The Kenai Peninsula flaunted its strength Thursday on opening day of the Class 3A state volleyball tournament at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, with all three local programs making moves against the opposition and each other.
Reigning state champs Nikiski and peninsula rival Kenai Central secured both spots in the title bracket semifinal game, assuring that at least one peninsula team will be in Saturday’s title match. Kenai rolled over Sitka 3-0, while Nikiski avenged a region tournament loss to Homer from a week earlier with a 3-1 win over the Mariners.
The Bulldogs and Kardinals will meet Friday at 5:15 p.m. with the winner headed to Saturday’s state championship final at 2 p.m.
Meanwhile, Homer must fight from the loser-out bracket, starting with a 1:30 p.m. Friday match against the winner of an early game between Barrow and Valdez.
Last week at the Southcentral Conference tourney in Seward, the Homer Mariners upset Nikiski in the semifinals en route to winning the title.
With that loss fresh on their minds, the Bulldogs used a late surge Thursday in the big dance to power by Homer with scores of 25-21, 14-25, 26-24 and 25-20. It was a victory that Nikiski was thirsting for.
“We just wanted to show that we deserved to be in that championship game at regions,” said senior libero America Jeffreys. “We’re still going to make our mark, even though we came in with the at-large.”
“We wanted that win back that we missed out on in Seward,” added head coach Stacey Segura. “I think the girls really showed that they wanted it bad enough tonight. They had a different look on their face than they did in Seward.”
The Bulldogs were more than ready for a second chance against Homer, and a change in tactics helped turn the tables on their rivals. Segura said she made a defensive adjustment in hopes of controlling Homer’s outside attack, which paid dividends in the third set.
“The change was a little drastic, and the girls looked at me like I was crazy when I gave them the game plan in the locker room,” Segura said. “But they trusted me and trusted themselves.”
Nikiski senior middle Kaycee Bostic helped pave the way to victory with 11 blocks and 13 kills, which kept Homer off its game all night. Jeffreys added 27 digs as well for Nikiski, and conference MVP Kaitlyn Johnson showed out with 21 digs, seven blocks and four aces.
Homer head coach Stephanie Carroll said the Mariners knew Nikiski would be hungry to avenge the region game, and cited too many service errors that hurt the Mariners, in addition to the team struggling to put up an effective block on Bostic.
“A little letdown,” Carroll said. “It kind of felt tonight that all the close breaks, sometimes it feels like they’re all falling your way, and this time it felt like they were all falling the other way.”
Earlier in the day, both Nikiski and Homer swept their opening games. Nikiski blanked Monroe Catholic 3-0, while Homer topped Kotzebue 3-0, setting up the late game.
Nikiski used a late surge to win the first set, coming back from down 17-15 to score seven of the last nine points, giving the Bulldogs a 1-0 match lead.
Homer dominated the second set, getting out to a 14-5 lead that made it tough for Nikiski. At one point, Homer’s lead grew to 23-9 before the Bulldogs tacked on several late points. Marina Carroll dominated stretches of the game for Homer.
With the match all knotted up, Homer appeared to be the one with the momentum, taking a 21-17 lead in the third set with just four points separating the Mariners from a 2-1 match lead.
However, the Bulldogs had one last trick up their sleeve. A kill point by Savannah Ley sparked a 5-1 run that tied it at 22 apiece. Nikiski took game point at 24-23 on a service point by Elora Reichert, then gave it up on a serve into the netting, but Bostic slammed down a kill point to get it back.
Nikiski won the set on a ball into the net by Homer, giving the Bulldogs a 2-1 match lead.
Nikiski scored the first four points of the fourth set, helping maintain momentum that the team never gave up. A 14-6 run midway through the game resulted in a 21-12 lead for Nikiski, and a late surge by Homer wasn’t enough to stop the Bulldogs from winning the match.
With Friday’s semifinal clash with Kenai another opportunity to make up for an earlier loss, Jeffreys said Nikiski has plenty of motivation.
“I’m excited because they beat us last time they played us. “I think we all want to show them too that that one game we played against them was just one game, and we want to put it all out on the court.”
Nikiski also got 14 digs each from Jaycee Tauriainen and Savannah Ley, 10 kills and six blocks from Lillian Carstens and four aces from Kotori Miyoshi.
Homer got 11 kills from senior middle Marina Carroll, six kills and four aces from junior hitter Laura Inama, five kills from senior Karmyn Gallios and three aces from junior Tonda Smude.
Carroll said she has high hopes of the Mariners making a return to challenge for the state title, starting Friday afternoon.
“The state tournament is a marathon, so you can win one and it doesn’t mean anything,” Carroll said. “We’ve got some work to do tomorrow.”
Kenai 3, Sitka 0
The Kardinals earned a spot in the state semifinal match with a close sweep of Sitka, winning with scores of 26-24, 25-19 and 26-24.
“It’s huge for us,” said Kenai head coach Tracie Beck. “We haven’t been here in a long time and for us to come in and take care of business, two games in a row, is perfect.”
Outside hitter Bethany Morris fueled the Kards with 12 kills to go with 18 digs, while fellow hitter Abby Every chipped in 11 kills and three aces. Kenai also got 23 digs from Jenna Streiff, 12 digs from Jaiden Streiff and three aces from Kaylee Lauritsen.
Beck said Kenai had struggled with closing holes at the net and blocking shots, and the Kardinals came out more prepared against the Wolves. Beck added that setter Kaylee Lauritsen
“She knows how to feed (Every), especially when putting the ball to the middle of the court, and that connection today was huge for us,” Beck said. “Abby’s a consistent player, and we have to use her like that all the time. That connection was perfect.”
Sitka held game point in the opening set at 24-21, but Kenai used a furious rally to score the final five points, getting help with consecutive shots into the net by Sitka, as well as a crucial kill point by Morris that tied it up.
A close second set saw Sitka lead 16-15 at one point, but another late surge by Kenai pushed the Kardinals ahead 21-17 and they held on to win and grab a 2-0 match lead.
The Wolves had the upper hand yet again in game three, taking a 12-9 lead midway through, but a service point by Lauritsen kick-started a 6-1 run for the Kards, giving them the lead.
Sitka answered with a seven-point run to take back the lead at 20-15, but it wasn’t over for Kenai, which countered with six straight points. That run included two service points by Every and a powerful kill by Morris.
With Kenai holding match point at 24-21, Sitka reeled off three straight points to tie it at 24-all, but Morris found a kill to make it 25-24, and Kenai finished it off with a point won on a Sitka ball into the netting.
Kenai 3, Barrow 1
Kenai won it’s first game of the day over Barrow, with scores of 25-12, 16-25, 25-23 and 25-14.
Bethany Morris torched the Whalers with 19 kills, while Jenna Streiff provided 25 digs, Jaiden Streiff had 10 digs, Kaylee Lauritsen notched four aces and Abby Every had three aces.
The Kards pulled away in the fourth game with a 7-0 run, opening up a gap that the Whalers couldn’t return from. The win advanced Kenai into the game with Sitka.
Nikiski 3, Monroe 0
Nikiski blanked Monroe Catholic with scores of 25-19, 25-15 and 25-20, setting up the Bulldogs’ late match with Homer.
Nikiski libero America Jeffreys had 17 digs, while Kaitlyn Johnson had 18 digs, 11 assists and four aces, Kaycee Bostic notched eight kills and Lillian Carstens recorded eight kills to go with three blocks.
Homer 3, Kotzebue 0