The Kenai Central volleyball team has played in each of the past four Alaska 3A state championships. But after coming up short in its first two trips in 2019 and 2021, the Kardinals claimed their first title in program history last year and, this season, went from being the hunters to the hunted.
On Saturday, the Kardinals made the most of their opportunity for the second year in a row by repeating as state champions, defeating Valdez 3-1 in four tightly contested sets (25-18, 19-25, 25-12, 25-18).
“We lost four amazing seniors, and when you’re (reigning) state champs, you have a big target on your backs, so you have to keep growing — and they did all season,” Kenai head coach Tracie Beck said.
The win at the Alaska Airlines Center on Saturday capped off another strong season, in which Kenai Central dominated its conference and went undefeated in regular season play against 3A competition.
“I ask them every day to work really hard for me and do a great job chasing after your dream, and they made that dream come true for all of us tonight,” Beck said.
The Kardinals and Buccaneers have faced off in each of the last three state title bouts, so the two teams are accustomed to playing each other with the highest stakes on the line. The Kardinals knew they were in store for a fight.
“They’ve been here with us three years in a row, and we had a feeling we’d see them,” senior outside hitter Emma Beck said. “We just watched film and prepared for them as much as we could, and of course, they compete every time they come out.”
Kenai got out to a big 20-9 lead in the first set. Despite losing the opening frame, Valdez won nine of the final 14 points to close it out and would carry that momentum into the second period. It began as a back-and-forth affair before the Buccaneers went on a 12-2 run and led 18-8 at one point. The Kardinals went on a run of their own but would still fall 25-19 to knot the match up at one set apiece.
“It’s a state championship game, and it ain’t going to be easy, nor should it be easy,” Tracie Beck said. “We just kept our noses to the grindstone and just kept working one point at a time, and that’s what they did.”
She admitted they strayed away from their game plan in the second set, but once they got back to it, the players “stayed focused and stuck to it.”
“It was just putting our minds to it, and getting out of a hole makes it easier, and cheering each other up and holding each other accountable,” senior libero Jaycie Castillo said.
Their message to each other coming off that rough set was “no matter what, just keep fighting.”
“I think we kind of got in our heads a little bit,” Emma Beck said. “The high emotions, the seniors’ last game, and there’s a lot of pressure but we just stuck together.”
The third set opened similar to the second and saw the two teams tied 9-9 before Kenai exploded to the tune of a 10-0 run, outscoring Valdez 16-3 to retake the lead and move closer to successfully defending their title.
“Winning back-to-back is something you could only dream of,” Emma Beck said. “I saw the seniors do it last year, so I really wanted to have that for myself, and I can’t believe we actually accomplished it.”
The Kardinals went on a 6-1 run to open the fourth set, and the Buccaneers responded with a 6-1 run to tie the game and even took the lead for a brief time. After going on a 7-3 run to regain the lead and go up 14-11, Kenai wouldn’t trail again as they completed their mission of repeating as state champions.
“It feels great, and I’m still in shock that we won two years in a row,” Castillo said. “It was a lot of pressure but this team made it a whole lot easier to just enjoy the experience.”
This victory doesn’t just mean that the seniors get to ride off into the sunset. It also marks the end of a once-in-a-lifetime journey that Tracie Beck has been on with her daughter Emma for the past 10 years, ever since Tracie started coaching her at the youth level.
“They’ve been unbelievable memories I’ll never forget,” Tracie Beck said. “When your kid is in the mix, these kids are in your house and you’re not just their teacher and coach. You’re their second parent and you’re guiding them, loving them, and it makes it special.”
While Emma is sad that their time together as player and coach has come to an end, she still considers it “one of God’s truly greatest blessings.”
“It’s been hard to adapt sometimes just because she knows me so well,” Emma Beck said. “I can’t begin to describe how amazing of a coach she is, not just to me but my other teammates.”
3A State Championship Tournament
Kenai Central 3, Nome-Beltz 0 (25-13, 25-8, 25-17)
Valdez 3, Sitka 2 (25-11, 19-25, 25-16, 16-25, 15-6)
Mt. Edgecumbe 3, Ben Eielson 0 (25-21, 25-20, 25-12)
Nikiski 3, Barrow 0 (25-22, 25-17, 25-20)
Kenai Central 3, Valdez 1 (20-25, 25-16, 25-19, 25-14)
Nikiski 3, Mt. Edgecumbe 0 (20-25, 25-15, 25-17, 25-13)
Kenai Central 3, Nikiski 0 (25-21, 25-20, 25-18)
Sitka 3, Nome-Betlz 0 (25-10, 25-18, 25-23)
Barrow 3, Ben Eielson 0 (25-19, 25-22, 25-19)
Sitka 3, Mt. Edgecumbe 0 (25-22, 25-21, 26-24)
Valdez 3, Barrow 0 (25-6, 25-23, 25-10)
Valdez 3, Sitka 1 (25-27, 25-18, 27-25, 25-13)
Valdez 3, Nikiski 1 (22-25, 25-10, 25-23, 25-11)
Kenai Central 3, Valdez 1 (25-18, 19-25, 25-12, 25-18)