The Homer Mariners hadn’t won a state volleyball championship in 30 years, but that didn’t stop them from writing some lofty goals on the whiteboard in the team’s practice room — the team wanted to win the region title, then the state crown.
It all came together for the Mariners on Saturday afternoon at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, battling back in three straight elimination games to defeat Kenai Central in the Class 3A state tournament final and secure the program’s first state crown since 1990.
Homer won the final 3-2 with set scores of 11-25, 25-14, 25-16, 12-25 and 15-8, forcing an “if necessary” set to 30 points, which the Mariners won 30-23.
It capped an unlikely 2019 campaign for Homer that began with few outsiders expecting the Mariners to win it all.
‘“I looked at these girls at the beginning of the season and said this is our year to win state, ladies,” said head coach Stephanie Carroll.
Homer’s road to the title wasn’t easy. The Mariners lost to Nikiski on Thursday night in the state quarterfinals, dropping them into the loser-out bracket. From there, Homer won twice on Friday to stay alive and set up a determined Saturday run.
In eliminating Nikiski 3-1 Saturday morning to reach the afternoon final, then pushing Kenai to five sets plus the 30-point set, the Mariners showcased a gritty perseverance that the Kardinals had a tough time breaking. Kenai was playing in its first state tournament in 14 years, while Homer was back after making it in 2018, and Carroll, a first-year Homer head coach, said that experience played a big role in holding up in pressure-packed moments.
“We talked about how we’d have to work our way through the bracket because there were some tough teams we’d have to face in the end,” Carroll said, before stepping back to gain a larger perspective. “It’s been 30 years since our school won a state championship.”
Kenai will have to wait another year to win its first state title in program history, but odds are in the Kardinals favor. Kenai graduates four seniors but returns a stacked group of juniors and sophomores, including All-Tournament talent in junior blockers Bethany Morris and Abby Every. Kenai head coach Tracie Beck also mentioned a strong sophomore class that includes Jenna Streiff, Erin Koziczkowski and Brooke Ashley.
“I’m proud of the girls because we haven’t been here before,” Beck said. “Homer’s been here before and we haven’t. It’s a whole different arena with the different stage. They had that last year, and we didn’t.”
Beck spent several years coaching the Kardinals when the program competed at the Class 4A level, and endured some losing campaigns with Kenai as one of the smallest schools in the division.
Now in the team’s second year at the 3A level, Beck said Kenai is right in the mix with the state’s best and has the talent to return to the state final next year.
“They are fighters,” she said. “We fought back all tournament … it’s hard to see seniors go, it’s exciting to see them go on their next adventure, but we’ll be back.”
The Mariners’ 2019 season was by no means an indicator that they would be favored to challenge for a state title. The Mariners played competitively with the best 3A teams in the state and even some 4A teams, but still only finished as the No. 3 seed for the region tournament.
But Homer dispelled the notion that they were third-best by winning the conference over Kenai, then set their sights on state.
“We just went in knowing that if we tried our hardest we could do it,” said junior Laura Inama. “We knew in the preseason. We knew before last season ended that we were coming back harder.”
“We had get to state and get better than last year,” added coach Carroll. “But by midseason, we realized after playing some of these tournaments, we can do it. Our goal was always top-three, and then we changed it to winning.”
With the 30-year gap to the most recent state volleyball crown — Carroll said husband, Weston, was a Homer High senior in 1990 — Carroll said the team wanted to snap that drought.
“That was our goal, to put another banner in our gym,” she said. “I’m so proud, these girls have worked so hard.”
Senior Marina Carroll and Inama both came up big for Homer in the final set, combining to score four of the final seven Mariners points. Homer recorded the final seven points to break a 23-all tie with Kenai.
Inama was one of three Homer players to make the All-Tournament team, along with teammates Kelli Bishop and Marina Carroll, and said after last year’s fourth-place finish at state, the Mariners had visions of returning for a swan song.
The final was a rematch of last weekend’s Southcentral Conference title game, which Homer also won 3-0 over Kenai, but things weren’t going Homer’s way early on. The Kardinals tore out of the gates to dominate the opening set, getting kill points from outside hitter Bethany Morris and middle Abby Every to win it 25-11.
But, the Mariners hit the reset button and used a 9-1 run midway through the second set to take a 15-9 lead, which was enough to win and tie things up.
In the third set, a series of service points from Karmyn Gallios fueled a seven-point run for Homer that pushed the lead to 20-11. With the help of a few big stuff blocks from Tonda Smude, the Mariners raced to a 2-1 match lead.
“Just always hyping each other up, being there for your teammates,” Inama said about getting back into the game. “Just knowing you’ve come so far, and you don’t want to come that far just to lose out.”
Marina Carroll said the team showed a lot of composure in the biggest game of the year, composure that came from a team-first mentality.
“When we get too tensed up, we stop and remember just to have fun,” Carroll said. “Play how we play, and not get too nervous and tensed up.”
Kenai rediscovered the life it had with a big fourth set win, scoring the first seven points en route to taking daunting leads of 13-3, 16-4 and 20-8, and an easy win to tie the match and force a fifth set.
In the 15-point fifth set, Homer scored 11 of the first 12 points to crush Kenai, and from there, it was anyone’s game in the if-necessary set.
Kenai got off to a 5-4 lead, but the Mariners continued to fight and scored seven of the next nine points to stake out an 11-7 lead. Kenai came back to tie it on three separate occasions, but couldn’t retake the lead until the Kards got to 22-21, forcing Homer to call timeout.
A ball out of bounds scored a point for Kenai to knot it at 23-all, but it was all Homer after that, starting with a kill point by Inama.
Carroll blasted 15 combined kills in both matches, while Inama had 15. Bishop paced Homer with 39 assists and three blocks, while junior middle Tonda Smude added six kills and three blocks, senior Karmyn Gallios had seven kills and six aces, and senior Kitri Classen chipped in 19 digs.
With a new banner to hang in the Homer gym, coach Carroll praised the chemistry and family atmosphere that the team exhibited, helping them to a season they will never forget.
“They’re a team, they’re a family, and they love each other,” she said. “They don’t worry about who’s the best, we just look for a balanced attack, we look for kills from everybody and passes from everybody. They really play for each other.”
Homer 3, Nikiski 1
Earlier in the day, the Mariners eliminated Nikiski in a loser-out semifinal with scores of 25-18, 25-22, 23-25 and 25-14.
The loss left Nikiski with third place for the tournament. One year after winning it all, head coach Stacey Segura said she conveyed a message of positivity to the team in the postgame locker room.
“I told them to be proud of what they accomplished,” Segura said. “We’re in the top three teams in the state and we’re all coming from the peninsula. It’s tough, you have to reset your mind and forget about your defeat from the night before (to Kenai). I think we were still struggling with that loss.”
America Jeffreys led the Bulldogs defense with 35 digs, while senior Elora Reichert chipped in 21 digs, Jaycee Tauriainen had 17 digs and Kaitlyn Johnson notched 25 assists. Johnson also had five blocks and four aces.
The Nikiski attack was led by Lillian Carstens’ 12 kills and 11 blocks, while Kaycee Bostic had 11 kills and seven blocks.
In finishing third at state, Segura said familiarity between all three Southcentral Conference teams left standing created such a narrow margin for error that the details made all the difference between winning and going home.
“It comes down to who shows up and who makes the least mistakes,” Segura said. “To me, this doesn’t prove that we are the worst team in the (Southcentral) Conference. We’ve been playing Kenai and Homer over and over again, we know each other so well, we know how to defend their hitters and they know how to defend ours. It’s just a matter of the mistakes and errors, and who came to play.
“It’s not a matter of skill or anything like that. The girls played well, but (Homer) just put the ball on the floor better than us.”
Segura praised the senior class, which consisted of Jeffreys, Reichert, Johnson, Bostic, Tika Zimmerman and Madelin Weeks.
The Class 3A All-Tournament team featured eight peninsula players, consisting of Nikiski’s America Jeffreys, Kaitlyn Johnson and Kaycee Bostic, Homer’s Marina Carroll, Kelli Bishop and Laura Inama, and Kenai’s Abby Every and Bethany Morris.