A third state volleyball appearance in five years for Nikiski has brought with it new and different kinds of success — success that hasn’t been felt in a decade.
Starting today, the Bulldogs begin a run at the state title with the moniker of region champions attached to their name, a feat they accomplished last Saturday with a thrilling five-set victory over Grace Christian.
The path leading to their Southcentral Conference crown has been littered with trials and challenges, but a run of consistent play midseason eased Nikiski’s way.
The end result? A region championship, which head coach Stacey Segura hopes will become the norm.
“Getting that region win is the new expectation,” Segura said. “I don’t want them to short themselves at state, I want to think we have good odds.”
The Class 3A state tournament begins today at the Alaska Airlines Arena in Anchorage. Nikiski opens state tourney action today at 9:45 a.m. against Monroe Catholic, the No. 2 seed from the Aurora Conference. The double-elimination format guarantees teams at least two days of playing time.
Nikiski finalized its state spot with a tight semifinal victory Friday evening over Seward, a game that the Bulldogs trailed 2-0, before rallying to win in five sets.
“The first set (against Seward) was like, ‘What are we doing?’” said junior Melanie Sexton, a key defensive specialist with a powerful arm as well. “We had to figure out like, we got it.
“But we were super excited. We knew we had to bring the energy.”
The Seahawks volleyball squad was also able to clinch a spot at state — their first since 2011 — at the region tournament by defeating Homer 3-0 in the third-place game, reversing the outcome from a year earlier.
Seward begins its state run early today with an 8 a.m. matchup against Barrow, the region winners from the Western Conference.
The semifinal win for Nikiski on Friday, a match that the Bulldogs trailed 2-0 at one point, could have spelled the end for Nikiski’s year, a successful campaign that finished out at 10-2 in region play.
Earlier in the season, after escaping with a five-set win over Seward on homecoming weekend, the Bulldogs fell into a small rut that saw them lose several nonconference matchups.
“We were kind of fluctuating in our play, we weren’t consistent,” Segura explained.
Segura said the Grizzly Invitational, hosted by Grace Christian, in early October, was the team’s top struggle point of the season. The team was also dealt the challenge of playing without Pitt, who had turned an ankle a week before. Plus, the nature of that tournament, which played one-set games to 21 points, didn’t allow the team to fully perfect the right rotation needed to win.
“I feel like that whole tournament wasn’t a good tournament for us,” said senior middle hitter Ayla Pitt.
However, the Bulldogs seemed to find their way in the following weeks, and with the Southcentral Conference tournament approaching, Pitt returned to join the team fully healthy.
“That was when we really started to focus on every single point that we needed to,” Segura said. “That was a great tournament for us.”
Another ankle injury, this time affecting sophomore libero Kelsey Clark, once again dealt the team a challenge, but the Bulldogs continued to roll into the region tourney with momentum. Clark ultimately rejoined the action in the semifinal match against Seward.
After falling into the early hole against Seward, Nikiski could have ran out of gas and fallen into the second-chance bracket.
But the Bulldogs refused to lose, doubling down and infusing as much energy and excitement into each point as if they were celebrating a match win.
“I think it was really effective for us,” said senior opposite hitter Brianna Vollertson, who has come out for the team all four years. “It helped us, getting excited for every point, because we were here to have fun and play together.”
After getting past Seward, Nikiski was tasked with toppling a team that had defeated them twice before in the regular season, both five-set losses, and a team that Segura had never beaten as coach of Nikiski in her five years.
Pitt, the only other four-year varsity player for Nikiski, said she was aware that Grace hadn’t won a region title in three years, but considering Nikiski hadn’t won in 10 years, the motivation to win was pegged at full blast.
“It was different (from the semifinal) because Grace wanted it,” Pitt said. “They wanted it really bad.”
Sexton said the finishing set, which ended 16-14 in favor of Nikiski, took every ounce of resourcefulness the Bulldogs had.
“The last three points, we were watching the ball so intently,” she recalled. “We were like, ‘Just drop, just drop!’”
“Even on the way home, it didn’t feel real,” added Pitt.
After the excitement finally died down, the team took a long time after winning to soak it in, taking pictures and talking to family and friends.
“I don’t want to say that it’s surreal that it happened, but I feel like it finally sunk in,” Segura said. “They’re getting it and they’re understanding why they’re in practice every day.”
This year marks the third time Segura has coached the Bulldogs to state, continuing a trend of even year appearances — 2012, 2014 and this year. The 2005 Nikiski graduate said each of her statebound teams have had the drive and chemistry to win, but what differentiates this year’s squad is the on-court attitude.
“I have girls who are willing to sacrifice their personalities between each other and work hard together, because they know it all matters to them,” she explained.
Segura said instead of lording over the underclassmen, the seniors on the team have come to accept the younger players and embrace the concept of team.
“We’ve all been on the same team for years now, so we’re supposed to be tight,” Pitt said. “And all the girls who are new to the team this year, we’ve been friends forever.”
Now, the Monroe Catholic Rams stand as the first domino in Nikiski’s way to a state championship, which the Bulldogs haven’t achieved since 2000.
The Bulldogs do have a small amount of experience playing the Rams in 2016. At the Grizzly Invite in early October, Nikiski lost 21-18 to Monroe in a single-set decision. The Bulldogs went 3-4 over the course of that tourney.
As a sophomore on the last state team two years ago, Pitt said the team will look for the small victories in each day, even if the Bulldogs fail to advance to Saturday’s championship game.
“Two years ago, we got fourth and were the last public school standing,” she said. “To me that’s an accomplishment.”
Seward went 8-4 in region competition this season en route to the third seed in the region tournament, then beat Homer in a three-set sweep to punch its ticket to state, its first in five years.
In her third year at Seward, head coach Jamie Frederickson praised the team’s coachability as a leading reason why the Seahawks were able to break their stateless drought.
“We went into the season stressing to them that we can’t do anything until you pass the ball first,” Frederickson said. “I told them you can be the best hitting team in the region, but if you can’t pass off the other team’s hits, you can’t do it.
“They learned it really quickly.”
Seward is embarking on a championship chase that has lasted for a while. It was 1997 when Seward earned its most recent state title, when it beat Nikiski in the 1-2-3A championship. Since then, Seward has advanced to a state title match three times, losing to Delta in 1998, Grace Christian in 1999 and Valdez in 2001.
Since no girl on the current squad has ever been to state, Frederickson said one of the challenges of the past week has been preparing for an extra week of practice leading up to the big competition. In past year, the region tournament has been the final say for Seward, which has gone home each season short of a state appearance.
“Sometimes a team may think, ‘We’ve reached our goal,’ and while teams may think that they’ve done it, they have to get ready for state,” Frederickson said. “That’s been the struggle this week, saying the season’s not over. Now they’ve reached that goal, and now they’re going to state, we need to set a new goal.
“They’re sore and bruised, so a little recovery time before state will be good.”
Seward won the North-South tournament at Houston on Labor Day weekend, which was the first point in the season that Frederickson realized the depth of her squad.
Leading the way this year was a trio of seniors that included outside hitter Tia Miranda, libero Kimmie Hubbard and outside Victoria Piro. Miranda has competed on varsity all four of her years, and Frederickson said the emotion of senior night got to all them, especially Miranda.
Frederickson said that after earning the third seed of the region tournament, Seward realized that reaching the Southcentral Conference tournament third-place game was not the goal. Getting further than that would the new goal.
“They said, we are third place right now, so let’s go for the region title,” she recalled.
Seward, however, fell short in a tough five-set loss to Nikiski in the tournament semifinal, a game they led 2-0. In Saturday’s third-place game, however, Seward left no doubt who was going to state by sweeping Homer in a 3-0 match.
After seeing a state trip fall from their grasp with a loss to Homer in the 2015 region third-place game, the Seahawks were determined not to let the same thing happen again.
“When it came time, they mentioned it,” Frederickson said. “They said last year, Homer beat us to go to state, so let’s beat them this year.”
Now, Seward will begin its state run with an opening day match against Barrow. Frederickson admitted that Barrow presents a wild card for Seward in that knowledge of the team is scarce, but word on the street is that the Whalers stick to a scrappy defense that has carried the team to a Western Conference championship.
Frederickson said Seward will have to match Barrow’s defensive intensity with its own to make it to the quarterfinals later in the day.