In a crucial Tuesday night Southcentral Conference matchup, Nikiski took care of business with a 3-1 win over Homer at Nikiski High School.
The Bulldogs trailed after the first set, which the Mariners won 25-23, but rallied back to win with set wins of 25-17, 25-17 and 25-23.
The two schools are now tied in the Southcentral Conference with 3-3 records, which will be important when the time comes for seeding teams into November’s Southcentral Conference tournament.
“I think all-around, we did really well as a team,” said Nikiski coach Stacey Segura. “Everyone contributed.”
With a balanced distribution of play, Nikiski was able to fight back on more than one occasion.
Brittany Perry led the team in kills with 11, while teammates Ayla Pitt and Lauren O’Brien had five kills each. Pitt added four blocks as well.
Senior libero Laura Hufford provided 28 digs and seven aces, Rachel Thompson had 26 assists and three aces, and Zykiah Cooney had two aces.
Homer’s Larsen Fellows ended the night with 11 kills and 16 digs. Teammates McKi Needham provided 26 assists, 11 digs and four aces, Maggie LaRue had 26 digs and six serving aces, Maryhana Bowe had three blocks, and Malina Fellows recorded six kills.
“I think after we went down a few points in the first game, we were shaken up by it,” Segura said. “I told them in the locker room that Homer’s gonna be tough, they’ve been competing at the same level we have, so it’s going to be a point-for-point match.”
Segura’s analysis was spot on, as Homer battle Nikiski tooth and nail all night. After being down as much as seven points in the first set, Nikiski charged back to take a lead of 18-16, helped by mistakes on Homer’s end.
After the ball was sent out of bounds by Homer to leave Nikiski two points away from winning the set at 23-21, a costly serve into the net by Hufford resulted in a four-point swing that ended with Fellows knocking down the ball to give Homer the 25-23 edge.
“We didn’t make as many errors that first game,” said Homer coach Beth Trowbridge.
Down but not out, the Bulldogs reracked and burst out of the gate in the second set with an 8-1 early lead.
“They didn’t want to see that again,” Segura said about the first two sets. “It kind of made them angry I guess, so they turned their mental toughness on and played aggressive, and we were really tough at the net.”
Homer came back to take a two-point lead midway through the second set, prompting Segura to call timeout. Following the brief break, the Bulldogs managed to string together nine straight points to take a dominant 20-12 lead, which was enough to hold off the Mariners in the late going. The 25-17 win tied the match up at a set win apiece.
Afflicted by several key mistakes, Trowbridge said she thought the Mariners were lacking the mental focus Tuesday.
“We just lost a little focus and let our guard down some,” Trowbridge said. “The games that we’ve lost, we lose because of that mental focus, and we haven’t been able to figure out how to maintain and make our errors off of playing aggressively.”
Nikiski once again streaked out to a comfortable lead in the third set, getting points from Melanie Sexton and Pitt to bump the gap to 14-2.
However, the Mariners took off on their own 14-2 points run to tie the set up at 16-16, but Hufford guided Nikiski to the set win with three consecutive service points.
Heading into the fourth set with the chance to take the match, Nikiski came out swinging, but not at the right spots, as a number of shots fell to the wayside, giving Homer the early lead.
Homer boosted its lead in the fourth set to 15-8 at one point, helped by a few timely kill points from Jane Rohr. Rohr ended with 14 kills overall.
“That fourth game is really hard because, yes, you can relax because you’re up two games, but at the same time, you still have to work hard,” Segura said. “Some teams don’t really know the difference.”
Repeating the “You-can-win” mantra over and over to her players during timeouts, Segura gave the Bulldogs the mental edge at the right time.
Nikiski notched four straight points to take a 23-22 lead before Trowbridge called timeout.
On the ensuing point, Bowe put the two teams even again with a tip to the ground, but Nikiski secured the match victory with two points from Pitt and Perry.
Trowbridge said she believes the emphasis on winning conference matches is directed more at gaining confidence for the team, rather than the season-ending tournament seeding.
“These games aren’t as important because all teams go to regions, but they’re important because you gain confidence as you win,” Trowbridge said. “It’s important to win those games to build that confidence so when you do go into those big region tournament matchups, you’re able to push through them.”