The West High volleyball team recognizes the hurdle it has to clear in order to be viewed as the best in the state of Alaska.
This season, they’ve been the only team from the Last Frontier to pose a serious challenge to Dimond High, which has yet to lose to an in-state opponent. The Lynx are undefeated in both conference play and against teams from the 49th state overall.
“Every year we play them, that’s the big matchup of the CIC conference and that’s our favorite game to play,” junior Matagi ‘Gani’ Maugaotega said.
The Eagles pushed Dimond to the brink when they took them to five sets on Aug. 26, a match in which Dimond eked by with a 3-2 victory.
Despite the loss, West feels it provided a measuring stick and the Eagles are using the matchup as motivation to reach future goals.
“We lost by two or three each set and when we won, we won by five or more points,” West coach Jaige Gerig said. “I think it was a good eye-opener to where next time we play them, (our players) want to put these other matches and all of that practice back into trying to beat them.”
The two teams are ranked first and second in the Cook Inlet Conference standings with a big rematch set to be played at Dimond on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. The Eagles have rattled off six straight regular season non-tournament wins since their loss to the Lynx and can’t wait for another shot at the top-ranked team.
“We lost to them on our home court so we just want to go over there and win on their home court,” Maugaotega said.
The Eagles have an overall record of 22-5-2 with a conference record of 6-1 with their lone CIC loss being to Dimond.
Gerig said the team is so excited for their rematch with the Lynx and would rather it not go the distance like their first match did.
“Their goal is obviously to come out on top with that (win), but I think they want to do it in less amount of sets,” Gerig said. “They don’t want to go to that full five, we want to take them in four if we can.”
Keys to success
The Eagles are returning the vast majority of their team that placed third at last year’s state tournament. This season, there are only three newcomers to varsity, one of which is Maugaotega’s younger sister, sophomore setter Maryann.
“I wasn’t playing really good against Eagle River and she definitely helped me carry the team,” Maugaotega said. “She had better assists than me last game and I wasn’t mad about it. I was happy for her.”
She thinks it’s cool that they are playing together on varsity. Last year, she played with the family’s oldest sister, Filipina, and they share a similar dynamic.
“It was the same thing with her,” Maugaotega said. “We had to take turns carrying the team and the load of being the offensive leader.”
She admitted that even though they’re on the same team, they still compete with each other during games and practices.
“At practice we’re competing with each other but when it’s a game, we know that we’re on the same team and we just want to win,” Maugaotega said.
The Maugaotegas have a fourth sister that will be an incoming freshman next year that will likely get a chance to play with at least one or both of her older sisters for a year or two.
Gerig describes Matagi Maugaotega as their quarterback on offense from her setter position.
“She runs as many plays as she can and her younger sister is following in those footsteps,” she said. “They are just a huge dynamic duo that are able to keep the offense running even if we’re out of system, which is something that a lot of programs strive for.”
They also rely a lot on the offensive contributions of senior middle hitter Salvation Elia.
“She’s a very strong player both on top of the net and reaching for that defense,” Gerig said.
Another key to their recent hot streak has been their maturity and acceptance of feedback from one another.
“Our season is going pretty well right now,” Maugaotega said. “It was bumpy at first but our team finally learned how to take some criticism from each other and that everybody on this side of the net is our teammate. If we tell each other how to fix something, it’s not insult you, its to help our whole team get better.”
The Eagles have bigger long-term goals than just beating the Lynx on Friday. They believe that they’re equipped with talent and experience to contend for a state title.
“We could probably go first with the way we’re playing and if we keep practicing the way we are, we’ll be right there at the top,” senior Xainalyn Paul said.
The core of last year’s team that finished second in regions has stayed intact for the most part.
“They just kept that speed going and kept that skill level to where we are still being really competitive with our opponents,” Gerig said. “They have a really good dynamic to where they’re keeping that cadence going on so I expect it to be really strong come the end of season.”
The team has a lot of consistent strikers and Gerig believes that there aren’t any weak links on this year’s team, which makes them dangerous as a collective.
“All of the kids on this team are good and they’re great together,” Gerig said. “When you put these good players together, the team becomes great and that’s what you want. I have a lot of high hopes that we’ll qualify for state and make it to the championship game.”
Maugaotega believes that this year’s team is as talented as any around the state.
“I think if we really give 110% in practice and focus on everything we’re supposed to do, we could have a good chance to win state,” she said.