Nikiski’s dreams of a return to the state final were extinguished Friday morning in a loser-out bracket loss to Barrow.
A day after falling 3-1 to Valdez, and a year after a state final appearance, the Bulldogs were swept by the Whalers with scores of 25-14, 25-23 and 25-21, ending their season on the spot.
The loss marked the first three-match losing streak for the Bulldogs all season. After clinching the region’s top seed with a 12-0 record and never having a multiple-game losing streak, Nikiski fell to Grace Christian in the Southcentral Conference title game, then went 0 for 2 at state.
Nikiski head coach Stacey Segura didn’t shy away from saying the team may have peaked early.
“Last year we went on this awesome win streak at regions and state,” she said. “This year I think Grace was that team.
“Teams have to come to state peaking at the right time.”
Grace won twice Thursday to advance to the state semifinals, where the Grizzlies met a strong Valdez contingent.
Sophomore setter Kaitlyn Johnson said the region title loss could have played a role in Nikiski’s state results, as the difference between the one and two seeds put the Bulldogs in a tougher side of the bracket.
“It put us in a harder position,” Johnson said.
“We may have been lacking confidence after a tough loss,” added senior Rylee Jackson.
Even with the two losses at the state tournament, the players were able to point out the positives.
“I’m proud of how we played,” Johnson said. “Even though it wasn’t our best at the end of the season.”
Nikiski’s biggest challenge against Barrow came in the form of senior middle hitters Milya Wright and Crystalynn Tula’i. Wright attacked the Bulldogs defense with a consistent shower of kill points, while Tula’i backer her up with an opposite attack that caught Nikiski off guard.
The offensive firepower came in handy when the Whalers needed a lift to rally back from an 11-point deficit in game two.
“They played well, and they had some strong hitters,” Johnson said.
“We knew they had good hitters,” added Jackson. “We figured they’d be good.”
Bethany Carstens led the Nikiski attack with seven kills, while Johnson chipped in five kills and six assists in a revamped front line. After a tough day at the net against Valdez on Thursday, Segura moved Johnson up to the weak side hitter role, pairing her with Carstens at the net instead of Southcentral Conference MVP Melanie Sexton.
“Our net play was better this time,” Segura said.
Barrow came out firing in game one, building a 10-2 lead before the Bulldogs called timeout. The lead expanded to 19-5 before Nikiski began finding its groove.
Carstens and Jamie Yerkes combined to score four kill points as part of a 7-2 run for Nikiski, but the Barrow lead was simply too much to overcome. Yerkes finished with four kills on the day.
Nikiski blasted out of the gates in game two, scoring the first eight points en route to a 12-1 lead. Jackson and Elisa Fardin both helped build the lead with a deadly service game, including three straight aces by Fardin.
However, Wright began to turn Barrow’s fortunes around with three straight points off a combination of stuff blocks and kills. The 5-foot-9 senior helped cut Nikiski’s lead to 13-7 before Segura called timeout.
Wright and Tula’i combined for three straight kills that further cut into the lead, forcing another Nikiski timeout at 16-13.
A stuff block by Carstens and Johnson put the Bulldogs ahead 21-18, but Barrow tied it at 21, then took its first lead of the set at 23-22 on a Wright service point, and the Whalers never looked back to take a 2-0 match lead.
A tight game 3 soon turned Barrow’s way after a 6-all tie. A kill point by Tula’i sparked a 7-0 run that put the Whalers up 13-6, and the offense kept coming to build the advantage to 19-11.
Carstens and Fardin helped reel some of the lead back in with four straight points, but the Whalers hitting ultimately staved off a comeback.
Looking ahead to next year, the Bulldogs will be losing several key starters, including seniors Melanie Sexton, Jamie Yerkes, Rylee Jackson and Ashlee and Emilee Tiner, along with exchange student Elisa Fardin. A strong core of returning sophomores and juniors will be joined by a strong JV team, Segura said.
“I think as a program, we do a good job of focusing not just on our star players,” she said. “It’s important to develop a JV program and be consistent in coaching your players.”
Segura said the JV team only had two losses this season, both to Class 4A opponent Soldotna. With four trips to state in the last six years, Segura said she hopes that trend can continue next fall.
“Being a top eight team in state is something to be proud of,” she said.