You know what they say -- no pain, no gain -- and the Nikiski High School volleyball team's five-game loss to District 3/3A foe Seward at Nikiski Friday certainly was painful for the Bulldogs.
"We're going to have to fight so much harder to reach our goals," said Nikiski coach Cherrie Hobart-Verkuilen. "It's disappointing to lose, but if this makes my team a better team, I'll take it. We still have time to fix what we need to."
Hobart-Verkuilen isn't the first coach to call playing the Seahawks a learning experience, and Seward has been knocking off teams all year using their defensive alignment that features just one blocker and five players poised to dig just about anything an opponent can dish out.
The strategy worked again on Friday, frustrating the Bulldogs' hitters as the match wore on. Nikiski took the first game 15-13, but Seward won the next two games 15-10 and 15-8 to take a two games to one lead in the match.
Nikiski rallied to win the fourth game 15-11, but the Seahawks closed out the match with a 15-9 win in the deciding fifth game.
"I like the fact that we had to work for it," said Seward coach Angie Hammer. "The kids get much more out of something when they work for it."
Nikiski led by as many as five points (12-7) in the first game before the Seahawks were able to come back and take a one-point lead.
The Bulldogs pulled it together, though, getting a kill by Karen Rabung and a block by Mindy Cason to secure the win.
The Bulldogs jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the second game, then increased that margin to 8-2, but Seward's patient defense started wearing on the Bulldogs.
"We have such a short team, we have to keep as many people on the floor as possible," Hammer said of the Seahawks' strategy. "Sometimes it's not even the block that matters as much as just getting a body up there. The two girls that were blocking for us did an excellent job."
In fact, Krista Boulden finished with 11 blocks for the Seahawks, while Tara DeRuwe picked up 13 blocks to go with her 23 kills.
The Seahawks won long rally after long rally to win the second game, and while Cason and Rabung continued to pound the ball throughout the match, the Seahawks kept digging everything up, keeping even or just ahead of the Bulldogs through the third game with a combination of good serves and tenacious defense.
"We allowed Seward to frustrate us," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "We struggled with our serve-receive passing and that took us out of our offense. That killed us.
"Seward played a really hard, relentless game. We got frustrated and failed to execute."
Seward took a quick 3-0 lead in the fourth game, but the Bulldogs rallied back, tying the game at 5 on three serves from Joy Carr, aided by a pair of kills from Rabung.
Nikiski slowly edged ahead, taking a 14-10 lead on a pair of ace serves by Cason.
Carr served the final point for the Bulldogs, won on a kill by Rabung.
Nikiski carried that momentum into the fifth game, taking a 3-0 lead on Ashley Goff's serve courtesy of two kills by Cason, but the Seahawks kept sending the ball back over the net and the Bulldogs began to come unglued.
"I think what happens is because I have five kids playing defense, we tend to pick up a lot more. We tend to pick up a lot of garbage," Hammer said. "That seems to throw the other team off because they don't expect it."
Seward setter Kristy Regis was the beneficiary of the defensive effort, getting 40 assists for the match.
The Nikiski attack stalled while the Seahawks played to a 14-8 lead. The Bulldogs did all they could to stave off match point, but Seward's Breanna Bardarson notched her eighth kill of the match to end it for the Seahawks.
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