This weekend’s Southcentral Conference volleyball tournament will end Saturday at 4 p.m. with the championship final, but that may not even be the most intense match of the day.
In the Class 3A state volleyball scene, three squads from the Southcentral Conference make it to the season-ending state tournament. With the two teams that will ultimately duke it out for the region title already having punched their tickets with semifinal victories Friday night, that leaves Saturday afternoon’s third-place match as the final decision to who goes on and whose season ends on the spot.
The tournament runs today and Saturday at Nikiski High School, and with preparation and practice taking up their time, Nikiski coach Stacey Segura and the Bulldogs have certainly been busy in the days prior to the excitement, but the real drama will unfold on the court.
“When they get out of their element, things can go kind of crazy,” Segura said about her squad. “There’s not just one person to keep them grounded.”
Seward coach Jamie Fredrickson is heading into the tournament with the sixth-seeded Seahawks, which gives Seward the unofficial title of underdog, something the Seahawks hope will spur them to an upset win.
“It should be the most intense,” Fredrickson said. “Everything is on the line with that third-place game. Either your season’s over or you’re moving on to state. Those are the kind of games I absolutely love.”
Segura has taken Nikiski to state in two of her three years with the team, and with the region tournament being held on Nikiski’s home floor, a third trip would be the icing on the cake. However, if history is any indication, state hopefuls will have to go through two perennial powerhouses.
Anchorage Christian Schools and Grace Christian snapped up the top two seeds in the tournament this year with matching 8-2 records, the tiebreaker going to ACS for its two wins in conference play.
So does that mean it will be a dogfight for the third and final state spot between the rest of the field? Not necessarily, according to Segura.
“I think that Grace and ACS have played more consistent throughout the season, rather than dominating it,” she said. “Last year, we all kind of knew that Monroe and Mt. Edgecumbe were going to the state championship game, but I haven’t seen a single team this year in 3A that is dominant.”
Interestingly enough, Homer and Nikiski have both defeated ACS this year, a clear testament that nothing is a certainty come tournament time. To further complicate matters, Seward’s lone conference win came against Nikiski, which naturally opens up the discussion of whether a 1-9 Seward team can overcome an 8-2 ACS team.
Plus, no team is undefeated this season heading into the region tourney, unlike last year.
“The whole season builds up to regions, and I don’t want to say how you perform in the season doesn’t matter, but if you’re the best team at regions, you’re the best team for the season,” Fredrickson said. “So all the losses we’ve had can be left behind.”
(4) Nikiski vs.
5) Houston, 1 p.m. Friday
At 5-5 in the Southcentral Conference, the Bulldogs are sitting smack dab in the middle of things.
Nikiski is looking for its third state berth in four years, and two wins over Houston this year give the Bulldogs a lot of confidence heading into today’s opening round contest.
“I think everything’s gone really well,” Segura said. “The spot we’ve been put in at the end of the season is a blessing in disguise.”
This season has also carried a little bit of special meaning for Segura, as the fourth-year coach has finally seen her full class of seniors through from their freshman year. The Nikiski class of 2016 that has been under Segura’s coaching includes outside hitters Brittany Perry and Lauren O’Brien, setter Hannah Love and libero Zykiah Cooney.
“It’s pretty special, these girls that are graduating, they were there when I started to try and shape the program I wanted,” Segura said. “They’ve really done a great job of shaping the mentality and work ethic and the legacy I’d like to see go through the volleyball program.”
Segura took the Bulldogs to the Class 3A state tournament her first year in 2012, where they finished eighth. Last year, Nikiski returned to finish fourth. In her four years as coach, Segura — who is also a former Nikiski player herself — said that first year taught her a lot about how to manage her players and how to prevent a team from peaking too early.
“We were a good team that first year and we got there and took eighth, and it was like, what do we do?” Segura said. “But, I’m sad these girls are going to be gone. They’ve stuck with me all four years.”
Facing Houston today, Segura said the fourth seed was not where the Bulldogs planned on being at the beginning of the season, but Nikiski is beginning on the side of the bracket with which they are most comfortable. After all, today’s winner plays No. 1 ACS at 5 p.m., a team that Nikiski beat 3-0 earlier this year.
Segura said if there’s one thing her team has made the largest improvement on, it’s the serve-receive. Being able to control what opposing teams are dishing out has helped Nikiski establish a better rhythm.
“Any team that’s lazy and decides not to play defense isn’t going to win,” Segura said. “We’ve changed our defense a bit, tweaked it a bit. Last year we had (setter) Rachel Thompson, and I didn’t have to worry about someone not pulling their weight.
“This year, it’s about trying to put them in places where I can use their strengths.”
(3) Homer vs.
6) Seward, 3 p.m. Friday
Homer finished with a record of 6-4 in the conference, and is seemingly the best chance to upset a Grace-ACS title game matchup on Saturday.
In two conference meetings this year against Seward, the Mariners beat the Seahawks with match scores of 3-0 and 3-1.
“Our team probably had some pent-up frustration, and it’s sort of doing a bit of reconstruction,” Fredrickson said.
Fredrickson said a few players left the team in recent weeks due to disciplinary action, but she expects her supporting cast to step up and fill the roles.
“Our team is having to recover from that, but those on the team are looking forward to this weekend and the chance to prove themselves as a solid team,” she said.
A big part of the Seward attack comes from middle hitter Michaela Osenga, who leads an attack that is complemented by outside hitters Randi Tolson and Tia Miranda.
Supporting the offensive attack will be setters Maille Moriarty and Jessica Honebein and libero Kimmie Hubbard.
Homer will match that with middle hitters McKi Needham and Paige Snyder, outside hitters Malina Fellows, Kelly Liebers and PK Woo, and libero Izabelle Hagge.
Frederickson said if Seward wishes to get by Homer, her squad will have to equal the mental confidence that Homer brings to the court, adding that the Mariners’ winning attitude can be stifling at times.
“We have a tough time with the mental stamina,” Frederickson said. “Staying the game and doing what works for them is going to be the challenge for us.”
The winner advances to the semifinal round to play No. 2 Grace Christian at 7 p.m.