Defending Class 3A state volleyball champions the Nikiski Bulldogs started off their season strong by winning the Homer Jamboree last weekend, but the host Mariners didn’t let them get there without a fight.
The Mariners, who took second place at the early-season, round-robin style tournament, beat the Bulldogs 2-0 in pool play earlier in the day with game scores of 22-20 and 21-12. They fell short of the tourney title by losing the final match to Nikiski 25-17, 22-25 and 10-15.
The Mariners are led this year by Stephanie Carroll, who has been an assistant coach for the last three years. This is the fourth new head coach in as many years for the team, and Carroll said that, as someone who has spent years with these players, she plans to bring consistency to the program.
“I’ve been with these girls all the way, so I really wanted to be there for them this year,” she said. “Fortunately I just have to shuffle them around, because they’ve put the work in and I’ve got a lot of talent that I’m working with.”
With a senior- and junior-heavy team (there’s just one sophomore this year) headed up by Carroll’s daughter, Marina, a top hitter and point scorer, Carroll feels the team is poised for a successful season in the Southcentral Conference.
“I feel like we’re going to be contenders in our conference this year,” Carroll said. “You know, we’re coming off that fourth place at state.”
With the only recent departures being setter Brianna Hetrick and fellow graduating senior Kelsea Scott, the team is still stocked with experienced players.
“We’ve kind of shuffled our lineup, but I’ve got girls who are three-year varsity players and I feel like we’re going to be right in the mix this year,” Carroll said. “… We’ve moved (Marina) to the outside, so she’s going to be getting a lot of kills out there. Tonda (Smude), our middle, has really improved on her blocking. We’ve got strong, strong serving.”
As for Nikiski, the team lost a few starting seniors that head coach Stacey Segura said were versatile and could play well around the court. The Bulldogs didn’t glide into first place at the Jamboree, going 3-3 for matches in pool play, as did the Soldotna Stars. Nikiski landed in the final games against Homer because they had beaten the Stars 2-0 in pool play earlier in the day.
“I think we’re looking really good. I think that the girls came in trying to be what they were last year, and we have to relearn how to play together,” Segura said. “I mean, we have to do it every year regardless if we’re the state champions or last place. So, I think it was just really fun to see them get better here in a way where we struggled to work together, and then by the end we had to figure out how to do it, and they forced themselves to.”
The Stars took third overall at the Jamboree after defeating the Kenai Kardinals in a final match with game scores of 25-20 and 25-16. The Mariners went 4-2 in pool play at the tournament. The Bulldogs and the Stars went 3-3 and Kenai finished 2-4 in pool play.
The Mariners will host Kodiak High School tonight at 6:30 p.m. in the Alice Witte Gymnasium.
“We play for each other, and play to win together,” Carroll said.