Considering one is the defending Class 3A state champion and the other took the Class 4A state champion to five games last year at the state tournament, it would make sense if the pressure were on Nikiski and Skyview today when the state volleyball tournament begins at West High School in Anchorage.
But both Nikiski coach Cherrie Hobart-Verkuilen and Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid said the pressure is off their teams heading into the state tournament.
The Bulldogs, who open up play in the Class 3A tournament today with a 4:45 p.m. match against Craig, took their second state title in three years last season.
But the emergence this season of Valdez, which lost to Nikiski in the state title game last year in five games, has lifted a lot of eyes off Nikiski. Valdez turned a lot of heads this year when it won the Dimond-Service Invitational, which included the top Class 4A teams in the state.
If both Nikiski and Valdez win their first-round games, the two teams will meet in the semifinals Friday.
"They've gotten a lot of attention this year for winning Dimond-Service and getting that big article in the Anchorage paper," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "They're the team I'm sure everyone notices. That's fine with me."
The Bulldogs have definitely had a few bumps in the road to state this year, but Saturday they took the District 3/3A tournament with a three-game sweep of Seward.
"It's been a tough season," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "It's been difficult emotionally and physically."
Nikiski had to replace four of the six starters from last year's title team, with first team all-district players Ashley Goff and April Lofstedt the only two returning starters.
Despite the new lineup, Nikiski got off to a fast start this year before hitting a lull. The Bulldogs got it going again, only to be slowed by players missing games due to sickness and family commitments.
However, the district tournament and the sweep of Seward showed the Bulldogs are back playing good ball again.
"The tournament was the first time we had played together as a team in a couple of weeks," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "It was fun to watch the kids play together again."
The Bulldogs do have some state experience, as all but three players were on the title team last year.
Hobart-Verkuilen said the return of setter Liz Golia, who had been sick, has helped immensely. Golia did a good job setting up Mindy Cason, the district's most valuable player, and outside hitters Joy Carr and Lofstedt at the district tournament.
Nikiski also received solid play from senior Kassie Thomson on the serve-receive at the tournament.
While many consider Valdez the tournament favorite, Skyview coach Kupferschmid, who has taken on both Valdez and Nikiski this year, wouldn't count the Bulldogs out.
"I think Cherrie is one of the best coaches around and I think she'll have her team prepared," Kupferschmid said. "Nikiski has that tradition going for them.
"I'll tell you what. Valdez had better not overlook Nikiski."
While Valdez has served to take some of the pressure off Nikiski, Service has played the same role for Skyview.
The Panthers open up tournament play today with a 6:30 p.m. match against the Cougars, the defending state champion. Service won its fourth straight Region IV championship Saturday and has a record of 20-5.
Kupferschmid said she is looking forward to the tournament because her team will be able to play without pressure. At the Region III tournament, Skyview, as the Southern Division's top seed, had some pressure to finish at least third and earn a state berth.
Now that the Panthers have the state berth, the pressure's off.
"I think the pressure will be on Service," Kupferschmid said. "They have all the tradition.
"Yes, we are the underdog, but I think that will relax us."
The coach is happy that her team goes into the match knowing it can play with the Cougars after the five-game loss last year at state.
"We were there last year, so we won't be happy just making it to the state tournament this year," Kupferschmid said. "I think last year, we really didn't step on the floor until the third set. I think playing the name 'Service' made the kids so nervous.
"This year? No way."
The big difference between this year's and last year's Skyview team is experience. Last year, Skyview's lack of experience showed in its inability to win five-game matches. This year, more often than not, the Panthers have come out on top in five-game matches.
Kupferschmid said that's been due to the steadying influence of seniors Shari Isaak, Christine Hayes, Jessika Truesdell, Stacia Pfaffe, Angel Hollers, Laura Tarbox and Brandi Aldridge.
"I hope my seniors have a big match against Service," Kupferschmid said. "They've put in the time and they've led us on the court, as well as off (the court), all season."
Skyview also will need solid sets from Christina Colvin, the Southern Division Player of the Year, and strong hitting from Jenny Carpenter.
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