The lights of the big stage shone brightly on the Nikiski volleyball team in Saturday’s Class 3A state championship. Perhaps a bit too bright.
In their first appearance in a state championship match in 16 years, the Nikiski Bulldogs failed to win a single set Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Arena in Anchorage against an experienced powerhouse program that had been there, done that.
Mt. Edgecumbe prevailed in dominating fashion, winning the championship game with scores of 25-13, 25-12 and 25-10, then prevailed in the sudden death game 30-22 to win the Class 3A state volleyball championship.
The dominating performance left the Bulldogs, who had shown moxie in tight, five-set matches all postseason, with an uncommon deer-in-the-headlights look.
“The pressure got to us,” said junior Jamie Yerkes after the final set. “I don’t think we had the right attitude.”
The state title is the fourth in the last six years for the Braves, who graduate seven seniors.
Nikiski, meanwhile, was making its first state title game appearance since 2000, when the Bulldogs won it all. Nikiski will graduate five seniors, two of which are regular starters, but also are expected to return a gang of “stud sophomores,” as coach Stacey Segura described them.
“We’re coming back,” Segura proclaimed. “I have awesome athletes, but I think they were just caught up in the moment.”
One of the leading seniors, middle blocker Ayla Pitt, finished with 13 kills and four blocks. Pitt added six more kills in the winner-take-all set, ending her prep volleyball career with passion, but not a title.
“We weren’t moving our feet, we weren’t talking as much,” Pitt said. “I felt like we weren’t communicating like we should.”
Yerkes contributed seven kills and three aces in the first best-of-three match. Sophomore Bethany Carstens recorded nine kills, while junior Melanie Sexton had eight kills to go along with 17 digs.
On defense, sophomore Kelsey Clark had 25 digs, sophomore Emma Wik notched 20 assists and freshman Kaitlyn Johnson had 15 assists. Clark added 10 digs in the “if-necessary” game.
After prevailing in a tight five-set semifinal Friday over Mt. Edgecumbe, the script flipped as the Bulldogs could never mount a comeback Saturday after dropping the first set 25-13, the same opening score as Friday’s match.
“We just couldn’t get the engine going,” Segura said. “Edgecumbe was digging it up, and they were diving all over the place.”
This year’s state crown will be added to Mt. Edgecumbe’s growing case, which includes state trophies from 2011, 2012 and 2014.
“I have a well-trained back row,” said Braves coach Michael Mahoney.
Before Saturday’s championship against Nikiski, Mt. Edgecumbe had to fight back through the double-elimination bracket. On Friday, the Braves lost the winners bracket semifinal 3-2 to Nikiski, which left them in an 8 a.m. Saturday game against Grace Christian, which they won to advance to the state title match.
The Braves awoke at 5 a.m. Saturday, according to Mahoney, to prepare for the early match with Grace, but by the time noon rolled around, Edgecumbe looked anything but tired.
“If anything, the earlier match was an advantage for us,” Mahoney said. “We were feeling strong, we were warmed up.”
The Braves bolted out of the gates with strong attacking from middle blocker Haylee Steffes and setter Zhane White, the latter of which punished the Bulldogs defense with deadly serves.
In the first two games, only once was Nikiski able to string together more than two consecutive points, while Mt. Edgecumbe did it five times, including an 8-0 run in the first set and a 9-0 run in the second to distance themselves each time.
In Game 3, Mt. Edgecumbe started quick with a 6-2 run, then bolstered the lead to 22-5 after 11 straight points. Carstens and Sexton sparked a four-point run for Nikiski, its longest in any of the three sets, but a stuff block by Hannah Alowa helped to put the Braves at match point, forcing the winner-take-all game, which awarded the team first to score 30 points.
In the couple of minutes before the sudden-death game, both teams had a chance to withdraw to the quiet confines of the locker room hallways of the arena, which gave the Bulldogs a chance to discuss things prior to the final set.
“Coach (Shannon) Porter told us to take a deep breath and don’t get caught up in it,” Pitt said, adding that as a senior, her mind-set was to go nuts in her final volleyball game.
“I had to lay it all out.”
In the winner-take-all set, Mt. Edgecumbe opened with a 6-4 lead, then the service game of libero Rachelle Persson took hold and the Braves scored six straight points, three on serves by Persson, giving them a 12-4 lead.
Edgecumbe opened its lead to as high as 19-8 before Nikiski attempted one more comeback. Sparked by a kill point from Yerkes, the Bulldogs went on a 14-8 run to close the gap to 27-22, with Yerkes and Pitt accounting for half of those Nikiski points.
However, the Braves finally finished it off with three straight scores, the last two on serves from Amy Bioff.
As a player at Nikiski, Segura played in three state tournaments but never made it to the title game before graduating in 2006.
In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s match, she said she has been able to gain a different perspective on the game.