On a night that saw Cliff Massie court at Kenai Central High School temporarily turn pink in support of the “Dig Pink!” effort, the visiting Nikiski Bulldogs came back from the brink of elimination Tuesday night to claim a tight 3-2 victory over nonconference opponent Kenai.
Nikiski lost the first two sets 25-22 and 25-17, but took the final three with scores of 26-24, 25-23 and 15-10.
“I think this game was an extremely huge ego boost for our girls,” said Nikiski coach Stacey Segura.
Since sweeping Bethel on a road trip Oct. 3 and 4, Nikiski had lost four straight matches that dropped the Bulldogs to 8-8 overall. The struggle was punctuated with a 2-6 showing in pool play at the Dimond/Service tournament last weekend.
“Our team has kind of been down a little bit, so it’s been hard to see them struggle like that,” Segura said.
After Nikiski setter Rachel Thompson sent a ball out that Kenai couldn’t return, the Kards walked off the court looking stunned.
“(It) should never happen,” said Kenai coach Tracie Beck. “When you give them the third game, you give a little more each time.”
After winning the first two sets, the Kards had the jubilant home crowd in a frenzy, but a surge by the Bulldogs in the third set settled the gym.
Nikiski won the first five points, helped by Thompson’s serving game. Kenai managed to close up to within two points with several hard kills from senior Kiana Harding, putting the score at 12-10 Nikiski. From there, Nikiski tallied six straight points, forcing Beck to call timeout trailing 18-10.
Nikiski’s sturdy defense helped to push the lead to 23-15 — just two points away from taking the set — but Kenai began to rally. Unforced errors by the Bulldogs helped Kenai close up with seven straight points, and ultimately, a powerful serve from Abby Beck was unable to be returned by Nikiski, tying the game up at 24 apiece.
However, Nikiski held tough and scored the final two points, ending with a Kenai ball into the net, to force a Game 4.
“When you settle to lose one game, it just perpetuates itself,” Beck said. “You could see that happening.
“We haven’t lost to them this year, so that should not have played a factor at all.”
At that point, Segura said her main concern for her players was directing their attention to the oncourt play and not the scoreboard.
“The score is my job to focus on,” Segura said. “They needed to focus on one point at a time.”
After struggling with their serve and receive game in the first two sets, Segura said the Bulldogs began loosening up and getting into their rhythm.
“I told them in the huddle, you have to just say no,” Segura said. “You have to go out there, you have to take it personal, and don’t let it happen again.”
The fourth set was a case of role reversal. After nearly letting a large lead disappear in the third set, Nikiski was the one clawing back in the fourth.
The Kardinals staked out a 13-7 lead midway through, helped by an improving offensive attack from Kyla Whannell. But once Thompson got going for Nikiski, the visitors found themselves on a 9-3 run that resulted in a 16-16 game.
Harding responded for Kenai with several strong hits that Nikiski couldn’t handle to put Kenai up 20-16, but once again, the Bulldogs responded. After a Kenai ball was sent out of bounds, Nikiski led 22-21, prompting Beck to call timeout.
After the brief break, Nikiski finished off with three points to Kenai’s two to claim the 25-23 win, tying the match up at two sets apiece, and necessitating a 15-point Game 5.
Kenai got the jump in the winner-take-all set, getting out to an 8-5 lead, leading Segura to call timeout. The Nikiski coach said she then told her players to keep Kenai hitter Alli Steinbeck from gaining service points, something that the Bulldogs had been struggling with all night.
“I said you gotta stop her serve right now,” Segura said. “And they did it, both times she got up, they stopped her.”
Nikiski scored four straight points to take the lead, which was part of a larger 9-1 run, setting up match point at 14-9. After the first attempt was unsuccessful due to a Harding kill, Thompson ended it with a deadly shot to the floor.
After the game, coach Beck said she was happy with a few of her players’ production, particularly Whannell.
“She stepped up, she’s getting the jitters out, working hard and she did a great job tonight,” the coach said.
Whannell ended the night with 17 digs and six kills. Abby Beck led the Kards with 13 assists, 10 kills and six aces, Amber Walters had 25 digs and eight assists, Harding ended with seven aces and six kills, Steinbeck notched five aces, and libero Jamie Bagley provided 24 digs.
For Nikiski, Thompson led with 17 assists, 11 digs and six kills. Libero Laura Hufford had 22 digs, Zykiah Cooney notched 12 digs, Ayla Pitt had six blocks and four kills, Brittany Perry had five kills, and Lauren O’Brien recorded four kills.