The Nikiski High School volleyball team cruised through the regular season with an undefeated record and won the Southcentral Conference tournament title match in three games.
Now for the hard part.
"We recognize that for the last two years (at the state tournament), No. 1 and No. 2 have come from the Aurora Conference that's Valdez and Cordova so we know we have our work cut out for us," said Nikiski coach Bruce King.
Indeed, Valdez is looking for its fourth straight 3A crown as the state volleyball tournament gets under way today at West High School in Anchorage. Cordova, the Bulldogs' first-round opponent, has been the state runner-up for the past two years.
"We recognize that everybody that shows up there is tough," King said. "We'll do our best to try to make sure we do what we can to control our side of the net. We'll see what happens when we see Cordova.
"We've watched them the last two years take second place in the championship game, so we've had a good look at them."
The rest of the bracket also should look familiar to the Bulldogs as every team in this year's tournament also qualified last year.
The Bulldogs finished sixth at last year's state tournament and will be gunning for their fifth state title. Nikiski last won a title in 2000, the season before Valdez began its run.
This year's Bulldogs squad has been well-rounded. While Nikiski hitters have dominated matches, King said the Bulldogs may have played their best defensive volleyball of the season at last weekend's conference tournament.
"For one thing, we played with a lot passion, and our defense was pretty phenomenal," King said. "Most of the points (championship match opponent) Grace got were either our serving error or our hitting error."
The return of senior middle hitter Krystal Gladden to the lineup gives the Bulldogs an emotional boost after Gladden missed the conference tournament due to injury.
"When she's on the court, we're a more experienced team. There's something about a senior starter that makes everybody better," King said.
Sophomore Sherra Pritchard filled in just fine for the Bulldogs last weekend, and the rest of Nikiski's hitters senior Racheal Gerke, junior Georgie Heaverley and sophomore conference MVP Hannah Thompson have benefited from the setting of junior Stacey Griffel.
Junior Amber Huhndorf has been a key player at her opposite position, and defensive specialists Eirleen Lee and Saharai Thompson, both seniors, and junior Sasha Auldridge have let very few balls touch the floor on the Nikiski side of the net.
While his team knows the challenges that lie ahead, King said the Bulldogs also are confident they can compete with everybody in the bracket.
"All season long, they've never lost confidence on the floor. Even when they were losing, they never lost confidence," King said. "They're not cocky. They just understand that if they go out there and play as well as they can, nobody is going to run them off the court."
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