With just four members back from last season's team that placed fourth in the state, Nikiski will be hard-pressed to duplicate that success.
Yet with only four teams competing in Saturday's Southcentral Conference tournament at Heritage Christian Schools, the top three qualifying for state, the third-seeded Bulldogs have a good shot of making it five consecutive trips to Anchorage.
"There's not a team in our region that we cannot beat," said first-year coach Sharon Thompson. "Grace, they're a good team, but they're beatable."
Grace, awarded the top seed after romping through conference play at 6-0, is probably beatable. After all, they did lose twice this season.
Neither of those losses, however, came against Nikiski (6-9, 2-4 in league).
Nor did either of second-seeded ACS's two conference losses.
"We've had mental breakdowns during both matches. We've been able to play with them and then we have a letdown. We have to make sure that we take the adrenaline we have of playing a close game and take that into the next game instead of having that mental drop," Thompson said of the Lions, who the Bulldogs will play at 2 p.m. Saturday. "They're a team that gets rattled and makes mistakes and we can capitalize on those mistakes. We're tough defensively."
With a variety of players who can score points, Nikiski prides itself on defense, something vital to the success of any volleyball team.
"That's our forte is our defense," she said. "We knew that we were going to have to really work on the defense."
Offense isn't that much of a problem either.
Thompson acknowledged junior Shalene Peek is the Bulldogs most powerful hitter, but said that a plethora of other players can contribute heavily on any given night.
"No one knows where our hitting is going to come from. We've had different hitters all the time," she explained. "That's, I guess, one good thing. No one knows exactly who's going to be one of our big, strong hitters.
"Key into Shalene," Thompson added, "but we'll be able to get other hitters going as well."
Should Nikiski fall to ACS and Seward, which plays Grace at noon on Saturday, also lose, the Bulldogs and Seahawks will square off at 5 p.m. with a state tournament berth on the line. A win would put Nikiski in the championship game at 7 p.m.
"I don't second guess any of the teams that are in there. They're all dangerous teams," Thompson said. "With Grace and ACS there, they're obviously powerful, but Seward, you can't put them on the back burner either. Seward's always had a tradition of good volleyball."
The Seahawks (1-12, 0-6) are looking to return to state for the first time since 2004, when they tied for seventh after placing fifth and fourth the two years prior to that.
Nikiski, on the other hand, placed third, fourth twice and sixth in their last four trips to the big dance and return only Rachel Bogard, Danielle Bower, Tasha Thompson and Peek from last year's fourth-place squad.
"They're some girls, they want a state title real bad and they know they're going to have to work for it pretty heavy duty," Thompson said. "They know it's not going to be an easy task. It's going to be a good quest. Our first step is this weekend."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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