After 17 seasons, the University of Alaska Fairbanks volleyball team has never earned a spot in the playoffs, and after dropping Thursday’s matchup against Seattle Pacific 25-21, 26-24, 23-25, 25-21, this season looks to be no different.
Prior to Thursday’s game, Alaska was in fifth place in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and, as of Sunday, was ranked 14th in the West Region Division II standings.
With only the top eight teams in the West Region qualifying for the playoffs, Alaska would have needed to win out its final two games against Seattle Pacific and Saint Martin’s and hope for some chaos among the other GNAC teams on the fringe.
Thursday’s loss puts Alaska at 14-13 overall and 11-8 GNAC, all but eliminating the team from playoff contention.
While the playoff dearth drags on, it’s hard not to notice the progress the team has made since head coach Brian Scott took over the program in 2015. His first-year team finished 6-21 overall and 6-14 in the GNAC.
“My freshman year … we just came out with way more losses than wins,” redshirt senior Tatum Upchurch said, referring to the 2016 season when the team went 3-24 overall and 2-18 GNAC.
“Then we changed our attitude, we changed our different positions, we tried everything and we have grown so much from that point.”
The team improved to 12-17 overall and 5-15 GNAC in 2017 and finished 14-13 overall and 12-8 GNAC last season, the program’s first winning season since 2008. The outside hitter will be playing her final game as a Nanook on Saturday.
“I’m just really excited for the years to come and to watch my girls play. ... Playoffs next year, for sure.”
Attack errors plagued the Nanooks on Thursday. Alaska made 32 over the four sets compared to Seattle Pacific’s 25.
Alaska led set one 20-15 before Maddie Donahoe went back to serve for the Falcons, sending Seattle Pacific (13-14 overall, 10-9 GNAC) on a 9-0 run. The Nanooks defended one set point before the Falcons took the set 25-21.
Erin Gould led Seattle Pacific with 41/2 points in set one, followed by Delany Dunham with 31/2. Lindsey Lambert put down four blocks in the set —three assisted and one solo — and made none assists.
“We didn’t start out playing the way I would say we usually do,” UAF outside hitter Lahra Weber said. Weber led the team with 16 kills Thursday.
The score of the second set was closer, but the same trends continued. Alaska made 11 and seven attack errors in the first two sets, respectively.
“Frustrated” was the word Scott and Upchurch used to describe their emotions after set two.
“We had kind of used everybody on the bench at that point, and we just couldn’t find the right combination,” Scott said. “It didn’t seem to matter what changes we were making, we just were not getting a ball to go in bounds.”
The Falcons point machine pair of Maddie Batiste and Gabby Oddo swung for five kills a piece in the set. Middle blocker Delaney Dunham also tallied two kills in the set. Dunham finished the day with 12 kills, second for the Falcons behind Oddo’s 17.
“The one that I thought actually hurt us the most was (Dunham). We couldn’t wrap our brains around where she was trying to swing … or the angle of her approach,” Scott said.
“I think if we could have slowed her down just a little bit, then we probably would have been OK.”
Alaska held an 18-11 lead in the third set. Scott called a timeout at 18-16 after, the Falcons started to crawl back. Alaska held on after the time out and played its first set point at 24-22.
After an Oddo kill held off the first set point, Cate Whiting set up a dig from Upchurch to Lahra Weber, who put it down to win the set.
Even though Alaska played its best volleyball in the fourth set — the team made only three attack errors and combined for a game-best .308 hitting percentage — the Falcons still took the set and the win.
Silence fell over the Alaska Airlines Court in the middle of the set when Kim Wong went down with an injury, which Scott said after the game looks not to be serious.
“She might be a little bit sore tomorrow but hopefully she will be back,” he said.
Entering Thursday’s game, the senior middle blocker led the team with 85 blocks this season and was second with 212 kills. Although the senior struggled offensively against the Falcons, the injury seemed to twist the knife in what was already a hard fought game for the Nanooks.
AveRee Reynolds was the only other Nanook to join Weber with double digit kills. The junior outside hitter contributed 14. Junior setter Cate Whiting recorded a double-double with 43 assists and 12 digs.
The Nanooks conclude their season at home Saturday with a conference matchup against Saint Martin’s. Saint Martin’s is 1-26 overall and 1-17 GNAC this season.
Saturday is also Senior Day, as it will be the last time Upchurch, Wong and senior right side Mica Chen take to the Alaska Airlines Court.
“I can’t even express how thankful I am for this team and for all of the support,” Upchurch said.
“It stinks because I’ve played volleyball for 10 years now and that is coming to an end — watch out women’s league, here I come — but I’m excited to start my career and move on and support the girls next year.”
The first serve is scheduled for 2 p.m.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 459-7530. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMsports.