Unalakleet Wolfpack runners-up at state volleyball tourney

The Unalakleet coed volleyball squad appeared headed for an early exit from the 2016 ASAA Mixed-Six Volleyball State Championships at Dimond High School in Anchorage last weekend as they started play by losing four of their first six sets.

The Wolfpack’s stumble out of the gate included dropping the first two sets in the opening round of bracket play. Things were so rough early on for Unalakleet that they lost one set by 19 points.

Then, behind the leadership of all-tournament hitter junior Arctic Ivanoff and all-tournament defensive standout senior Taylor Harvey, Unalakleet reeled off five straight set victories, winning six of seven during the stretch. The torrid streak helped propel them into the championship match where they lost to a red-hot Noatak Lynx team in straight sets.

The state tournament for the Mixed-Six division is run differently from all other volleyball classifications as 12 teams are invited instead of eight. Thursday’s action was dedicated to round robin pool play where two of three teams in each group advanced to a traditional bracket format tournament.

Pinpointing the locations of all 2016 attendees would be a challenge for any geography bee student. The list included Unalakleet, Akhoik (Kodiak Island ESSS), Gustavus, Alakanuk, Tanalian (Port Allsworth), Hoonah, Atmautluak, Nikolaevsk, Noatak, Point Hope, Gambell and Aniak.

By the luck of the draw, Unalakleet was matched up in pool play against the two strongest teams from last year’s championship match. They survived their triad as the second seed by splitting sets with Tanalian, the 2015 runners-up, 23-25, 25-15, and then splitting with the 2015 champions from Gustavus 24-26, 25-20.

Gustavus advanced as the first seed in pool A by beating Tanalian two sets to none. Also moving on to the bracket of eight was Alakanuk, Point Hope, Kodiak, Noatak, Nikolaevsk and Gambell.

Unalakleet’s Bering Strait School District rivals, the Gambell Qughsatkut, were waiting for the Wolfpack in the first round of bracket play on Friday. Gambell beat Unalakleet soundly the week before in the district championships, and appeared to be reprising that effort as they steamrolled Unalakleet 25-6 in the opening set. However, after winning the second set 25-22, the Qughsatkut dropped the next three, (22-25, 11-25, 7-15) and lost the match.

In the semi-final round, Unalakleet met up with a Nikolaevsk squad that took fourth, second and fourth the last three state events. The Wolfpack used experience gained from 13 straight trips to the state tournament to dispatch the Kenai Peninsula team 25-20, 25-22, 22-25, 25-23, and advance to the finals.

Saturday’s championship bout was a rematch of the 2012 finals between Unalakleet and Noatak, which was won by the Wolfpack. The Lynx earned their spot at the top of the bracket by exiting Pool B as the first seed. They downed both Hoonah and Nikolaevsk by the same 2-0 score. Noatak then took care of business against Point Hope 3-2, and beat Gustavus 3-1 in their semi-final.

Noatak established the tempo early in the first championship set. Three service aces by junior Joel Onalik helped the Lynx to a 10-4 advantage over the Wolfpack. With his team sitting solidly in the lead, Olanik delivered two kills to increase the margin to 20-9. Noatak used a pair of aces from junior Levi Mills and another ace by Olanik to close out the first set 25-14.

Unalakleet continued to have no answer for Olanik early on in the second set. The Lynx star provided two kills and an ace to put Noatak up 10-3. A kill by Ivanoff brought Unalakleet to within four at 15-11, but four missed serves by the Wolfpack kept them from making a significant mid-set move.

The Lynx led the second set 24-18 and were looking to close out when the Wolfpack won a long rally. Two key defensive plays by senior David Johnson helped Unalakleet get the score to 24-20. Senior Jayden Wilson then helped continue the furious Wolfpack comeback by delivering three straight aces. Senior Shawn Mixsooke added a kill and suddenly the score was tied 24-24. The Lynx, however, would use another Unalakleet serving miscue, and a well- placed tip by Olanik, to eek out a 28-26 second set victory.

An outstanding defensive play by Wilson kept the Wolfpack within one in the early going of the final set. But again Olanik came to the aid of his team, this time with two kills and a well placed tipped ball, to bring the score to 18-13. Lynx senior Nettie Olanik served two late aces to seal the match and help Noatak win its first Mixed-Six Championship with a 25-14 final set victory.

Gambell concluded its first trip to the state volleyball tournament by gaining a spot in the fourth-place match of the consolation bracket against Point Hope on Saturday. They arrived there by beating both Aniak and Alakanuk 2-0 in pool play. After their first round loss to Unalakleet, the Qughsatkut beat Kodiak 3-2.

Gambell jumped out to an early 1-0 lead in their showdown with Point Hope by winning the first set 25-23. Point Hope stormed back, and Gambell looked to be letting the match slip away with 25-12 and 25-21 second and third set losses.

Using a kill from their all-tournament senior Wallace Ungwiluk, Gambell battled back in the fourth set to tie the score at 21. Sophomore Earl Annogiyuk provided the winning sparks down the stretch with a solid block, a kill shot and a well-placed tip as the Qughsatkut forced a deciding game with a 25-21 fourth-set win.

On consecutive plays in the fifth set, Point Hope scored a solid hit off an overpass and received a resounding block from sophomore Kaliksun Kirk to achieve their first match point at 14-11. A huge defensive save by Gambell senior Danielle Apassingok and a perfectly placed tip by Ungwiluk knotted the score at 14 apiece. Despite another big save from Apassingok, Point Hope held on to win 16-14. The loss gave the Qughsatkut sixth place.

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