FAIRBANKS — Perseverance, among a few things, put the West Valley High School volleyball team back in the Class 4A state tournament for the fifth year in a row.
The Wolfpack celebrated its fifth straight Mid Alaska Conference title Saturday afternoon on its home court with a five-set victory over Lathrop after West Valley lost the first two sets of the final.
Lathrop grabbed 25-18 and
25-12 wins to open the match.
“In the first two sets, I believed we were really on top, we were pushing it through. We were on a high,” said Malemutes junior setter Abbi Walker, who had 17 assists Saturday.
West Valley, aided by a match-high 15 kills from sophomore outside hitter Nora Troppman, recovered with 25-15, 25-17 and 15-8 decisions to advance to the state tournament on Thursday through Saturday in Wasilla.
“It feels amazing, like a huge weight lifted off of our shoulders,” Wolfpack junior middle hitter Samantha Crawford said of returning to the state tournament.
West Valley, 10-5 overall, had a first-round bye after winning the MAC regular season title with a 4-2 mark. One of those two losses was a five-set defeat against Lathrop in the West Valley gymnasium during the last week of the regular season.
So, Wolfpack head coach Dave Cox wasn’t surprised that Saturday’s contest needed five sets to determine West Valley’s conference tournament championship and its berth in the state tournament at Wasilla’s Curtis Menard Sports Center.
“I was anticipating a tough battle, but I was a little concerned when we started off sluggish,” Cox said. “But I don’t know, that’s my girls — they like to start off slow and come from behind. Perseverance has pretty much been the word of the season.”
Even in the fifth and deciding set Saturday.
Lathrop seized a 6-0 lead, courtesy of West Valley committing four hitting errors, shanking a serve from Malemutes senior Christine Angell and Lathrop freshman middle blocker Ruthie Hebard producing one of her six kills in the two-hour match.
Lathrop coach Joe Donoghue, though, was concerned if his team could sustain the momentum, particularly after a strong start in the first two sets was followed by losses in sets 3 and 4.
The third-seeded Malemutes
(5-12 overall, 2-4 MAC) were coming off of a four-set, first-round victory Friday against the second-seeded North Pole Patriots.
Donoghue, who coached at Eielson last season, inherited a youthful squad this season. Angell, an outside hitter, and senior libero Emily Krier were the only varsity returners from 2011. Angell led Lathrop Saturday with seven kills and Krier contributed 10 digs.
“After the first set, we were really strong, really aggressive and ready to go for it,” Donoghue said. “Then in the third set, I think we started to doubt ourselves. They know they can do it, but we have such a young team.”
“Through that third set, we started playing tight; we were tentative on our swinging and on what we wanted to get done,” Donoghue added. “We got right into the fourth set and it was still right in our heads that we lost that third set.”
West Valley chipped away at Lathrop’s lead in the fifth set, aided by a pair of key blocks from Crawford, five of Lauren Slater’s seven kills for the match, and Courtney Cox serving the last nine points in a row. West Valley earned match point and the tournament title with a Lathrop hitting error.
“We were working really hard,” Slater, a junior outside hitter/defensive specialist, said of the Wolfpack’s rally. “We weren’t really moving in the first parts (sets), but we had to pick it up really nicely. We had less errors, and our sets were a lot better than they had been.”
Crawford finished with nine blocks, with four for points, and Jessie Martellaro and Jessica Rice each had four blocks, with Rice getting points from three of them.
Emma Benjamin served 14 for 14 with an ace, while Cox was 15 for 17 with three aces and Tori Howdeshell was 17 for 18 with two aces.
Cali Hoyos led Lathrop with six aces, Krier chipped in four and Angell and Yvonne Sam had three and two, respectively. Angell and Karli Fitzgerald shared the team’s digs lead with 11, while Hebard also had three solo blocks and Dahnina Matautia added five kills.
Three Wolfpack — Crawford, Slater and sophomore setter Melissa Spaulding — were named to the All-Mid Alaska Conference team following Saturday’s final.
Lathrop was represented by Angell and Hebard, and North Pole was represented by seniors Ashlynn Mulcare (setter/outside hitter) and Hannah Sponseller (outside hitter) and junior middle blocker Kayla Ching.