aces.
After two straight points scored by strong serves by junior Bethany Coghill, Kenai managed to close out game 1 without too much trouble.
The Kards picked up where they left off in game 2, starting with a kill blast from Abby Beck that was followed by two straight serve points from Caleigh Jensen. Before long, Kenai had streaked out to an 8-1 lead.
“They just play really consistently, and they hit the ball hard,” said Colony coach Amy Carter. “It’s fun to play a team like this, where the ball’s gonna come back at you.”
Beck, King, Koziczkowski and Alexis Baker combined to create a formidable attack at the net, as Colony struggled at times to contain the Kenai attack.
“When we put a ball on target, we are unstoppable,” coach Beck said.
Holmes scored a pair of service points to go along with Beck’s kill points midway through game 2 to leave Kenai with a commanding 13-2 lead.
However, Colony went on a 9-1 tear to close the gap back to three points, helped by a potent outside attack from Knights junior Mikara Klawitter.
Kenai countered by scoring seven of the next eight points to put the game to rest and grab a dominant 2-0 match lead.
Coach Beck’s concerns over her team’s play became reality in the third game, as the Kards allowed a late 16-11 lead to slip away. Colony outscored Kenai 8-1 to take a 19-17 lead, and while Kenai later retaliated to tie the game up at 21-all, it was Colony having the last laugh to win 25-22 and force a fourth game.
A tight game 4 saw each team hold no lead larger than three points, but a midgame surge by Kenai saw the home team go from trailing by two points to leading by three on the strength of several striking blows by Beck. The two sides were later tied at 19 apiece, but Kenai finished on a 6-1 run to claim the game and match win.
Kenai will face Palmer tonight at 6 p.m., while Colony travels to Soldotna for an NLC match at 6.