Hours before a two-story bonfire raged under a streaky orange, embering sunset, the Kenai Central volleyball team pulled out a taut, five-set match Friday in front of a chanting, raucous and booming loud student section.
Not a bad way to start a homecoming weekend.
The Kardinals topped Wasilla 20-25, 25-19, 19-25, 26-24 and 17-15 to move to 2-3 in Northern Lights Conference play. The Warriors dropped to 0-1 in the league.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Kenai junior Abby Beck, who had 24 digs and 21 kills. “The fans were definitely a big part of it.
“Homecoming weekend always brings a lot of excitement.”
With a 3 p.m. start time, the gym was actually pretty silent at the start of the match. But tension, noise, drama, crowd size — they all built steadily over the two hours the match transpired.
“I always hate coming to Kenai,” Wasilla coach Josie Cannon said. “Their fans are loud. They make it tough on us.
“We played hard and we lost, but we lost playing aggressive.”
The Warriors got the jump early in the match thanks to the serving of junior Lindsey Cizek. She served seven straight points for an 8-1 lead in Game 1, then had four more points for a 19-14 lead that Kenai couldn’t overcome.
Wasilla also got four kills apiece from middle hitters Leya DePriest and Brooke Queripal in the first game.
Kenai Central coach Tracie Beck said serve-receive is the squad’s biggest weakness right now.
“It’s something we can fix because we don’t see teams that serve better than we do,” Beck said. “We’re able to see all the serves we need to see in practice.”
In the second game, Abby Beck woke the Kardinals up with some thunderous kills. In all, she had nine kills in getting the Kardinals back to even.
Coach Beck said Kenai has a great attack when the Kards pass well.
“If we can hit the target, we have four hitters coming right at you,” Beck said of the offense of senior setter Alli Steinbeck, who had 27 assists. “When we don’t hit the target, we have to just go to the outlets.”
The third game again saw Kenai struggle to return serve early, with Wasilla’s Alana Wheaton serving out six points for a 9-1 lead. Kenai wouldn’t recover from that.
In the fourth game, noise and tension really started to rise. Neither team led by more than three points until Alexis Baker, who had 36 digs and 6 kills, served out five straight points for an 18-14 lead.
The run came during a stretch in the match where Wasilla was making a lot of hitting errors, the type of mistakes that Cannon said ultimately cost her team the match.
But down 24-21, Wasilla came back to tie the game at 24 before Emily Koziczkowski and Beck notched kills to force a Game 5.
“They didn’t give it to us easy,” coach Beck said. “We had to earn it.”
The earning continued in Game 5, with ties at 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14 and 15.
Wasilla had a game point at 15-14, but Kenai killed that off. Baker then had a clutch kill in front of the delirious crowd for a 16-15 lead.
“She has so much potential as a senior,” coach Beck said of Baker. “I’m hard on her, but that’s because she has so much potential.”
The match ended when Wasilla libero Courtney Anthoney, who Cannon said played a great match in digging up Kenai’s hitting, pushed a spike just long to push the students to their loudest burst of sound on the night.
“We really have great crowds,” coach Beck said. “There are awesome kids at this high school. They are so supportive of each other.”
The Kardinals went 2-48 in the previous five seasons of conference play, but have matched those two conference victories already this season.
“It’s definitely been a lot of hard work, but we’ve been growing the program year by year,” Abby Beck said.
Kodiak volleyball sweeps Homer
The Kodiak volleyball team improved to 8-0 overall with a nonconference sweep of Homer on Friday and Saturday.