The Bettye Davis East volleyball team has already had one of the program’s best seasons in nearly a decade. They’re coming off winning their first regional title in nearly two decades — but they aren’t satisfied yet.
“They have gotten better all year,” East coach Garrett Danner said. “It ain’t easy winning in 4A in the Anchorage conference. These girls took second in the regular season and first at regions, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
After snapping a 17-year region championship drought, the Thunderbirds are now on a mission to win their first state title in almost three decades during this week’s 4A state tournament, which will take place from Thursday through Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The last time East finished on top was back in 1995. Since then, they’ve finished as runner-ups just three times, most recently in 2015 when they fell to Dimond. Their previous trips to the state finals resulted in a loss to South in 2006 and a loss to Service in 2000.
In the eyes of the players, being the first team to reach the pinnacle of competition in 28 years would legitimize the resurgent program as a force to be reckoned with.
“It would mean a great deal and prove that we’re not just another program and that we’re as good as Dimond, South and Wasilla,” junior outside hitter Jirah Boma said. “It would mean that East is a program that deserves respect when you talk about it.”
When the Thunderbirds step on the court, they’re playing not just for one another but also for their community and school pride.
“We’re not only winning for ourselves; we’re trying to win for our families and our school because we have to represent,” senior outside hitter Mariaha Afuvai said. “This is my whole family, and we have to work hard for them.”
Now in his second year on the job, Danner is impressed with how some of his players who had little to no varsity experience heading into this season have composed themselves and performed.
“We set the stage last year, they didn’t quit on me when it was tough, they stuck it out and this is the reward,” he said.
After a hot start to the season in which they started 9-0, the team had the confidence that they could win any game after regularly coming up short last year.
The Thunderbirds’ first loss didn’t come until late September, when they were swept on road by Chugiak in a shocking upset. East ended up finishing second in the Cook Inlet Conference after experiencing more bumps in the road down the later stretch of the regular season.
“When we started losing, we were in a bad situation, but I think that regions really brought out the energy we had at the beginning of the season,” Boma said. “It reminded us that we could win any game as long as we try and give 100% regardless of the opposing team.”
She admitted that the Thunderbirds doubted themselves and were even a little scared heading into regions, but after emerging victorious against some top competition, their confidence is soaring.
“This definitely boosted us and opened our eyes to make us realize that we can win even when we think we can’t,” Boma said.
East will open the state tournament at 10 a.m. Thursday with an interconference matchup against Soldotna.
On a similar quest, the undefeated Warriors hope history repeats itself
The top non-CIC team at the state tournament this year is Wasilla, which is rolling in with a perfect 18-0 record in non-tournament play and relishing the opportunity to go up against elite teams from the strongest division in the state.
“I think they’re just excited to compete at the highest level,” Wasilla coach Katie Oxspring said. “That’s what we’re excited about, and I think they’re confident in their ability as a team.”
The last time a team from outside the CIC won a state championship was over two decades ago — Juneau-Douglas in 2002 — and the only time the Warriors ever won it all was the year prior, in 2001. That’s about five years before any of the seniors on this year’s team were even born.
Oxspring said it would be “hugely massive” and meaningful to the community if they were to finish on top come Saturday night.
“It would be a lot of hard work from a lot of girls for a lot of years,” she said.
Oxspring moved to Alaska from Arizona but has a friend who was on the Warriors’ last state title-winning team.
“She said it was just a special year because they also went undefeated that year,” she said. “It’s really cool now to be in that same position where it’s a possibility. It would be so cool for the program.”
Her goal is to have Wasilla become a perennial contender, and winning a championship would go a long way toward establishing that standard.
Some of Wasilla’s top contributors and key leaders this year include senior middle hitter Rylee Pitney, who has been a “steady force all year long,” and junior outside/middle hitter Allison Devine, who is “the pulse of our team, so everything kind of goes off of her and her energy.”
“The reality of our team is that every person has a role, every single person owns that role, and every single person contributes to the success of our team,” Oxspring said. “It’s easy to see some standouts here or there, but we wouldn’t be anywhere close to what we’d be if it weren’t for every single person that’s been on the team from the beginning.”
Throughout the season, Wasilla had played several five-set matches and faced Dimond and Service. Oxspring said she believes that prepared the team well for the Northern Lights Conference regional tournament, where the Warriors shook off some nerves and stayed focused as they powered their way to a title with three straight sweeps.
They try not to focus as much on staying undefeated as they do on trying to perform well against higher levels of competition, she said.
They won’t have to wait long to face one of the CIC’s best teams at the state tournament: They’ll play against defending champion Dimond in the opening round at 1:30 p.m Thursday.
“I have even caught myself saying, ‘Oh no, it’s the reigning state champs,’ but the reality is that if we’re going to do well, I want to be going against the hardest teams,” Oxspring said. “I’m excited that the top eight teams in the state are really great teams, and they’re all very evenly matched.”
She spoke with her team Monday and had a pretty blunt message for them.
“I don’t really care who we’re playing or when we’re playing them,” Oxspring said. “We just want to fight our way to the end, hopefully.”
2023 ASAA state volleyball championship
Thursday at Alaska Airlines Center
Bettye Davis East Anchorage (CIC No. 1) v. Soldotna (NLC No. 2) at 10 a.m.
West Valley (MAC No. 1) v. Service (CIC No. 3) at 11:45 a.m.
Wasilla (NLC No. 1) v. Dimond (CIC No. 2) at 1:30 p.m.
Thunder Mountain (SEC No. 1) v. South (At Large) at 3:15 p.m.
Winner of Bettye Davis East/Soldotna v. winner of West Valley/Service at 5:15 p.m.
Winner of Wasilla/Dimond v. winner of Thunder Mountain/South at 7 p.m.
Valdez (AC No. 1) v. Sitka (At Large) at 10 a.m.
Kenai Central (SCC No. 1) v. Nome-Beltz (WC No. 2) at 11:45 a.m.
Mount Edgecumbe (SEC No. 1) v. Ben Eielson (AC No. 2) at 1:30 p.m.
Barrow (WC No. 1) v. Nikiski (SCC No. 2) at 3:15 p.m.
Winner of Valdez/Sitka v. winner of Kenai Central/Nome-Beltz at 5:15 p.m.
Winner of Mount Edgecumbe/Ben Eielson v. winner of Barrow/Nikiski at 7 p.m.