Kenai Central, Homer and Seward will look to maintain the Kenai Peninsula’s recent dominance of the Class 3A state volleyball tournament today, Friday and Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
Nikiski won the Class 3A title in 2018, then in 2019 Homer finished first, Kenai was second and the Bulldogs were third. There was no tournament in 2020 due to the pandemic.
This season, area teams have once again flexed their muscles in volleyball.
The Kardinals enter the tournament 18-0 in full-length matches, while Homer is 12-3. The only three losses came to Kenai.
Seward is 9-6, which was good enough to get the Seahawks the one at-large berth to the eight-team tournament. Seward became eligible for the at-large berth by defeating Grace Christian for third at the conference tournament Saturday.
“I’m absolutely happy the at-large bid went to Seward,” Kenai coach Tracie Beck said. “When we have great teams battling against each other on the peninsula, it helps all of us come time for the state tournament.”
Homer coach Stephanie Carroll thinks play is so good in the conference that the Seahawks should not have had to wait until Sunday afternoon to learn they were going to state.
Through 2016, the conference got three automatic bids. Since then, the conference dropped to two automatic bids and has earned the at-large state berth three of four times.
“Our conference has been strong historically,” Carroll said. “If you look back, since they’ve had the at-large berth, there’s only been one year the conference hasn’t gotten it. I’m hoping they just give it back.”
Kenai, which opens with a 3:15 p.m. match against Monroe Catholic today, lost just three games in rolling to 18-0.
The Kardinals have been tantalizingly close to a first state title in school history for a few years. In 2019, Kenai made its first state appearance in 14 years after moving from Class 4A to Class 3A in 2018.
The state tourney is double elimination. The Kards made it to the 2019 final undefeated, only to lose to Homer in five games. Because that was Kenai’s first loss in the tournament, the Kards got another chance in an if-necessary game to 30 and lost to Homer 30-23.
In 2020, Kenai was loaded and didn’t lose a game all season while being limited to peninsula competition due to the pandemic.
Beck said the close loss to Homer at state, the chance lost to the pandemic and the undefeated mark this season have nothing to do with Monroe Catholic, and that’s where her focus is.
“Just like when we went to regions, our undefeated season doesn’t matter,” said Beck, who won a Class 1-2-3A West state volleyball as an assistant in Seldovia in 2002. “We have a new short season.
“They were excited to win at regions and for sure we celebrated, but when we left I just felt like they were, ‘Done. Check. Now let’s go to state.’”
Kenai put five — Emma Beck, Erin Koziczkowski, Andie Galloway, Jorgi Phillips and Valerie Villegas — on the Southcentral All-Conference first team.
Coach Beck said she’s never seen that many from one team on the first team before, but Kenai goes deeper than that.
“Everybody has a role on this team,” the coach said. “There’s been multiple keys to this, and that’s helped us find success this year.”
Homer has a stiff 10 a.m. test in Valdez, a perennial contender that last won state in 2018.
At the Lady Grizzly Volleyball Tournament in early October, Valdez topped Homer 22-20 and 21-19 in bracket play.
“We were missing a couple players that weekend,” Carroll said. “I’m hoping we’ve made enough improvements to get past Valdez.”
In the period after that tournament, the Mariners had issues with COVID close contacts and were down to three players in practice for a while. Carroll said the team is still bouncing back from that missed time. In particular, serves are getting better and better.
Homer was able to defeat Grace Christian in the semis at the conference tournament to make state.
“We’re bouncing back,” Carroll said. “At times, we were a little shaky at the region tournament, but we were able to pull it together with a big win against Grace Christian. I’m hoping this week, we continue to get our focus back.”
Carroll said Homer has been working all season to develop a diverse attack that doesn’t rely so heavily on outside hitter Grace Gummer. This tournament will be a test of that attack.
Seward coach Jodi Kurtz is thrilled seniors Hannah Schilling, Gaia Casagrande, Anna Endres, Hailey Anderson and Shelby Sieminski will get a chance to play at state when the Seahawks face Bethel at 11:45 a.m.
Schilling, who may not play due to an ankle injury, has been on varsity since freshman year, while the other four have been on varsity since sophomore year.
“They’ve been working for this so long,” Kurtz said. “I think that the hard work has finally paid off.”
Kurtz has unhappy memories of the lone year the Southcentral Conference didn’t get the at-large bid. In 2017, Kurtz’s first as head coach, the Seahawks finished third at conference but an upset in the Southeast Conference final meant Seward didn’t get a return trip to state.
“We found out on the way home from the tournament in Homer,” Kurtz said. “That was a big upset for us. We were trying to get our hopes up this year, but we didn’t want to be disappointed.”
Kurtz said the Seahawks topped Bethel in a game in a tournament in Valdez early in the season, but that means little at this point.
“We have strived this whole season to focus on the game we are playing,” Kurtz said. “Point by point. That’s been the quote. Point by point.”
Kurtz said the seniors have led the team, but she also gave credit to freshman libero Maria Bunch for a big contribution to the state run.
Class 3A state volleyball tournament
at Alaska Airlines Center
Game 1 — Valdez vs. Homer, 10 a.m.
Game 2 — Bethel vs. Seward, 11:45 a.m.
Game 3 — Sitka vs. Nome, 1:30 p.m.
Game 4 — Kenai vs. Monroe Catholic, 3:15 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 5:15 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 7 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 10 a.m.
Game 8 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 11:45 a.m.
Game 9 — Game 6 loser vs. Game 7 winner, 1:30 p.m.
Game 10 — Game 5 loser vs. Game 8 winner, 3:15 p.m.
Game 11 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 5:15 p.m.
Game 12 — Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 13 — Game 11 loser vs. Game 12 winner, 10 a.m.
Championship — Game 11 winner vs. Game 13 winner, 2 p.m.
If Game 11 winner loses championship — Game to 30 points for state championship immediately follows 2 p.m. match