By JEFF HELMINIAK
At a tournament where almost everything is a bit different, the dominance of the Kenai Central volleyball team remains the same.
The top-seeded Kardinals, playing on their home floor, opened up the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District volleyball tournament with a 25-5, 25-13 and 25-18 victory over No. 5 Nikiski on Thursday.
Also Thursday at Kenai, the Bulldogs defeated No. 4 Seward 18-25, 25-19, 25-21 and 25-23. At Soldotna, No. 2 seed Homer toppled the Stars 23-25, 25-23, 25-20 and 27-25.
With all Alaska School Activities Association fall state championship events canceled, the tournament is being put on to give the district’s volleyball teams a season-culminating event.
With all three of the district’s main areas at high-risk level due to their number of cases, the tournament is being played under strict mitigation measures and it showed inside the gym.
Only 48 spectators were allowed, with each player on the roster getting two guests. Masks were required for everybody in the gym, including the players and officials. This led to officials using electronic whistles activated by the push of a button.
“We’ve been thrown a lot of curveballs by COVID,” Kenai Central head coach Tracie Beck said. “I’m glad we’re getting this tournament in, especially for the seniors. They’ve put so much into this program.”
Beck said this obviously wasn’t the season-culminating tournament for which the Kardinals were hoping. Kenai finished second at the Division II state tournament last season.
“From the time they stepped off the court, their goal was to come back and win it this year,” the coach said. “When I had to tell them state was canceled, there were a lot of tears.”
Beck said a part of her wonders why state couldn’t be held in a spacious indoor facility in Anchorage, especially after watching the way Kenai came out Friday. The Kards led 7-0 and then 14-3 in Game 1, and 12-4 in Game 2.
“They’re learning a lot about life through all this,” Beck said. “This isn’t the place or tournament they wanted to be playing, but they showed up with determination, grit and cohesiveness.”
Beck said she’s happy the district let this tournament go forward because it gives the seniors some closure. She also said it’s a competitive event. Homer was last year’s Division II state champion, while Nikiski was third in the state. Soldotna is a Division I school, while Seward is perennially tough team.
Nikiski and Seward did not get senior nights this season, so both honored seniors before their game. The Bulldogs seniors are Lillian Carstens, Emma Lakin, Rosalie Anderson, Savannah Ley, Shelby Hutchins and Sidney Epperheimer. The seniors listed on Seward’s roster are Sequoia Sieverts, Calysta Lohman, Selma Casagranda and Makaira Williams.
In the match against Seward, Nikiski coach Stacey Segura said her team was looking to prove it was better than its No. 5 seed.
“We came in fifth place, but we hadn’t played many games,” Segura said. “I told the girls, ‘If you don’t feel like you’re the fifth team, come out and prove it.’ That’s what they did.”
Anderson had 13 digs in the match, while Carstens had 11 and Lakin had nine. Savanna Stock had 15 assists, while Lakin had six assists.
Carstens led with 11 kills, while Ley had nine kills and Alyssa Nunley had five kills. Lakin and Stock each had two aces.
Nikiski had to play Kenai right after defeating Seward.
“That put the girls in between a rock and a hard place,” Segura said.
The coach said playing back-to-back matches wearing masks was tough. Nikiski actually ran outside after each game against the Kards to take off the masks and get some fresh air.
“Kenai’s a really tough team, and it’s even harder to play them when you’re not getting enough oxygen to your brain,” Segura said.
Despite the time off, Kenai’s deep attack was clicking, with Kaylee Lauritsen picking up 17 assists and three aces. Abby Every had six kills, Bethany Morris had five kills, Andie Galloway had four kills and Lauritsen, Emma Beck and Erin Koziczkowski each had three kills.
Every had 17 digs, while Morris added 12 digs. Valerie Villegas added four aces for the Kards.
Coach Beck said she’s proud of the way the team has stuck together and supported each other all season. For example, when the team nominated players for a good-attitude award, seven different Kenai players were nominated.
“They’re a very supportive group,” she said. “They want everybody recognized.”
Against the Seahawks, Lakin and Stock had nine digs for the Bulldogs, while Anderson had eight digs. Carstens had three kills and three blocks, while Jeffreys had three aces.
At Soldotna, SoHi coach Luke Baumer said his team was smiling even after the loss.
“These are the kinds of matches we were wanting,” Baumer said. “There was a huge improvement on our side. It was one of those matches where the ball falls one way or the other and that’s who wins. We just crossed our fingers and hoped the ball would fall our way.”
Baumer said wearing masks is not easy in such a long and tense match. Each team got two additional 30-second timeouts per set, added to the usual two one-minute timeouts per set. Baumer said he made full use of the extra time off for his team.
With so many cases being reported on the peninsula, Baumer said his team is happy to be playing, especially in a tournament with such quality competition.
“The girls were happy and smiling,” Baumer said. “It’s a great way to cap the end of our season and give our seniors some closure so it doesn’t leave a sour taste for the sport in their mouth.”
Homer was not able to have its senior night this season, so Laura Inama, Hannah Hatfield, Katlyn Vogl, Amber Hull and Tonda Smude were honored before the match against SoHi.
For Soldotna, Morgan Bouschor had 13 kills, while Taylor Edwards had six kills and Sarah Rice had five kills. Baumer said Aleena Zener had a career night with 30 digs and seven aces with no missed serves, while Sierra Kuntz had 13 assists and five aces with one missed serve.
Bouschor had seven digs, while Adarra Hagelund had five blocks. Baumer also said underclassmen like Clare Henry and Karly Johnson impressed in the match.
The tournament continues Saturday, with Homer and Kenai battling in the semifinals at 1:30 p.m. at Kenai.
The playback bracket starts 10 a.m. at SoHi, with Seward taking on Soldotna, then Nikiski facing the winner of that game at 11:30 a.m. at SoHi. The winner of that game faces the loser of the semifinal at 3 p.m. at KCHS for a spot in the 4:30 p.m. final at Kenai Central. The if-necessary game is at 6 p.m. at Kenai.