Coming into the 2003 season, not many people were looking at the Nikiski Bulldogs as one of the top teams in the state. But with a strong showing at the state tournament this weekend at West High School in Anchorage, Nikiski showed it can definitely run with the big dogs.
Nikiski finished 1-2 at the tournament, good enough to earn sixth place and a lot of confidence to build on for next season.
"Every one of these players made tremendous advancements this year," said Nikiski head coach Bruce King following his team's 3-1 loss to Grace Christian in the fourth-place match Saturday.
King said he was extremely proud of the way his young team came together as the season progressed.
"This team really started to gel in the last three weeks of the season," King said of the Bulldogs, who finished in third place at last week's District 3 tourney to earn a spot at state. "And I had the best seat in the house."
Nikiski got to the fourth-place match Saturday by bouncing back from a first-round loss to eventual champion Valdez with a 3-0 thrashing of the Craig Panthers Friday.
Against Craig, Nikiski used a mixture of solid defense and precise passing to overwhelm a Craig team that only had three upperclassmen all juniors on its roster.
After falling behind 5-4 early, the Bulldogs came on strong, scoring 14 of the next 17 points to take an 18-8 lead and firm control of the game.
King said it was his team's ability to pass the ball that made the difference against the Panthers.
"If we can pass, we can run an offense," said King.
Leading the passing attack was sophomore setter Stacey Griffel, who racked up 19 assists. With Griffel setting the stage, Nikiski was able to take advantage of its height advantage to pound the ball past Craig's defenders, as Nikiski's main offensive weapons middle hitters Hannah Thompson and Krystal Gladden and outside hitter Racheal Gerke were able to put away a steady barrage of powerful kills.
Freshman Thompson led the way with nine kills, while Gerke added eight and Gladden had six. After the game, the unassuming Thompson gave credit to her teammates for setting her up time and again to make the big plays.
"That's just how we play our game," said Thompson, whose strong play throughout the tournament earned her a spot on the all-tourney team.
Nikiski's Hannah Thompson (6) gets ready to spike the ball past Grace Christian's Katlyn Perry during the fourth-place game at the state Class 3A volleyball championships Saturday, Nov. 15, 2003, in Anchorage, Alaska. Grace Christian beat Nikiski.
AP Photo/Al Grillo
Gladden said the Bulldogs had been working hard on spreading the ball around the floor, and that work showed in Friday's win.
"We played the way we can," she said. "We just really focused on our passing a lot."
In game two, it was more of the same, as Nikiski used solid defensive play to set up its offense. The Bulldogs dropped the first four points of the game before senior Anjani Solonen got things rolling with a clean spike that began a run of five consecutive Nikiski points.
Defensively, Nikiski's Georgie Heaverley and Sasha Auldridge kept the Bulldogs alive with a number of tough digs to keep the ball in play, each finishing with a team-high 11 in the match.
Although Craig kept the game close until midway though, the Bulldogs were able to pull out a relatively easy 25-16 win to take a 2-0 lead in the match.
The third game was even easier, as Nikiski jumped out to a big 5-0 lead that it would never relinquish. The Bulldogs went on to win game three 25-11 to earn a spot in Saturday's fourth-place match against Grace Christian.
In that match, Nikiski showed just how far it has come this season, winning the first game before dropping the next three to fall to the powerful Grizzlies, which won all of their regular season games, including a decisive 3-0 win at Nikiski earlier this year.
"They walked in our gym and blew us out," King said of the loss earlier in the year.
Despite again getting solid play from Heaverley, who led Nikiski with 12 kills and 13 digs, Nikiski had no answer for the Grace duo of Ally Erving, who led all players with 15 kills, and Shayla Moll, who finished with 13 kills and 6 blocks.
"I thought the match was well-played," said King. "The opponent was just a lot better."
After the loss, Heaverley said Nikiski learned a lot from its state tourney experience.
"It's definitely been a lot of fun," said the sophomore, who along with the rest of her Bulldogs teammates was making her first appearance at the tournament.
Fellow sophomore Griffel said the state experience was a bit overwhelming for Nikiski at first, but that playing at the state's highest level was certainly a success for the Bulldogs.
"We were all kind of nervous at first," said Griffel, who again led Nikiski in assists with 23. "But we only lose two seniors, so hopefully we'll be back."
King agreed that the sixth-place finish is something the Bulldogs can use to build on next season.
"This is the best thing that could happen to these players," said King, who said the best part of the tournament was watching his team's enthusiasm build as it took the court against the state's best. "They'll remember that feeling."
Seward takes fifth at state tournament
The peninsula's other entrant in the state 3A volleyball tournament, the Seward Seahawks, found out the hard way just how good Alaska's District 1 teams have been this season.
After winning its opening round game against District 4 Craig, Seward dropped its next two games to District 1 opponents Valdez and Monroe Catholic to finish in fifth place at state.
The District 3 champion Seahawks had no trouble with Craig on Thursday, but then ran into a Valdez team that has won three straight state 3A titles, losing 3-0 to the Buccaneers on Friday.
Saturday's third-place match against Monroe was much closer, with Seward coming back from a big deficit in game three to stay alive after dropping the first two games 25-17 and 25-14.
Down 21-15, it looked as if Seward's season was on the verge of coming to an end. But a furious rally by the scrappy Seahawks led to a 25-22 Seward win and forced a fourth game.
After the loss, Seward head coach Angela Hammer said she was proud of the way her team refused to give in against Monroe.
"It wasn't for a lack of effort," Hammer said.
Seward was equally resilient in the fourth game, fighting back from 20-15 down to get as close as 23-22 before two consecutive Monroe points closed out the match.
The Seahawks were led by senior Lisa Steinbrecher, who had 10 kills and 20 digs and was named to the all-tourney team.
Seward also got solid play from Krista Boulden (18 assists, four blocks), Kristin Beck (nine kills), Lara Loomis (16 digs, five blocks) and Amy Reierson (13 assists).
Hammer said Steinbrecher exemplified Seward's solid work ethic and never-say-die attitude.
"She's just a real hard worker," Hammer said. "She loves to play."
Despite losing its last two games, Hammer said the Seahawks had nothing to complain about after their fifth-place finish.
"Of course it's not what we wanted," said Hammer, whose Seahawks were among the favorites entering the tourney. "But just getting here, to me, was a big accomplishment for this team."
She said more important than the result was the fact that her squad not only played hard, but that the Seahawks genuinely enjoyed playing together as a team.
"What's neat is they're all really good friends," Hammer said. "These girls really had to come together to make it as far as they did."
State 3A All-tournament team: Britni Birchell, Petersburg; Lisa Steinbrecher, Seward; Brooke Wegner, Valdez; Ally Erving, Grace; Lindsay Adams, Grace; Carolyn Bird, Monroe; Katie Blackburn, Valdez; Amanda Kelly, Cordova; Shayla Moll, Grace; Hannah Thompson, Nikiski; Whitney Connor, Valdez; Leah Stepovich, Monroe.
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