The Kenai Peninsula sure got its money worth out of last weekend’s Southcentral Conference tournament, which advanced three peninsula teams to the big dance.
The Class 3A state tournament begins today with a slew of games, and the defending state champions Nikiski, the recently crowned region champs Homer and newcomer Kenai Central all harbor hopes of making a deep run.
For Nikiski, which begins its title defense today at 1:30 p.m. against Aurora Conference champions Monroe Catholic, the plan is to use last weekend’s letdown as motivation. Nikiski lost in the Southcentral Conference semifinals to eventual champions Homer and had to resort to the 3A state at-large berth to make it to state.
Nikiski head coach Stacey Segura said she had some anxious moments waiting for the phone call from the school’s athletic director to confirm her squad made it, but felt assured that the Bulldogs were one of the best choices.
“I knew we did everything in our power to control our side of getting that at-large berth, but there’s that small percentage of doubt because you just don’t know until it’s official,” Segura said. “I was very anxious to find out, and I woke up 8 a.m. Sunday morning to check my phone.”
Segura is confident the Bulldogs are ready for another magical run at state.
“The girls are trying not to let that third-place berth define who they are,” Segura said. “It’s been a long season and these girls have played a lot of volleyball. They’re so over practice, and they just want to get going.”
Segura said the experience-laden Bulldogs know how to fight under pressure and the bright lights of the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, so she believes the pressure is on the Rams.
“I can’t speak for Monroe, but I can’t think they’d be super happy to see us,” she said.
Nikiski played Monroe earlier this year at the Grace Christian tournament in October, losing with scores of 17-20, 20-17 and 5-2 in bracket play, but came to back to win the gold bracket by beating Monroe twice. Nikiski also had a single set win of 25-23 over the Rams in pool play at the tournament.
Homer’s run to the region title was a little more surprising, even with the show of strength the Mariners offered opponents all season. When asked about Homer’s big weekend, Segura said the Mariners had a lot of motivation and experience behind them as well.
“I think they had something to prove,” Segura said. “I don’t know, it was kind of fun to watch, it was neat to watch them play so well. It wasn’t fun for us, but everyone was a little more blindsided with how they played.”
The Mariners open their state tournament today with a 3:15 p.m. match with Koztebue, the Western Conference runner-ups. The Mariners are in the big dance for a second straight year, this time with first-year head coach Stephanie Carroll leading the way.
As an assistant coach the last few years, Carroll said she’s watched the upperclassmen grow and develop into mentally strong players, and that mental edge helped them break through last weekend.
“Everything just came together,” Carroll said. “We had struggled against those teams before, but we knew if we stayed mentally strong, we could play with them and beat those teams.”
It was Homer’s first region title since 2014. Carroll said the No. 1 seed from the Southcentral Conference that comes with winning it helps put the Mariners in a advantageous spot to begin with, but added that the attitude of the team is the real driving force.
“I think the confidence (is more important) than the seeding,” she said. “We lost to both Kenai and Nikiski at the end of the regular season, and to beat them at the tournament, that confidence was just as important than the one seed.”
While Nikiski and Homer both have the experience of playing on the big state, the Kenai Kardinals will be looking for youth and enthusiasm to guide them this weekend. In finishing second to Homer at the region tourney, the Kards secured their first state volleyball appearance in 14 years, the first since finishing seventh in the 4A field in 2005.
Kenai will open with Barrow, the Western Conference champions, today at 10 a.m., and head coach Tracie Beck said after accomplishing their goal of making it to state, the team is working hard to refocus for more postseason success.
“It’s hard because you’re trying to get prepared and let (the region run) sink in for a short period of time, but the girls aren’t really thinking about that component,” Beck said. “The community is excited but the girls are like, ‘We reached our goals for state, but let’s rewrite the goals for state.’”
Having knocked off tough opponents such as Nikiski and 4A rival Soldotna in recent weeks, Kenai may be one of the hottest teams heading into state. Beck said the team hit a small bump in the road when Homer defeated them in the region title game, but the biggest goal was to win their semifinal with ACS, which gave them the automatic state berth and a big boost in confidence.
“They wanted it so bad, they stumbled on themselves,” Beck said. “I told them to keep focused and execute the plan, and they got to state. That’s the easy path. I don’t care what path we take, just get there.”
Class 3A state tournament
At the Alaska Airlines Center
Game 1 — Barrow vs. Kenai, 10 a.m.
Game 2 — Sitka vs. Valdez, 11:45 a.m.
Game 3 — Monroe Catholic vs. Nikiski, 1:30 p.m.
Game 4 — Homer vs. Kotzebue, 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 12 winner vs. Game 11 loser, 10 a.m.
Game 14 — Game 13 winner vs. Game 11 winner, 2 p.m. (championship)
Game 15 — Game 14 winner vs. Game 14 loser, 3:45 p.m. (if necessary)