The Nikiski volleyball team is making the most of its appearance at the Class 3A state tournament by going further than any Bulldogs team has gone in a decade.
The Bulldogs pulled out a tense 3-2 victory Thursday evening over Barrow to advance into the state semifinal round, defeating the Whalers with scores of 25-14, 14-25, 25-18, 18-25 and 15-8.
The victory puts the Bulldogs a win away from Saturday’s championship game. The journey continues with a semifinal match 3:15 p.m. Friday against Mt. Edgecumbe, which advanced with wins over Grace Christian and Valdez.
Nikiski got off to an electric start with energetic play from sophomores Bethany Carstens and Emma Wik — Carstens from the front and Wik off the serve — and senior Ayla Pitt.
Pitt led the offense with 10 kills and six blocks, while Carstens poured in nine kills and five blocks. Junior Jamie Yerkes also contributed six kills.
“Bethany was awesome, her blocks were on point,” Pitt said. “She’s really transitioning into a junior player.”
Nikiski coach Stacey Segura, who was a senior on the last Bulldogs volleyball team to make it as far as the state semifinals in 2005, credited her team for figuring things out on their own when times got tough.
“This is a huge confidence builder,” Segura said. “They’re being smart as hitters and we were picking up (Barrow’s) hits.”
The Bulldogs’ biggest problem came in the form of Barrow middle hitter Milya Wright, who continued to dog Nikiski with quick tips and kills from the front of the net.
Segura said her squad made the right adjustments to eke out the win.
“I told them to put up a double block in the middle, and they listened and it worked,” Segura said. “They have the faith to adjust.”
Nikiski freshman Kaitlyn Johnson helped set up the attack with 21 assists, while sophomore Emma Wik provided 12 assists and two aces. Sophomore libero Kelsey Clark worked hard on the defensive end with 31 digs, while junior Melanie Sexton notched 34 digs.
After Barrow grabbed a slim lead in the first game, Wik showed up with two straight service aces to tie it up, and once she was able to knock Barrow off its game, the Whalers began to find difficulty containing Carstens and Pitt. Eventually, Nikiski had ballooned its lead to double digits, and the Bulldogs took a 1-0 match lead with a tip from Carstens and a set point from Pitt’s service ace.
“Bethany is becoming my next middle (hitter), she’s incredibly athletic,” Segura said excitedly. “Basketball is her pride and joy, and volleyball was not her language, but she’s doing it well.”
Barrow controlled most of the second set, which was dominated by Wright’s net presence. Following a tip by Maddy Williams that put Nikiski within five points of the lead at 18-13, Barrow scored seven of the next eight points, mostly due to Wright’s hits, to take the set and tie the match up at 1-all.
A close Game 3 broke open after both teams were knotted at 14. Nikiski scored five unanswered points to take the lead and held on from there. Pitt recorded hit points on five occasions during the run, which put Nikiski up 2-1 in the match.
The fourth set proved to be even closer, as an early 7-4 lead for Barrow as the biggest distance between the two sides until Barrow reeled off the final seven points after an 18-18 tie. Wright sparked the late run with a tip point, then Kuutuuq Danner scored on a point to continue the run, which eventually gave Barrow the win to force a winner-take-all fifth game.
With everything on the line on a short set, it was imperative to start fast, and Nikiski got going with a 6-2 run, thanks to kills from Pitt, Yerkes and Sexton.
“(Segura) was telling us to hit,” Pitt said about her coach’s words in the huddle. “When you’re down in the game, you feel a bit nervous, but I just try to shake it off and zone out the crowd.”
Barrow failed to score more than two consecutive points in the final set, while Nikiski pieced together separate 4-0 runs to distance itself, with points scored off of blocks from Carstens and Sexton. A service point from Clark was the final score in the game.
Nikiski 3, Monroe 0
The Bulldogs got off to a quick start Thursday morning with a three-set sweep of the Monroe Catholic Rams, winning with scores of 25-14, 25-11 and 25-18.
Nikiski got big games from Yerkes and Pitt up front, who combined for 15 kills. Yerkes blasted out eight kills and Pitt had seven, and also recorded five stuff blocks.
The win put the Bulldogs into the Thursday afternoon game with Barrow.
On defense, sophomore libero Clark came up big with 20 digs.
“I’m just relieved we don’t have to play at 8 a.m. (Friday),” Clark said.
Clark, who just returned to game action last weekend at the Southcentral Conference tournament after sustaining an ankle injury, said her taped up ankle didn’t bother her in the slightest.
“Once we started playing, our bench got excited and into it, and we got excited,” she said. “But there some nerves in the beginning.”
Segura said she was happy her team got through the match in quick fashion, putting in a performance worthy of a veteran squad.
“You always come up here a little nervous, but getting through this 3-0 was awesome,” she said. “Even when (Monroe) would score, we would get the next point. Our front row was very smart at the net.”
The trend of consistent passing continued with the Bulldogs, who entered the tournament as region champions. Kaitlyn Johnson provided 16 assists, while Emma Wik had eight assists along with three aces. Bethany Carstens racked up seven kills and Melanie Sexton notched 17 digs.
Segura praised Pitt’s awareness at the net for helping in the passing game, and added Carstens and senior Maddy Williams made big contributions to the passing game.
Pitt and Sexton caught fire with several points off serves to give Nikiski an 18-9 lead in the first set, forcing the Rams to call timeout. A run of four straight points put Nikiski at set point at 24-11, but it took four attempts to finally win it on a scoring strike from Sexton.
In Game 2, the Bulldogs really caught fire with a 9-0 opening run, fueled by Monroe’s troubles in front of the net, which pushed the lead to 15-4 before Monroe called a timeout. A hit by Yerkes and a poke by Pitt raised the lead to 23-7.
The Rams managed to extend the set with a suffocating block from the tandem of middle hitters Chloe Maynard and Jordyn Sager, but the Bulldogs finally put it away with a kill point from Pitt and a hit from Brianna Vollertsen. The win put Nikiski up 2-0 for the match.
In the third set, a 4-0 run put Nikiski up 13-8 when the Rams called timeout. The break proved effective, as Monroe scored four straight to cut the lead to one before Segura called time for her squad.
Out of the break, Pitt launched a tough hit toward Monroe to score a point, which helped spark a 4-1 run. The Rams got as close as 18-17 before Nikiski rolled out a six-point streak that left the Bulldogs with match point at 24-17. Carstens clinched the victory with a point from the front row.
Barrow 3, Seward 0
Playing in their first state tournament in five years, the Seward Seahawks did not get a warm welcome back.
Barrow got big offensive games from Milya Wright and Crystalynn Tulai en route to a 25-22, 25-13 and 25-20 victory over Seward in the opening round of games Thursday morning.
Seward still has the opportunity to advance to the state title game, but the road became much more difficult with Thursday’s loss, as any loss will end the Seahawks’ season. Seward begins its run through the second-chance bracket with an 8 a.m. meeting with Monroe Catholic.
Wright and Tulai punished Seward’s normally stout defense with attack after attack from the front row.
“Our team doesn’t have an all-star player,” said Seward coach Jamie Frederickson. “We push all six players on court to be hitters and get points.
“I mean, Maille Moriarty had the most hits for us and she’s a setter.”
With a stringently defensive core, Frederickson said she made the decision to bring up one blocker for opponent attacks while leaving the other five players on court duty, covering every inch possible.
The plan worked at times, but Barrow managed to close out every set with force.
“They were quick with their arm swings,” Frederickson said about the Whalers. “They hit where we weren’t (covering).”
In the first game, Seward closed to 17-16 behind Barrow before the Whalers were able to extend the lead to 21-17 with tough serving.
However, the Whalers suffered three mistakes at the net that pulled Seward close yet again at 22-21, but the Seahawks couldn’t take advantage, eventually losing the first set on a net error of their own.
Barrow led wire to wire in the second set, steadily conserving a lead of five to eight points throughout on the strength of the Whalers’ offensive wall up front. Seward trailed 19-13 late in the going, but Barrow ended the set with six unanswered points, capped by a stuff block from Tulai.
Seward emerged in the third set with multiple points from outside hitter Randi Tolson and Moriarty, but the trio of Felila Tuai, Wright and Tulai proved to be too much. A 3-0 Seward run helped the Seahawks close the gap to a point in the late stages, but a potent kill point from Tulai sealed the deal at match point.