The Kenai Central volleyball team showed perfection is no accident Saturday at the Southcentral Conference volleyball tournament at Kenai Central High School.
The Kardinals defeated Nikiski 25-23, 25-19 and 25-22 in the championship match to finish a second straight season of not losing a set in conference play. By claiming the top two spots in the conference, both the Kards and Bulldogs advance to the Class 3A state tournament Thursday through Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage — Kenai for the third straight season and Nikiski for the first time since 2019.
“I’m just super proud of every kid on the court and every kid on the bench,” Kenai head coach Tracie Beck said. “They’re doing amazing things wherever they are.
“That just makes it fun to coach, and makes it fun to play.”
Beck didn’t stop there. She gave credit to the parents for running a perfect tournament and to parents of graduated players for continuing to support the program, for example Jeremy Hamilton announcing each of 14 tournament games over three days.
The coach also credited the community for supporting the program, evidenced by Connie and Craig Jung putting off a vacation to do scorekeeping and direct the tournament, and the assistant coaches for putting in a long season of work. Beck pointed to assistant Bruce King, who’s been coaching volleyball so long he was the head coach at Nikiski for current Bulldogs head coach Stacey Segura.
Segura played setter at Nikiski, and it was another King protege at the position — Kenai senior Jorgi Phillips — who made all the right moves any time Nikiski pushed toward its goal of at least taking a set off the Kardinals in the title match.
“That’s why she’s amazing,” Beck said. “She’s watching the score and she knows how to manage a match. And that’s why we call her the stud because she is our quarterback out there.”
In the first game, the Bulldogs had the score tied at 23 when Phillips found Cali Holmes, who had nine kills and two assists, and then conference MVP Emma Beck, who had 21 kills, for kills to end the game.
Emma Beck gave more insight into what makes Phillips, who had 32 assists and three aces, special.
“I’m running three sets with her and I don’t even know how many sets and different options she has with everybody else,” Beck said. “She’s working hard every single day to make us hitters look good. I know for a fact I wouldn’t be able to win MVP without our setter and just how amazing she is.”
In the second game, Nikiski went down early but was able to climb back in and make a game of it before losing 25-19.
“Our motto for Nikiski this whole year was, ‘Nikiski is coming for blood,’” Emma Beck said. “We knew to never overlook them because one thing about Nikiski, they’re never going to give up on a ball or a game.”
The Bulldogs again pushed the Kards in Game 3, with Beck finishing off championship point with a kill for a 25-22 win.
Coach Beck said the win was a special moment for seniors Phillips, Holmes, Kimberly Chanley and Genesis Trevino. The four got to leave their home floor for the last time as conference champs, with Chanley piling up 32 digs and two aces.
“I love them so much, and us on the court is totally different than seeing other seniors play together,” Phillips said. “We’ve been playing together since seventh grade. We’ve been doing club together — well, some are on and off — but it really shows how long we’ve been playing together and our connection.”
It was that connection that Segura said was a difference in the match, particularly at key points.
“They’re very, very experienced,” the coach said. “And rarely do they make mistakes.”
Nikiski was the No. 3 seed from the Southern Division coming into the tournament, but Segura said something clicked in the Wednesday practice before the tournament.
“I don’t really know what happened to our serve-receive, but it changed overnight,” Segura said. “We went from like 16 or 17 serve-receive errors to like six or eight, and they maintained that all tournament.”
Avery White had 12 digs and two aces against Kenai, while Kailey Stynsberg had 20 digs and two aces.
The difference was on the attack, where Alexa Iyatunguk had four kills and six blocks, Ashlynne Playle had six kills and two blocks, and Savanna Stock had four kills. Segura said now that the defense is clicking, the Bulldogs need to come up with more kills.
“I think this week, we really need to work on our attack,” Segura said. “We need to be more aggressive hitters and stop being so timid. I think the girls need to realize they’re capable of competing with Kenai, and I think today showed that.
“Our goal was to try and take a set from them. We got close every single time, so I’m not disappointed in that.”
In the first match Saturday, Nikiski had earned its state spot and trip to the final by defeating Houston 20-25, 25-13, 25-23, 23-25 and 15-13. The Hawks are still eligible for an at-large berth to state.
Segura said her squad most likely would have gotten an at-large berth even with a loss, so the coach told her team to have fun.
“The girls sat back a little bit and took that a little too literally,” Segura said. “Houston kept us on our toes that game so we definitely had to find our feet and focus on what we were going to need to do.”
Iyatunguk had 10 kills and five blocks in the match, while Playle had nine kills and eight blocks, Stynsberg had 27 digs, Stock had 17 assists and four aces, and Avery Ellis had four aces.
Southcentral Conference awards
MVP — Emma Beck, Kenai.
Coach of the Year — Jodi Kurtz, Seward.
First team — Izzy Dye, Homer; Jorgi Phillips, Kenai; Brooke Shafer, Homer; Savanna Stock, Nikiski; Brooke Spain, Houston; Rachel McGovern, Grace; Cali Holmes, Kenai; Kyana Hutchinson, Seward; Kim Chanley, Kenai; Dallas Winter, Houston; Ashlynne Playle, Nikiski; Jenna Houck, ACS; Mikinley Williams, Seward.
Second team — Nevaeh Diaz, Homer; Kailey Stynsberg, Nikiski; Susie Balsan, ACS; Eliana Rice, Redington; Zakara Baumeister, Grace; Ruth Land, ACS; Lilly Christensen, Houston; Grace Gillespie, Houston; Amy Johnson, Grace; Hannah Williams, Redington; Camila Bost, Grace; Leia Norton, Redington.
Honorable mention — Jieaya Siatini, ACS; Olivia Jones, Grace; Alycen Hunter, Houston; Maggie Grenier, Nikiski; Avery White, Nikiski.