With a match against Grace Christian on Saturday left in the regular season, then the Southcentral Conference tournament and possibly state to follow, it's the time of year where the Nikiski volleyball team must figure out how to defeat quality opponents.
Wednesday's 25-15, 20-25, 26-24 and 25-8 nonconference loss to Bethel at Nikiski gave the Bulldogs a perfect lesson in what to do and what not to do in the coming weeks.
In the first three games, the Bulldogs (6-8 overall) went back and forth with the Warriors (10-2 overall). In the fourth game, Nikiski found out what happens during a mental lapse against a team like Bethel, which split with Kodiak this season and lost a five-game match to powerful Anchorage Christian Schools. The Bulldogs fell behind in that fourth game 11-0 and never came close to catching up.
The Warriors feature the attacking duo of Genevieve Maczynski (13 kills, two aces, 17 digs, three blocks) and Alaina Ctibor (13 kills, 12 digs). On Wednesday, the Bulldogs didn't have that kind of firepower on the attack as Shalene Peek led with seven kills and Rachel Bogard had four kills.
"We knew they were going to be a quality team, and we played with them for three games," Nikiski coach Sharon Thompson said. "In the fourth game, we made some mental errors and we saw what a good team will do with those.
"It was a good learning experience, with Grace coming on Saturday and conference after that."
In the first three games, Thompson said her squad was able to stay with the Warriors by moving them around and making them block and dig as many balls as possible. When all that moving around forced Bethel into errors, Nikiski had its good spurts.
"For us, it's all about limiting mistakes," Bethel coach Roberta Aloysius said.
In the first game, Bethel grabbed a 5-0 lead off four service points from captain Natalie Hanson, who had 36 assists. Nikiski cut the gap to 12-10 on five service points from Peek, but Bethel immediately opened up a 16-10 cushion off three service points from Allison McIntyre and was never threatened after that.
The second game was closer. When the score was at 20-19 in favor of the Bulldogs, neither team had held a lead of more than four points. Bethel made some mistakes at the end and Nikiski capitalized.
The Warriors missed a serve and had a hitting error to fall behind 22-19, then a bad pass gave Hillary Bogard an easy kill, and Rachel Romans hammered home a kill, for a 24-19 lead. After a Nikiski hitting error, the Bulldogs won when Bethel committed a hitting error.
The third game was another tight one. The Warriors jumped out to a 7-1 lead on five service points from Ctibor, but the Bulldogs came back to take an 8-7 advantage on six service points from Sasha Ralston.
Bethel eventually held a 24-20 lead before some of the cleanest volleyball of the night ensued. Nikiski came back to tie at 24 on kills from Danielle Bower, Sam Rorrison and Shalene Peek, and a Bethel hitting error. The Warriors responded with a booming kill from Maczynski and a smooth kill from Ctibor to take the game.
In the fourth game, Nikiski started with three hitting errors and a failed return of serve, and Bethel seized the momentum and never gave it back.
"The girls finally decided to show up in the fourth game," Aloysius said.
Hillary Bogard had 12 assists for Nikiski, while Tasha Thompson had six blocks and Shalene Peek had five blocks. For Bethel, Rhonda Jensen had 13 digs and Ashley Fairbanks had 12 digs.
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