One of the things proponents of high school sports will tell you is that learning to set goals is one of the best reasons to participate in athletics.
The Nikiski High School volleyball team has learned that lesson well -- fulfilling every one of its goals set during the season.
No. 1 on that list? How about the Alaska School Activities Association State Class 3A Championship -- the title the Bulldogs took for the second time in three years with their five-game victory over Valdez Saturday at West High School in Anchorage.
"At midseason, we had dropped three games, to Soldotna, Skyview and Seward," said Nikiski coach Cherrie Hobart-Verkuilen. "We sat down and had a team meeting. We set a goal that we would go undefeated for the remainder of the season. You want to set your goals a little higher than you think you can achieve, so it gives you something to strive for. These kids exceeded expectations."
"At the beginning of the year, we had to write down a goal," said Nikiski's Jessica Arness. "Mine was to make it to the final game of the state championships.
"I've always wanted to know what this felt like."
Hobart-Verkuilen wasn't sure what to feel when her squad struggled in the first game.
"I recognized the uniforms and the faces, but I didn't recognize the play," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "We were so nervous, we just let Valdez stomp on us."
Skyview's Jenny Carpenter watches a tip go over the net for a point against Palmer during their game in the state championship volleyball tournament at West Anchorage Highschool Saturday morning.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The Bulldogs dropped their first game of the match 15-4, but rallied to win two straight, 15-10 and 15-13.
Valdez roared back in game four, winning 15-4 again to force a game five, but the Bulldogs perform best when backed into a corner.
"Our passing was pretty blah tonight," said Nikiski's Ashlee Gillaspie. "But when we get into tight situations, it's on. It was there at the end when we needed it."
Nikiski took game five 15-10 for the championship.
"Game point -- it all seemed surreal," Hobart-Verkuilen said. "It's the culmination of months of hard work, of practice, of me demanding and them pushing themselves."
Laura Berdahl keyed the Nikiski offense as she has all season, amassing 21 kills and 24 blocks against the Buccaneers. Mindy Cason notched 15 kills and 11 blocks, Jessica Arness struck for 12 kills and April Lofstedt had seven kills.
Defensively, the Bulldogs were able to pull things together when they needed to. Gillaspie came up with 37 digs, Berdahl had 28 digs and Arness came up with 26 digs.
The defense and passing meant setter Laura-Beth Covich was kept plenty busy. Covich was credited with 118 set-assists in the match.
"I'm very tired," Covich said. "The first game, our passing wasn't that good. The whole rest of the match, everybody picked it up."
Berdahl said that one of the keys to Nikiski's turnaround after game one was just a simple matter of talking.
"Our communication was really there," Berdahl said. "When we talk, we seem to get things down a lot better.
"We were a lot more focused on our serve-receive, and on the other things going on on the court."
And while a state championship trophy is starting to become the norm, rather than the exception, the Bulldogs will still have no problem cherishing the hardware they tote back to Nikiski.
"I was on the state team as a sophomore, but I didn't play that much," Covich said. "I was part of the team, but I didn't really feel like I was part of the championship.
"Now I can say I earned it."
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