It took 728 days, but the Nikiski volleyball team finally finished what it started.
Two years after suffering a heartbreaking championship loss at the Class 3A state tournament, the Bulldogs exorcised their volleyball demons Saturday afternoon at the Alaska Airlines Center with a winner-take-all championship triumph over the defending state champion Valdez Buccaneers.
It was a moment for which the close-knit group of veteran players had thirsted.
“It just feels like, finally we did it, “said senior Bethany Carstens.
“We finished what we started,” added senior libero Kelsey Clark. “This team has come together so much this season, we’ve gone through a lot of hardships, overcome a lot.”
It’s the first state volleyball title for Nikiski since the 2000-01 season, a drought dating back to when the current class of seniors on the team were in diapers, and current head coach Stacey Segura was in seventh grade.
“It’s everything,” Segura said. “It’s surreal right now.”
Segura brought the Bulldogs to the state title in her seventh year at the helm — having come up short in four previous tries — and said the 2018 team has talked about state all year, practicing in the Nikiski High gym as if they were preparing for a state match.
“This is the team that has the best team chemistry that I’ve coached and that I’ve seen these three days,” Segura said.
Facing a Valdez program that had won state crowns in two of the last three years, Nikiski lost the scheduled title match 3-1, setting up the “if-necessary” set for the first team to 30 points.
With the pressure dialed up to its highest setting, the Bulldogs came alive under the bright lights of the vast arena and captured the title that had eluded them, winning the final set 30-22 — ironically the same score by which they lost to Mt. Edgecumbe two years ago.
“During those five minutes before the game to 30, we were just talking about feeling the love,” Clark said. “All of our hard work was going to pay off if we just stick together.”
With the haunting memories of 2016 boiling back up again before the 30-point game, Carstens said it was time for the team to put that behind them and turn up the energy.
“We all said we were going to get super hyped for every point,” Carstens explained. “Our bench really helped with that. They were getting really excited.”
The players said the energy helped wipe away any nervousness they harbored.
“We all just kind of took a deep breath,” Johnson said. “I think we realized this is our time. This is the last game we’ll ever be able to play.”
When the final point was scored, the team bench broke out into hysteria and rushed the floor to celebrate in a team dogpile of emotion. When asked after the match what the team will do to celebrate, Carstens backed up Clark’s answer of “sleep” with a better one.
“Hang a banner,” she said. “Get some rings. We’ve never had a (ring ceremony) before.”
Prior to the 30-point game, the Buccaneers took the scheduled championship match with scores of 25-17, 21-25, 25-22 and 25-22. Because Valdez had come up through the elimination bracket, the Bucs had to win in order to force the “if-necessary” set.
Even though Nikiski lost the scheduled championship match, it was a far cry from their 2016 final against Mt. Edgecumbe, when a younger Bulldogs team couldn’t get anything to work against a more experienced Braves program.
“We weren’t playing like we normally were, we were playing kind of melancholy,” Segura said about Saturday’s 3-1 match. “We were working hard but just going through the motions. We weren’t playing point for point, we were looking at the end.”
Segura said when the teams had a five-minute break prior to the winner-take-all match, she told the players that their lack of energy was no longer going to cut it.
That pep talk helped to turn the tide as Nikiski began powering its way by Valdez, getting the ball to fall their way as they built up leads of 12-5 and 17-9, providing a cushion that the Bulldogs enjoyed but weren’t ready to sit on just yet.
Bethany Carstens dominated the net with 19 blocks and 19 kills, while Clark put on a defensive clinic with 55 digs. Clark was named Outstanding Defensive Specialist of the tournament.
Johnson put on a show from her outside hitter spot with 10 kills and six blocks, and chipped in 29 digs and 21 assists as well, helping her earn Outstanding Setter of the tournament.
Also for Nikiski, Kaycee Bostic had 12 kills and three blocks, senior Emma Wik contributed 23 assists and Lillian Carstens notched 18 digs.
Nikiski prevailed 3-1 over Valdez on Thursday, the opening day of the tournament, to advance the Bulldogs to Friday’s semifinals. They defeated Grace Christian in three sets to stake their spot in Saturday’s final.
However, Nikiski had its hands full with the Bucs the second time around.
Valdez took a 17-9 lead in the first set as both teams forced errors, but a five-point run brought Nikiski back into it at 17-14 Bucs leading.
The two big swingers on Valdez, senior Sydney Johnson and sophomore Ally Seiber, powered the Bucs’ front line while defensive maestro Carlee Fleming held court behind them. Johnson was able to string together several kills to bring Valdez to 20-14 before Segura was forced to call timeout, but the damage was done.
In the second set, Nikiski began to voice its intentions with a four-point run that took the Bulldogs to a 10-7 lead on the strength of Clark’s service game. Clark and Johnson combined to serve out a handful of points to put Nikiski ahead 15-10, then Johnson and Bostic finished out the set win with a fierce stuff block to tie the match at 1.
With the third set tied at 16-all, Kassandra Howard helped spur Valdez to a late lead with a kill point, sparking the Bucs to a 21-17 edge, and Johnson tipped in a few points to win it for the Bucs and take a 2-1 match lead.
A 6-1 start to the fourth set by Valdez didn’t make matters easy for Nikiski, which had to rally hard to tie it at 19 late in the game. Valdez libero Jade Watts broke the tie and scored two service points during a 3-0 run that pushed the lead out, helping the Bucs win the match and force the 30-point game.
In the winner-take-all match, the Bucs took a 4-3 lead early, making for tense emotions among the Nikiski crowd, but the momentum took a big turn as Nikiski ripped off a 9-1 run with some big blocks by Carstens.
With everything seemingly going their way, the Bulldogs drove their way to a 21-14 lead, just nine points from the title, when Valdez mounted a small comeback with a 6-1 run. The Bucs got as close as 26-22 before Carstens took charge one last time with a string of points on a hit, a block and a kill. The last point resulted when a Valdez shot hit the net.