As defending region and state champs, as well as the current No. 1 seed going into this weekend’s Southcentral Conference tournament, the Nikiski volleyball team may be the favorites to repeat, but the field is full of upset-minded hopefuls.
The Southcentral Conference championship tournament begins Friday in Seward and will send two teams to the Class 3A state tournament. In an eight-team bracket, that doesn’t leave much room for error.
It’s expected to be a busy two days as eight teams play 12 games, culminating in the championship final Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Only two teams automatically clinch spots at state (the two championship teams), so action will be fast and furious.
“There’s no making mistakes in this tournament,” said Kenai Central head coach Tracie Beck.
Nikiski clinched the top seed from the Southern Division with a 9-1 mark and will begin Friday morning at 9 a.m. against Houston (2-8), the last team from the Northern Division.
At 8-2, Kenai Central locked down the second south seed, slotting the Kardinals into a Friday noon matchup against Grace Christian (3-7), the No. 3 seed from the North.
Homer (7-3) will face Redington (3-7) Friday at 10:30 a.m., while host team Seward (1-9) will take on the No. 1 North team Anchorage Christian (7-3) Friday at 1:30 p.m.
Nikiski head coach Stacey Segura said the Bulldogs are very aware that the competition is breathing down their necks. Nikiski has won two of the last three region titles, but both Kenai and Homer have tested Nikiski in various matches throughout the regular season, and the Kardinals were able to collect a win over the Bulldogs early in the year.
“It could be anyone’s game,” Segura said about the region tournament. “I’ve seen what Homer’s done throughout the season, and ACS has always been very competitive. I know Kenai’s on a winning high right now. It really could be anyone. There’s six or seven different ways the bracket could go, and everyone gets a little crazy at regions. There’s just a whole another level of play that teams bring to regions.”
The strength of the South division in the conference has been apparent in 2019. The North teams of ACS, Grace, Redington and Houston have a combined conference record of 15-25, while the South teams of Nikiski, Kenai, Homer and Seward combined to go 25-15 this year.
Narrowing it down a little more, the top three South teams of Nikiski, Kenai and Homer combined to go 24-6 in conference play this season.
“The southern half is definitely very strong this year,” said Homer coach Stephanie Carroll. “I think it’s going to be a battle between the southern teams to see who wins.”
The two semifinal winners move on to state, while a third team from the conference could also get a ticket with one at-large bid chosen by the Alaska School Activities Association. Two wins automatically locks up not only a spot in Saturday’s title game, but also a berth to the Class 3A state tournament.
In her first year as head coach, Carroll inherited a stout program. Last year, under one-year head coach Sara Pennington, the Mariners were good enough to make it to state with the at-large bid, following a close miss at the region tournament.
With the bulk of its players back, Homer is ripe for a big weekend.
“We don’t have quite as good a record as we hoped for, but we feel strong going in,” Carroll said.
Homer will face Redington, a team the Mariners beat twice this year, including last weekend in a 3-0 conference win. Homer also beat Redington early in the season in the same gym, winning the North/South tournament in Seward. Carroll said gaining experience against bigger teams have helped sharpen Homer into a championship-caliber program.
“I think we can make it to Saturday’s championship, I’ve felt that way all along,” she said. “We only lost two players that went to state last year, and we do have four experienced seniors.”
Carroll said Homer’s stealthy service game has been a strength this year, and expects it continue fueling the Mariners with six girls rotating in the service game. Homer has power at the outside hitter position, and Carroll expects to see big play out of Marina Carroll and Laura Inama, both of whom can rack up the kill points. Homer also depends on its middle hitters Karmyn Gallios and Tonda Smude, both of whom make for a fearsome wall at the net.
Should Homer and Nikiski meet in Friday’s first semifinal, it could be a classic. Nikiski beat Homer with matches of 3-2 and 3-1 this year. In tournament play, Homer picked up an early win over Nikiski on its home floor.
“I feel we are capable of beating them,” Carroll said. “The biggest challenge is managing our own nerves and not making errors.”
Nikiski’s road to repeating begins with Houston, a team the Bulldogs haven’t lost to this year. Nikiski won the lone conference match 3-0 while also beating the Hawks in two games at the West Spiketacular tournament.
“I feel really good, I don’t think we’re going in underestimating anyone,” Segura said. “The girls are very aware that if they’re not there and not playing our best, we’re beatable. But we do have a good strong set of seniors left over from last year that are very strong on court and have a strong presence in stressful situations. It gives the younger players and me a lot of confidence.”
In her eighth year coaching the Bulldogs, Segura said she still gets nervous in postseason play, and this year will be especially tough against the deep South division.
“I don’t know if it’s more experience or the athletes that we have,” Segura replied when asked why the South division is so deep this year. “I’m glad it’s coming from our side of the region. It’s nice to see the peninsula have strong teams. I do feel we have the strongest teams.”
A win Friday morning could put Nikiski into a semifinal matchup with Homer, which gave the Bulldogs fits this year. Segura said if they can get through that Friday night game, she’ll be breathing a huge sigh of relief.
“I always tell the girls, the championship game is not a stressful game at all,” she said. “It’s the third place game, however, that’s not so fun.”
Being on opposite sides of the bracket, a Kenai vs. Nikiski championship final is possible for Saturday. Nikiski’s only Southcentral loss in 2019 came to Kenai, which toppled Nikiski 3-1 early in the year, but Segura said the Bulldogs have been building up to another big postseason run, so there is plenty of confidence.
“We beat Kenai, we have the two wins against Homer, which is really nice to have,” she said. “We’ve taken a look at Homer, at how well they’ve played throughout the season, and those wins are a big confidence boost for the girls.”
Kenai could very well surprise the field as one of the hottest teams coming into the weekend. The Kardinals beat Nikiski twice this year, first at the Shayna Pritchard Memorial tournament early on, then again 3-1 at home just a few weeks ago. Plus, the Kards are fresh off a big Halloween upset over 4A rival Soldotna.
“I think we’re playing some of best volleyball ever,” Beck said. “We’re excited about the tournament and we’re taking it one game at a time and focusing on that right now.”
Kenai went 3-0 against Grace Christian this year, including a three-set sweep last weekend in Anchorage. The Kards also twice beat the Grizzlies in two games, first at the Pritchard tournament at Nikiski, then at the Dimond-Service tournament two weekends ago.
“Beating SoHi was huge for our confidence,” Beck said. “That SoHi team is tough, they’ve done well all year long, and (coach) Luke (Baumer) has taken over the program and continues to build it.”
Beck said the rise of Kenai has been a process that is beginning to pay dividends for a tight-knit group of players, a group led by a stout attack that has kept opponents off balance this year. Kenai’s offense includes junior outside hitter Bethany Morris, senior outside Savanna Wilson and sophomore outside Andie Galloway. Kenai also flaunts a pair of strong middle hitters in junior Abby Avery and sophomore Erin Koziczkowski.
Combined with the setting and serving of sophomore libero Jenna Streiff and senior Kailey Hamilton, Beck said the Kardinals have reached their potential this year.
“It’s been hard to sit down and think about it, we’ve been going, going, going,” she said. “They’re all hard workers and they’re doing what we’ve asked. I think they’re loving the game plan and buying into it. It’s a big deal, because it’s hard getting everyone going in the same direction.”
As the host, Seward is looking to spring an upset against the top-seeded North team ACS. The Seahawks lost 3-0 to ACS last weekend in Anchorage, and also lost a one-set match to ACS early in the season at the North/South tournament on home court.
Southcentral Conference tournament
Hosted by Seward High School
Game 1 — Nikiski (1) vs. Houston (4), 9 a.m.
Game 2 — Redington (2) vs. Homer (3), 10:30 a.m.
Game 3 — Kenai (2) vs. Grace (3), 12 p.m.
Game 4 — ACS (1) vs. Seward (4), 1:30 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 3 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 4:30 p.m.
Game 7 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m.
Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7:30 p.m.
Game 9 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 loser, 9 a.m.
Game 10 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 8 loser, 10:30 a.m.
Game 11 — Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 1 p.m. (3rd place)
Game 12 — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 2:30 p.m. (championship)