FAIRBANKS — North Pole High School finally got tired of playing third fiddle to West Valley and Lathrop in volleyball — and on Friday made a statement at the Mid Alaska Conference Tournament.
“I don’t remember a time that North Pole has beaten Lathrop, so this is an amazing accomplishment,” senior outside hitter Kayla Rivers said after North Pole’s dramatic 21-25, 28-26, 27-25, 16-25, 15-9 victory at West Valley High School.
Added dominant junior middle blocker Meghan McKinnell: “We had to overcome a lot and come together to show everybody ... who always thought we sucked, that we could do it.”
First-year coach Tina Ferringer said North Pole’s breakthrough centered around believing they could win.
“The mentality is they’ve lost for so long that they’re afraid to win,” Ferringer said. “So more than anything, it’s our mental ability to know that we’re good enough to beat these teams.”
Today at 4 p.m. in the MAC Tournament championship, North Pole will be an even bigger underdog against West Valley, which swept Houston on Friday and has not lost in the conference this season. The winner earns a berth to next weekend’s state championship tournament in Anchorage.
North Pole used a team effort on Friday, led by Rivers and McKinnell on offense, libero Shelby Wagner on serving and defense and sophomore setter Samm Wood with expert passing.
Lathrop, however, had its chances. The Malemutes failed to convert a pair of set points in the second game and were unable to complete a late rally in the third.
Trailing 24-22 in the second, North Pole avoided a two-game deficit after Lathrop’s Brittany Glaeser served a ball into the net and Wagner followed with an ace to tie it at 24-24.
The Patriots squared the match on their third set point when Glaeser could not handle a serve from Allyse Eide.
“It was important for us because if we would have been down (2-0) it would have been hard to pull it back up,” Rivers said.
The third game was equally tense. Lathrop fought off three set points to forge a 24-24 tie, only to see the 6-foot McKinnell come up with a solo block on Glaeser four points later to put North Pole ahead 2-1 in sets.
Lathrop regrouped to win the fourth and then grabbed a 5-2 advantage in the fifth and deciding game. But North Pole went on an 11-3 run — on a combination of its own kills and several Lathrop errors — to regain control. A double block from McKinnell and Wood followed by a service winner from Wagner ended the two-hour match and set off a Patriots celebration.
Lathrop senior libero and hitter Paige Sinicrope said the Malemutes were out of sync in part because middle hitter Alisha Allen sat out due to mononucleosis and that forced multiple lineup changes.
“We definitely didn’t underestimate (North Pole). They do have some really great hitters and blockers,” Sinicrope said. “I think a lot of it was just the change in rotation and the absence of a really big weapon on our team.”
Lathrop was led by Sinicrope (25 digs), Glaeser (13 kills and five aces), Eileen Keller (12 kills) and Haley Kennedy (30 assists), but was plagued by 65 ball-handling errors.
The nightcap went as expected, with West Valley subbing liberally and still dominating Houston 25-14, 25-13, 25-16.
Sophomore Julia Mackey paced the attack with nine kills and three blocks while freshman Hannah Mattson had five booming kills. Seniors Jenna Slater and Jaime Sawchuk added four kills apiece.
“Everyone came to win, which is what we need (against North Pole),” senior setter Danielle Meeks said.
With a ticket to the state tournament up for grabs, the Patriots are determined to give West Valley a battle.
“We’re gonna come out fighting,” North Pole’s Rivers said.