The Nikiski volleyball team faced a pair of obstacles Thursday in the first round of the Class 3A state volleyball tournament at West High School in Anchorage.
The first was Delta Junction. The second was waking up for the 8 a.m. game.
The Bulldogs, who are looking for their second state title in three years, defeated Delta, the 1997 state champs, 15-7, 15-2, 15-17 and 15-2 to advance to the tournament semifinals.
Nikiski will face Craig today at 7:15 p.m. at West for a berth in Saturday's state championship game. Craig knocked off defending state champion Grace Thursday.
Bulldogs coach Cherrie Hobart-Verkuilen said her team is looking forward to that 7:15 p.m. start time after Thursday's early game, which began almost an hour before the sun came up.
"We got off to a really slow start, but I'm really grateful to get the win, especially with an 8 a.m. start," Hobart-Verkuilen said.
Nikiski actually cruised to victories in the first two games by healthy margins on the scoreboard, but Hobart-Verkuilen said nothing felt easy from where she was sitting.
"Delta is one of those teams with a relentless style," the coach said. "They never like to let the ball hit the floor. I'd think one of our hits was down, and they'd dig it and the point would go on."
Despite Delta's tough defense, Nikiski's players were still able to amass some nice numbers on offense. Mindy Cason had 11 kills and four blocks, Laura Berdahl had nine kills and 11 blocks and Laura-Beth Covich had 64 assists. Ashley Goff led Nikiski on defense with 32 digs.
Hobart-Verkuilen said the Bulldogs were sparked by the play of Cason, who just two weeks ago had an emergency appendectomy.
"She's really coming on," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "Instead of struggling when Laura Berdahl goes to the back row, we have someone up there still swinging and putting the ball down."
Cason and Berdahl will continue to be important today, because Hobart-Verkuilen said Craig runs most of its attack through a powerful middle hitter.
"That should help us on defense," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "We won't have to move our best blockers. Their best hitter will be coming right at them."
Hobart-Verkuilen also said Craig is undefeated this year so that could work for Nikiski. Two years ago, Nikiski finished undefeated and Hobart-Verkuilen knows about burdensome it can be waiting for that first loss.
"When you get down in a match, you're always thinking, 'Could this be the one?' she said. "It gets tough."
However, the coach said her team shouldn't worry about what is going on in Craig's mind.
"I'm not so much concerned about what they can do to us as I am concerned about what we can do to ourselves," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "We are capable of passing ourselves right out of the game."
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