They decided how the story ended.
The Kenai Central volleyball team defeated Valdez 25-18, 19-25, 25-12 and 25-18 to win the Class 3A state championship Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The Kardinals won their second straight state title and second title in school history, and were appearing in their fourth straight championship game.
“The T-shirts that these seniors put together said, ‘We decide how the story ends,’” Kenai Central head coach Tracie Beck said. “They really believed in that wholeheartedly and got everybody to chase that dream with them.
“I just felt like there wasn’t an option in their minds. I just felt like once we stepped on that court, we knew it was going to be a battle, but there was just no option other than to walk away with it.”
Valdez has been deciding how the story ends for decades.
In piling up 10 state titles, the Buccaneers have won it all in every decade since the 1980s.
In 2021, Valdez wrote a particularly tough ending for Kenai to swallow. A Kardinals team loaded with hard swingers went undefeated in full-length matches the whole season until losing to the state-champ Buccaneers twice in five-set matches at state.
“Even when we lost to them, I stayed up all night trying to figure out how to beat them,” Beck said. “And just to go into that five-set match a few years ago, I was super impressed with the coaching.
“You just have such a respect for them. It’s always a joy to play them. And fun and challenging, them pushing and stretching us. That’s what state is all about.”
One thing Beck settled on after that long night in 2021 is you can’t just hit your way to a state title.
“I’m definitely an outside hitter, so I love to hit and hit the ball hard. It’s how I played,” Beck said. “But the piece that we’ve been missing, and I would say continued to get better at, is our serve-receive and our defense.
“It has been a focus for us because I feel like that’s been part of the package that we’ve been missing.”
Tracie’s daughter, Emma, was a sophomore on that 2021 team and it was not an easy night for her, either.
“When we lost that state year, she was red-eyed and probably took it the hardest because she sees the work that goes into it,” Tracie Beck said. “And she’s not afraid to work either.
“So I think that will be memories we will share forever.”
Emma’s work resulted in an array of tools that made her line in the championship match — 21 kills, 17 digs and three blocks — common in every game the Kardinals played this year.
While Kenai’s other three seniors — Grace Beiser, Jaycie Castillo and Camilla Gonzalez — joined the varsity as sophomores, Beck was on the varsity all four years.
During that time, Kenai lost only three full-length matches — the two at state to Valdez and a home loss to Class 4A state champ Wasilla this season. When Beck was a freshman, Kenai was undefeated but played only peninsula competition due to the pandemic.
With a resume like that, it’s easy to say Kenai won this state title due to Emma Beck. Emma Beck would disagree. After all, you can’t just hit your way to a state title.
“The Kenai team just makes me look good, with the way we pass and Kate (Wisnewski) sets and everything about it,” Beck said. “And just lifting me up emotionally, not just physically, no matter how I play. They’re always there for me.
“They know what makes me have the ability to do what I do. Because I know no matter what, they will still support me and love me.”
Emma also doesn’t want what her mom does to get overlooked, pointing to 2023 graduate Cali Holmes at outside hitter.
“When you have different athletes all four years, it’s not always just the athletes,” Emma said. “It’s her ability to take super athletic people and make them into volleyball players.
“Like you saw with Cali last year. She is an athlete, but her main sport is cheer and she morphed her into a volleyball player. I feel like you see that over and over again.”
Valdez got off to a slow start in the championship match and dug a big hole in the first game, but got some momentum late in losing the first game 25-18.
The Buccaneers carried that momentum into the second game, forcing Kenai to call timeouts down 13-7 and 18-8 in a game the Kardinals would lose 25-19.
“We were trying to tip, we were hitting them deep and we were hitting them short,” Beiser said. “They were picking up everything.
“They just had really good defense in that second set.”
Kenai came out and took a 9-5 lead in the third game. Valdez came back only to see Castillo go on a long service run for a 19-9 advantage.
Emma Beck said Castillo, who had 48 digs and two aces in the championship match, does not get enough credit for her serving and her leadership of the defense as libero.
“She’s always leading in digs,” Beck said. “There’s not even a question about it. She has an energy that’s calming and puts our team at ease.
“Same with Brynnen Hansen and Camilla.”
Also of note during Castillo’s long service run — the turning point in the match — is that Emma Beck was in the back row. It was sophomore Sophie Tapley in the front row collecting big kills on her way to a season-high 12.
“She did amazing,” Gonzalez said of Tapley. “She started out on JV and wasn’t even swinging (up to varsity). Halfway through the year she just came up and she’s been killer ever since.”
Wisnewski, who had 45 assists and 29 digs, had to move the ball around a lot because Valdez’s defense is that good. Avia Miller added eight kills, while Ellsi Miller had four.
“We had to use our other hitters,” Beiser said. “We had some people in the back row step up and take some.
“We did a lot.”
In the fourth game, it was Beiser, who had four aces in the match, going on the service run for a 14-10 lead. Kenai rode that gap all the way to Avia Miller tipping the last ball down for the championship point at 25-18.
“It’s really just our team that made us special,” Castillo said. “The bond we have makes everything special.
“I wouldn’t want a different team.”
Tracie Beck also gave credit to all the supporters of the program.
“As you can see, the roads are horrific,” she said. “The weather is crappy, and we still have people here cheering us on.
“I just feel super lucky and blessed our community is so good to us.”
Earlier, Valdez had advanced to the title game by defeating Nikiski 22-25, 25-10, 25-23 and 25-11.
The Bulldogs finished third at the tournament, their best finish since 2019, but came up short of adding to the program’s five state titles.
“Valdez is a team that’s at state every year, considering the competition in their region,” Segura said. “Those teams tend to have a lot of experience in those situations.
“With the group we had, they lacked experience being on a big floor at state like that. So I definitely think that played a lot into it.”
Segura is still happy with the season the team had. Just like Kenai finished second twice before winning state twice, Segura sees her team trending in the right direction after finishing fifth last year.
Segura said the Bulldogs lose two important seniors in Maggie Grenier and Zoey Ellis, but return a group that includes middle blocker Ashlynne Playle, who missed state due to an injury.
Nikiski had bad injury luck, also not having senior outside hitter Avery White all season due to a knee injury.
“I’m really excited for the future of our program,” Segura said. “Once you get a taste of that championship mindedness, it’s hard to forget about it.
“Hopefully they put in the work next year and we do better next year.”
The coach said it will still be tough to say goodbye to this team.
“They’re a very special group of girls,” she said. “We didn’t have any attitude problems or distrust in coaches and that just made my life easier as a coach.”
At the Class 3A state tournament, Valdez’s Momoe Togaage was named best server, Valdez’s Destiny Day was named best setter, Nikiski’s Kailey Stynsberg was named best defensive player and Emma Beck was named best hitter.