UAF volleyball

UAF's Kim Wong in action during the first set of the GNAC women's volleyball match agains Seattle Pacific Wednesday evening, November 21, 2019 at the Patty Center. Eric Engman/News-Miner

The three seniors for the University of Alaska Fairbanks volleyball team knew Saturday was coming.

The Great Northwest Athletic Conference home contest against the Saint Martin’s Saints was the last time competing in a Nanooks uniform for middle blocker Kim Wong, right-side hitter Mica Chen and outside hitter Tatum Upchurch. 

They also knew they wanted to help the Nanooks finish the 2019 season on a high note Saturday afternoon on the Alaska Airlines Court in the UAF Patty Center.

The Nanooks rallied for a 22-25, 25-10, 25-5, 25-15 victory, as UAF recorded its second-straight winning season overall and in conference play during Brian Scott’s five years as head coach of the NCAA Division II program.

“These three are a huge impact on this program,” Scott said of Wong, Chen and Upchurch during a tears-filled post-match media conference.

The Nanooks, who finished in fifth place in the 11-team conference with a 15-13 overall and 12-8 GNAC record, got a match-high four service aces from outside hitter Lahra Weber, who also provided team bests of 13 kills and 12 digs. Setter and fellow junior Cate Whiting distributed a match-high 43 assists, served two aces and had four total blocks.

Sophomore libero Makena Overbey produced 11 digs Saturday for UAF, which last year had the same conference record and a 14-13 overall mark. 

Wong, who’s from Spokane, Washington, said she woke up Saturday morning trying not to think about the match against the Saints, of Lacey, Washington, being last time she’d play for the Nanooks.

“When I got into the gym (Patty Center), it was impossible not to think about it,” said Wong, who contributed 10 kills and a match-best seven total blocks Saturday.

“I got up there (Patty Center) before everyone else just to take it all in for a second. When people started coming in, I was like ‘This is it. These are my teammates.’

“It was difficult, and it’s still difficult,” Wong said amid tears. “I’m going to miss everyone. This is the school that welcomed me the best.

“When I was freshman, they were the ones that showed me that it was OK to be new person. It was OK because they were going to take care of you.”

Chen, who’s from Shanghai, was a newcomer last year after she transferred to UAF from Indian Hills Community College, of Ottumwa, Iowa. 

Her last match as a Nanook was highlighted by eight digs and a service ace, which came during her serving string of seven straight points in the second set.

“I was just thinking that this is my last game (for UAF) and I have to give my best to help my team,” Chen said. “I just feel like these two years passed so quickly and I’m so sad.”

She added, “I spent only two years at this school and played volleyball for coach (Scott) and spent time with my teammates. If it was possible, I’d want to play volleyball forever here.”

Injuries had interrupted Upchurch’s career as a Nanooks volleyball player. One of her injuries was a concussion last season.

The native of Anchorage was determined to be on the Alaska Airlines Court on Saturday.

“My mentality going into this season was I don’t care what’s going on with my body, I’m going to play every game, I’m going to play every game to the best of my abilities for me and my team,” said Upchurch, who aided the season-ending win with eight digs.

“These four years have meant everything to me.”

Blocking meant a lot for the Nanooks on Saturday. UAF compiled 27 total blocks (three solo and 24 assisted) to the Saint Martin’s two, which were both solo.

“It came down to our front-row mentality,” said Wong, who had two solo and five assisted blocks. “I honestly think that once we finally said, ‘Hey, we’re going to fix it. We fix it now or we’re going to make it work.’

“I have to give it to Saint Martin’s. They were shooting (spiking) the ball so fast to the outside. It was the most difficult thing I’ve probably had to block, like how fast that ball was going.”

The Saints ended a tough season with match highs of 15 kills from junior outside hitter Mackenzie Carter and 14 digs from Kylie Alos, a sophomore defensive specialist and libero.

Sophomore setter Alyssa Bartlett compiled 32 assists for the Saints, who finished in last place in the GNAC at 1-28 overall and 1-19 conference.

Head coach Jon Killingbeck lauded a youthful Saints squad, which this season included 10 freshmen, six sophomores and one senior among 19 players.

“I’m super proud of this team,” Killingbeck said after the match. “It’s been a rough year record-wise, but they never stopped trying, they never stopped trying to get better every day.”

Contact News-Miner sports editor Danny Martin at 459-7586. Follow him on Twitter:@newsminersports.

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