Even though it has a relatively new roster compared to the one that captured the Division I state title last year, the 2023 Dimond volleyball team battled back and took control in its season-opening win over Chugiak on Tuesday night like a group that had been playing together for a while.
The Lynx split the first two sets with the formidable Mustangs, rallying in the first and coming up just short in the second but then never trailed once in the third or fourth or fifth.
“We’re all very new as a team together, so getting that connection to push each other to pursue what our potential is really helpful,” Dimond senior hitter Brooklyn Williams said. “Just being there for everyone is such an important quality. Team chemistry is what is really valuable, and that’s what I appreciate about this team this year. We’re all new with each other but we’re also close already.”
The 3-1 (25-23, 24-26, 25-22, 25-20) win for Dimond was the second time the two teams had matched up in a matter of days. Dimond took a 25-21 win over the weekend as well.
“We knew it was gonna be a battle because we saw them this (past) weekend at the (Chugiak Invite) tournament,” Dimond coach Kim Lauwers said. “I think we match up very well. We respect them a lot so it was great to get the win at home.”
Williams is one the few returners from last year’s team and had the game-winning kill to end the fourth set. She led the Lynx with 13 kills.
“That was awesome,” she said. “I was really scared because there was a lot of noise ... and they were catching back up and I just went for it. It felt really good in the end.”
The Lynx nearly trailed by double figures in the first set but were able to claw their way back from the brink to win it 25-23.
“We just had to kind of focus on our side of the net and not worry about the score and try to correct some mistakes,” Lauwers said. “Chugiak is a very, very good team, and when that was happening, we just had to kind of work on our unforced errors.”
The second set began as a back-and-forth affair. Chugiak led by as many as five at one point before Dimond tried to pull off yet another rally. The Lynx came very close to winning a second straight set and even tied it 24-24 before the Mustangs pulled ahead for the last time to win 26-24.
“Keeping our heads up and just realizing we’re not done yet, and we still have more sets to go is really what helped us push through,” Williams said.
The Lynx were able to make some offensive adjustments that led to them being able to take command of the game from the third set on.
Less continuity has resulted in less pressure
Dimond graduated 10 seniors from last year’s state championship-winning squad including all three of their all-state tournament team selections in Delaney Fagerstrom, Jolee Kelzenberg, and Kailei Muehlenkamp.
“We have a brand new team and they’re just amazing to work with,” Lauwers said. “They know we’re learning stuff every day. They’re all coachable and we just know we have to get better every day.”
While being the reigning state champion often comes with an inevitable target on the team’s collective back, Williams admits that defending the title is actually “less nerve-wracking than last year” when they were chasing it.
“I encourage my teammates to not be in a position I was in last year where I was very nervous all the time and just try to keep in the headspace that you don’t need to be scared when you go up there,” she said. “Just be yourself and be what you can be. They’re all great players if they just put their mind to it.”
Other contenders to keep an eye on this year
Both Lauwers and Williams see a lot of parity not just within the CIC but around the state this year.
In addition to the Mustangs, Lauwers pointed to Wasilla, South Anchorage, Bettye Davis East and Service as being formidable opponents as well.
“There’s so many great teams around the state, and we saw that this (past) weekend,” Lauwers said. “I think any team can beat anybody this year. It’s pretty challenging and you’re not going to be able to sleep on anybody.”
The Wasilla Warriors finished first in last weekend’s Chugiak Invitational, made it to the semifinals in the state last year and are returning some key players including two-sport star Layla Hayes.
The East Thunderbirds opened their 2023 campaign with a commanding win over Service on Tuesday night when they swept the Cougars in three straight sets on the road. A year removed from being back-to-back state champions themselves, South Anchorage beat Bartlett in four sets to open what they hope will be a resurgent season.