It’s been over half a decade since the Bettye Davis East volleyball team has been a serious contender in the Cook Inlet Conference, much less statewide. But that time appears to have come to an end as the Thunderbirds are off to a phenomenal start to the 2023 regular season.
They have swept each of their first three opponents in three straight sets — most recently defeating Chugiak last week on their home court in front of a lively and supportive crowd.
“The whole school and town are starting to believe that East High can play volleyball,” East volleyball coach Garrett Danner said.
More importantly than their peers and opponents, the East players are themselves beginning to believe times are changing and that they’re changing right along with it.
“We’re feeling really great and are excited for the season,” said junior outside hitter Jirah Boma, who reached double figures in kills against the Mustangs.
Danner tells his players that they’re all one family on and off the court, and his players take it to heart.
“We play like a family and it definitely shows,” defensive specialist Grace Conway said. “There’s a lot of connection in the back row and the front row, lots of covering each other on the court and off the court. It’s just a really close team and that’s the reason we play so well.”
The senior captain is “really proud” of how the team has started this year, with high energy being a key factor. She said the Thunderbirds go into each game knowing they’re good enough to compete and defeat any opponent they face.
“Whether or not we come out winning or losing all the sets, my team is hyped and ready to play,” Conway said. “They’re confident and they believe in each other. There’s a mega-trust in this team.”
Danner, in his second season as head coach, likes to invoke a famous quote from three-time Grand Slam tennis legend Arthur Ashe: “Pressure is a privilege.”
“We’re handling the pressure, we’re believing, and we’re one family,” Danner said. “It’s just been amazing because I am a tough coach. I’m learning and they just allow me to push them and that’s why we’re doing so well. They play together no matter what.”
The Thunderbirds’ ability to trust each other in all facets of the game has been integral to their success this year.
“We used to have a mistake and get down, but now we don’t and it’s just amazing to see,” Danner said.
He believes there is so much parity in the Cook Inlet Conference this year that “anybody can take it.”
“Our conference is going to be tough and it’s going to be a battle, but it’s amazing to see the start we’re off to,” Danner said.
From flying under the radar to flying high
While last year was Danner’s first year at the helm of the program, the upperclassmen on this year’s team have been growing together for a few years through some hard lows and are excited to finally be enjoying some highs.
“We’ve grown together, we’ve bonded, and I think we’re going to come back stronger this year,” Boma said.
The Thunderbirds’ next opponent will be none other than the defending state champion Dimond Lynx on Wednesday at home.
“We can’t get in our heads and we can’t get too high because Dimond is coming up soon, and we have to look out for them and a lot of other schools we respect,” Boma said.
The Lynx are off to a strong start to their title-defending season as well, having completed a pair of three straight-set victories themselves over Eagle River and West, followed by a tight five-set victory over Service on Friday.
“Dimond is really well coached, probably the best coached,” Danner said. “They’re gonna be prepared, they’re going to play smart, and it’ll be an awesome test for us. No matter what happens, we’re going to learn. Failure is just an opportunity to learn, and that’s what we’re gonna do.”