The two peninsula programs that made it into the Class 3A state volleyball tournament got there in different ways, but both share the same goal. Win.
The Nikiski Bulldogs are fresh off a Southcentral Conference title, their second in three years, and begin their state tournament today at 3:15 p.m. against the Barrow Whalers. A victory advances the Bulldogs to a 7 p.m. quarterfinal matchup with the winner of Valdez and Homer, while a loss drops the squad to an 11:45 a.m. Friday elimination game.
“I definitely think the girls are really excited,” said Nikiski head coach Stacey Segura. “They know winning regions is very important, but that’s not the end of the road and this has got to be the peak of their season.”
The Homer Mariners, which finished third in the conference tournament and needed an at-large bid to get to state, open with defending champions Valdez at 1:30 p.m., and a win or loss would advance the Mariners into one of the two same matchups Nikiski would go to.
Mariners head coach Sara Pennington said Homer athletic director Chris Perk was the one to inform her and the team about winning the at-large spot, reserved for the team ranked highest among those that missed out on automatic qualifiers from region play.
“We didn’t know for sure, but I was pretty confident that we were going to get it with the teams we beat,” Pennington said. “They were extremely excited, especially our seniors. It means a lot considering the last time Homer went was 2015.”
The two peninsula coaches are also entering the big dance with different levels of experience. For Segura, this is the fifth time in her seven years as head coach at Nikiski that she’s brought the Bulldogs to the state tournament.
Pennington, on the other hand, is in her first season as Homer head coach.
For Nikiski, this weekend represents a chance to recapture the magic of the 2016 season, where the Bulldogs won the Southcentral crown, then parlayed that success into a deep state tournament run that resulted in a championship final appearance.
However, Nikiski faltered at just the wrong time in the 2016 state tourney, losing to Mt. Edgecumbe in the title game and the “if-necessary” match to head home with a runner-up result.
Since that tough ending, the Bulldogs have salivated at the thought of exorcising some state demons.
“The girls were talking about that game (Tuesday),” Segura said. “They were talking about how they lost that first game, and they were already in tears and it looked like they had given up before (the if-necessary game).
“As a coach you do everything you can and at that time they were so young, and now they’re so determined to stay positive.”
Nikiski’s current senior class — setter Emma Wik, middle hitter Bethany Carstens and libero Kelsey Clark — remember that heartbreaking loss. As talented and bright-eyed sophomores in 2016 that didn’t have the experience to go with it, Segura said the seniors are ready to capture that elusive state crown.
“They’re itching to go back there,” she said. “We can do it on our best day.”
Plus, as Segura pointed out, Nikiski has seen its fair share of five-set matches over the past two years that have hardened the upperclassmen on the team to the point that Segura says nothing fazes them. Just last week in the championship game against Grace Christian, Nikiski found itself down 4-0 early in the winner-take-all set, but came back to win it.
“I definitely think we have the upper hand when it comes to five (sets),” Segura said. “I’ve worked with them the last couple years and have just told them, ‘Just pretend you’re behind.’ The girls really know how to buckle down.”
The Bulldogs went 9-4 in nontournament play this year prior to winning the Southcentral title, but did not face Barrow. Segura said she is anticipating a scrappy Whalers team that finished second last year to Valdez.
“We’re focusing on one team at a time,” she said. “It’s a true double-elimination bracket, and we have to go through everyone to be number one.”
Segura stressed the importance of every member playing her best, but said that the seniors are prepared to lead the squad. Segura said Carstens is a power hitter that will need to strike early and often.
“We give it to her when we need the power,” Segura said. “She can get in a rut sometimes, but she gets herself out of it. She has a competitive drive.”
Segura also said that Wik and Clark are the team’s calmer leaders, and their defense and offensive set-making will be crucial.
“They’re never over-excited or super down,” she said. “They’re consistent on defense. Emma just mends everyone together positively, she’s the first one to lift others up.”
Segura added that junior Kaitlyn Johnson has been a powerful contender coming out of the weak side of Nikiski’s attack this year, and her play will go a long way in determining the Bulldog’s’ success.
“Not many teams are prepared for such a weak-side attacker,” Segura said.
Homer went 8-4 in nontournament play before the region tournament and Pennington said the Mariners are not satisfied just to be a part of the show.
“We’re definitely wanting to go out with a fight,” she said. “There are some teams we can beat at state, and I think we definitely expect to get the short end of the stick as an at-large team. It’s not an easy side of the bracket, but think we’ll play well against them.”
The first-year coach said a state appearance was not high on her list coming into the season with Homer.
“I remember being interviewed and telling (the reporter) my expectation was to improve through the season,” Pennington said. “It definitely makes me happy, and just seeing that I’ve been able to help them grow is great.”
Homer’s task will be tough with the defending state champion Valdez Buccaneers first up. Valdez won two of the past three years, and earlier this year, the Mariners lost a set to Valdez at the Grace Grizzly tournament in early October.
Pennington said the memory of how Valdez attacks is hazy, but she expects a close game with the Bucs and that a full team effort will be needed to win.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one or two of our players, they’re all valuable to us,” she said. “Every single one really needs to do a good job, they can’t perform well just by themselves. All of them will contribute a big amount.”
Homer’s success this year has come from many players, namely junior outside hitter Kelli Bishop, sophomore middle hitter Tonda Smude, junior middle Marina Carroll and sophomore right side hitter Laura Inama. Pennington also said senior setter Brianna Hetrick has been consistent in setting up the attack.