The digs, kills and lengthy rallies that punctuated Tuesday night’s Southcentral Conference clash at Kenai Central High School seemed to perfectly encapsulate the type of tight competition that the region is preparing for this season.
The Homer Mariners walked away with a 3-1 conference victory over the Kenai Kardinals, winning with scores of 25-18, 19-25, 25-20 and 25-20, but the game action was tight and tense throughout, leading both head coaches to agree that the battle for region seeding in October will be just as close.
“The southern part of our conference is strong,” said Homer coach Stephanie Carroll. “It’ll be us and Kenai and Nikiski fighting for that region title.”
The Kardinals (0-1 overall) are fresh off a competitive loss to Class 4A opponent Soldotna last Saturday at the Shayna Pritchard Memorial Tournament in Nikiski. Earlier in the day, Kenai defeated reigning 3A state champions Nikiski in the tourney semifinals.
Kenai head coach Tracie Beck said two weeks ago at the Homer Jamboree, the Kardinals were nowhere near the level of competition they displayed Saturday and Tuesday.
“I’m impressed with the girls’ growth, although we still have a lot of work to do,” Beck said. “You see moments of brilliance, and that gives you hope that the hard work is paying off.”
Homer (2-0 overall), meanwhile, is coming off a weekend victory at the North/South Tournament in Seward, giving Tuesday’s match a little more hype.
“We’re both coming off weekends where we did really well, and they’re very well-coached, so we were going to have to play hard,” Carroll. “Especially in this gym. The crowd is really hostile.”
Both teams had their moments in Tuesday’s match, highlighted by stellar defense that led to long rallies, while still running into mistakes caused by inexperience or pressure.
“These Tuesday games are hard,” Carroll said. “The early-in-the-week games are hard to get the energy up.”
Homer used an eight-point run break open the first set and take a 14-6 lead that allowed the Mariners to cruise to the win.
The final three sets weren’t nearly as lopsided. Homer got off to an 8-2 start in the second set thanks to tough serving by Marina Carroll, who served up three aces during the run, but a determined middle blocking effort by Kenai helped close the gap back up.
Kenai rallied back to take a 15-13 lead, and a pair of kill points by Bethany Morris and Baileigh Skorupa forced the Mariners to call timeout with Kenai leading 20-16 and on a seven-point run. A handful of shots into the netting kept Homer from staging a comeback and the Kardinals tied it up at a set apiece on a kill point by Erin Koziczkowski.
In the third set, Kenai kept the vibes moving with a 4-1 start. More power from Morris from the outside hitting position later pushed the lead to 18-16, but once again, mistakes cropped up and the Kards dropped a few points to allow Homer back in.
“There’s a whole different mentality when you’re playing to win, or you’re playing not to lose,” Beck explained. “So you make errors you don’t typically make. We didn’t make those same errors Saturday against SoHi.”
Tied at 20-all, the Mariners scored the last five points to win it and take a 2-1 match lead. The set ended with an ace by Laura Inama and a tip kill by Kelli Bishop.
Neither team took control of the fourth set until late. With Kenai leading 18-17, the Mariners suddenly clicked off six straight points to grab a 23-18 lead, forcing the Kards to take timeout. It proved to be enough as Homer won two of the final four points to secure the match.
Carroll led the Homer offense with eight kills and five aces and Inama added three aces. The defense was led by Karmyn Gallios with eight digs (Gallios also had five kills) and Bishop, Sela Wiesser and libero Kitri Classen with seven digs each.