Dylan Hooper’s beard and the Nikiski volleyball team held strong when it counted.
On a senior night when Hooper held enough weight from his beard to set a world record once it is certified by Guinness, the Bulldogs outlasted the Stars in five games to move to 10-0 on the season.
“We were saying in the locker room, that had to be one of the best senior nights ever — breaking a world record and beating SoHi,” said Nikiski senior Melanie Sexton, who had five kills, three blocks and 19 digs in her first full game since injuring her ankle on Sept. 25.
The scores of the roller-coaster affair were 26-24, 22-25, 25-22, 11-25 and 15-12.
“Soldotna is a great team,” Nikiski coach Stacey Segura said. “To be the only undefeated team on the peninsula is awesome and a privilege.
“I don’t think this group will take that lightly.”
The Stars (7-3 overall) are a Class 4A squad, while the Bulldogs were runner-up at the Class 3A state tournament last year.
Nikiski had defeated Soldotna 27-26 in a pool play game at the West Spiketacular on Sept. 25, so there was little surprise when Game 5 was knotted at 11 and the evening basically came down to a mini-game to four.
Foreign exchange student Elisa Fardin, who had five aces and 18 digs, had a service winner to tie the game at 11, and served out three more points for a 14-11 lead.
Fardin, who also misses her share of serves, also had been pivotal in Game 1, taking the service line with the Bulldogs down 20-23 and serving out three points to tie that game.
“She did a fantastic job,” Segura said. “Her serve was consistent when it had to be.”
While Bethany Carstens (nine kills, two blocks) and Kaitlyn Johnson (16 assists, three aces) combined on a block to make it 12-11, Nikiski’s last three points came on Soldotna hitting errors.
“The last four points, we didn’t execute,” Soldotna coach Sheila Kupferschmid said. “We did that to ourselves.”
While the Bulldogs are a battle-tested group that honored five varsity seniors Tuesday, Soldotna has just three seniors.
That’s why Kupferschmid said the match in front of the boisterous Nikiski crowd was a great experience.
“I’ve got young kids,” she said. “They haven’t been in many five-setters with pressure.”
After all the pregame excitement, Nikiski started slow but finally pulled even in that first game on the service run by Fardin.
But a kill by Shaylynn Zener, who had 21 service points, 20 digs and five kills, set the Stars up with match point.
A four-touch violation tied it at 24, then a winner by Sexton gave Nikiski game point. Johnson’s service winner put the Bulldogs up 1-0.
In the second game, it was the Stars pulling out a tight one. With SoHi clinging to a 23-22 lead, Bailey Leach, who had nine kills and three blocks, had a kill and Kodi McGillivray, who had 20 service points, six kills and four digs, had a service winner to tie the match at one game apiece.
Then the two teams traded slow starts that cost them games. In Game 3, Kelsey Clark, who had 30 digs and three aces, served out six points for a 7-1 lead and SoHi never fully recovered.
In Game 4, Cally Christianson, who had 19 service points, 42 assists, seven digs, a kill and a block, served out five points for a 7-1 lead.
The Stars, especially Aliann Schmidt and her match totals of 21 kills and 12 blocks, then found holes in the Nikiski defense and rolled to a 25-11 win.
“Game 4 — that wasn’t who we are,” Sexton said. “Game 5 was who we are. We’re able to win when it counts.”
Schmidt was having a ton of success tipping, so Segura dropped the outside hitter off the block and had the outside hitter pick up tips in Game 5.
Schmidt got off to a hot start in Game 5, with two kills and two blocks for a 6-4 lead, but the Bulldogs were able to contain her when she was in the front row for the game’s final points.
Ella Stenga had 11 service points, 20 digs, 10 kills, six blocks and three assists for Soldotna, while Paulyne Catacutan had 11 digs and Holleigh Jaime had 23 digs and 10 service points.
For Nikiski, Jamie Yerkes had seven kills and Emilee Tiner added four kills.
The seniors honored were Yerkes, Sexton, Rylee Jackson, Emilee Tiner, Ashlee Tiner, Deidra Lamping, Hailey Peterson, Chloe Grogan and Paige Shield.
“These seniors were definitely the turning point in the program as far as the attitude they bring to practice every day,” Segura said.