Moments after being crushed in an all-or-nothing championship fight under the bright lights of the state championship stage, the Nikiski volleyball crew slunk off to their bench, heads down with dejection.
But with eyes to the future, Nikiski head coach Stacey Segura set forth the team’s goal within minutes.
“We’re coming back,” Segura said on that day.
One year later, the Bulldogs are back in the big dance, and they want to bring back the big trophy that was within grasp last November.
“If we get back to the championship game, and we’re playing a team that hasn’t been there before,” Segura said Tuesday afternoon. “We’ll be tough to beat.”
Nikiski’s journey in the Class 3A state tournament starts today at 10 a.m. with a first-round matchup with Valdez at West High School, where the three-day tournament will be held. It is the second trip to state in a row and the fourth in six years for Nikiski.
The state championship loss last year was undoubtedly tough. Nikiski defeated Mt. Edgecumbe in the state semifinals, then waited as the Braves made their way back up the second-chance bracket to set up a rematch in the championship game.
Under the bright lights at the Alaska Airlines Center, the Bulldogs seized up and never found their groove when it mattered most, losing a three-set sweep that forced a winner-take-all game to 30 points.
The Bulldogs haven’t let that memory fade away. Not just yet.
“We still talk about it,” said Southcentral Conference MVP Melanie Sexton, a senior outside hitter.
For them, the motivation to return has lit a fire under them, and the rest of the conference has suffered as a result.
In a season of big expectations, Nikiski rolled to a 12-0 record in Southcentral Conference play, and the Bulldogs didn’t go easy on the competition. Of those 12 wins, nine were straight sweeps.
The conference win streak was broken last weekend at the region tournament when the Bulldogs lost in five sets to Grace Christian in the championship game, a title the Bulldogs dearly wished to have, at least as a way to maintain their authority over the field.
Sexton said she still harbors small regrets of losing to Grace, especially after going up 2-1 in the match. Nikiski lost the fourth set 25-22 and the fifth 15-11.
“It came down to who made mistakes in the end,” Sexton said. “If we had won that first set, we wouldn’t have had to play that fourth game.”
The good news was that Nikiski had already punched its state ticket with a semifinal victory over Anchorage Christian the night before.
Sexton said she could sense the target that had been painted on Nikiski’s back this season after a perfect run through the regular season following the 2016 region championship. In each tournament match, the crowd would cheer most loudly for points scored by Nikiski’s opposition, and the noise grew louder in the championship game.
“We could feel it,” she said about the crowd noise.
Junior middle hitter Bethany Carstens said Nikiski’s semifinal match against ACS felt slow compared to the title bout with Grace, and watching the Grizzlies turn up the wick with a tense five-set semifinal win over Seward had the Bulldogs behind in the early minutes.
“(Grace) was on a high,” Carstens explained. “They had just played Seward and were really hyped up.”
However, winning the region championship was just a secondary goal. Segura said all the hard work the team put in over the season resulted in the pristine region record, but more importantly it put them in ideal position to claim a state spot.
“It pretty much sealed our fate,” Segura said.
With the top seed locked up for the region tournament, all Nikiski had to do was win its first game, the sweep over ACS, to clinch a state spot. Everything else going forward was just business as normal.
“We know regions wasn’t the end game,” Sexton said. “Winning state … it would be amazing.”
Unfortunately, the loss to Grace in the region title game placed the Bulldogs on a tough side of the state bracket. First, Nikiski must go through Valdez, a team that defeated the Bulldogs at the Grizzly Invitational at Grace Christian in early October.
A win over the Buccaneers would set up a quarterfinal matchup with either Barrow or Mt. Edgecumbe, state champions in four of the last six years, including last year’s victory over Nikiski.
Carstens believes that both Barrow and Mt. Edgecumbe represent two of the biggest favorites in the field.
“We really want to win,” Carstens said. “I wouldn’t say we’re favorites, but we can beat them.”
The Bulldogs enter this weekend with many of the same core players from last year. The team graduated two key starters in Ayla Pitt and Brianna Vollertsen, but Segura said the search for a reliable defensive specialist was made easy with the addition of Italian exchange student Elisa Fardin, who joined the team with previous experience playing the sport in her home country.
Instead of working with a younger player and developing that talent in house, Segura said Fardin was basically a plug-in-and-go addition.
“She’s smart with moving the ball and we can use her in the back row if needed,” Segura said.
“She’s a really good defender,” added Sexton. “It’s really nice to have a varsity level player come in and play.”
Pitt was a First-Team Conference outside hitter, but with another year of experience under their belts, Carstens and Sexton have flourished as the hitters of the team with Fardin and junior libero Kelsey Clark backing them up. Senior outside Jamie Yerkes has also provided a valuable presence at the net with tournament experience, and Segura said sophomore setter Kaitlyn Johnson, a first-team selection this year in the conference, has become a huge part of orchestrating the passing game.
In addition to that stacked lineup, the Bulldogs also flaunt junior setter Emma Wik, senior defensive specialist Rylee Jackson, Emilee and Ashlee Tiner (both senior hitters) and America Jeffreys, an emerging sophomore defensive specialist.
The depth makes Nikiski a team to watch this weekend.
“I don’t think anyone at state is going to be easy,” Segura said. “It’s going to be who wants to win, and who needs to win.”