GRATUITY— Nome-Beltz senior volleyball player Megan Contreras delivers a well-placed tip against Kotzebue on Saturday morning. The Nanooks opened their home schedule last weekend with a split in their pair of games against the Huskies.

Saturday’s hiccup by Nanook netters yields split with Kotzebue

If the Lady Nanooks 4-3 overall set record could have determined the victor of the volleyball matches last weekend in the Nome-Beltz gym, then the home team would have been declared the champs over visiting Kotzebue. The Nome girls, however, had to settle for a split with the Huskies as they took Friday night's contest 3-0 (25-13, 25-19, 25-21), but lost on Saturday morning 1-3 (22-25, 18-25, 25-11, 18-25).

As the Nanooks started their first home match of the 2016 season, they looked like a different team from the squad that lost both contests to the Huskies the prior weekend in Kotzebue. By jumping out to an early 10-3 first set lead on Friday night, the young Nanooks showed just how much they had improved in one week. When the team’s first server, junior middle hitter Kerry Ahmasuk, came to the line for a second time, her crew led 15-9. After she served four straight points, Nome held a commanding 19-9 cushion. It only took the Nanooks one and a half times around their serving order to secure a decisive 25-13 opening set victory.

Three outstanding kills and a service ace by Nanook sophomore Kastyn Lie helped create a 21-16 margin in the second set. Ahmasuk continued to show why she is placed at the top of the serving order by delivering two tough, late-set points. The team’s 24th point was supplied by senior outside hitter Megan Contreras, whose rocket shot down the line might have been the most impressive kill of the weekend. The Nanooks only other senior, libero Kim Clark, closed out the 25-19 win with a resounding spike from the back row.

Both teams displayed inaccurate serving in the third set, but big kill shots from Contreras and Lie, along with a timely block by junior middle hitter Katherine Scott, helped the Nanooks to another 19-16 lead. The definitive play of the set came from Lie, whose kill shot brought her squad to game point. It would take only two more servers before Ahmasuk’s spike put the game away at 25-21, giving the Nanooks a straight-sets match win.

After witnessing their team play on Friday, it might have been hard for the Nome-Beltz crowd to believe the Nanooks had lost a set 25-5 to the Huskies the previous weekend. Co-captain Contreras was asked about the turnaround. “When we went to Kotzebue we played our very first games of the season, so we had to get our first game jitters out,” she said. “This time (we had) home court advantage and all of our great cheerleaders out there.”

Nanooks head coach Lucas Frost said the play of the match was turned in by sophomore Teri Ruud. The first year varsity player flashed both her defensive and setting skills by hustling hard to save a ball that was headed out on the right side of the court. She turned that into a perfect pass to the opposite side where Lie supplied an important kill shot.

The battle-tested Huskies showed how they earned the 2015 Western Conference title by bouncing back on Saturday morning. They overcame an early 7-12 first set deficit, and took the lead for good when senior Belen Nelson-Loya inflicted a momentum busting ace serve, putting the Huskies up 19-18. They held on to beat Nome 25-22.

Nome kept the second set close past the mid-point, but could neither penetrate Kotzebue’s floor-covering defense nor stop the Huskies’ relentless attack. With a pair of kills by junior Calia Sieh, and a block by junior Cassidy Kramer, the Huskies closed out the set 25-18.

Part of the explanation for the Nanooks getting off to a slow start on Saturday was the number of missed serves. The team was able to reverse that during the third set. Three service aces by Clark, three by Ruud, and solo aces by Contreras and sophomore setter Amber Gray helped Nome temporarily change the match momentum with a 25-11 drubbing.

The Nanooks helped themselves to a 10-7 lead in set four, but a pair of aces by Sieh, and a kill by Kremer gave Kotzebue a 16-14 edge. The next volley provided one of, if not the, longest rallies of the weekend, and might have been the deciding point of the match. Had the Nanooks been able to score off the Belen Nelson-Loya serve they would have been down just 15-16. Instead, the Huskies would move to 17-14, and extend that lead to a 25-18 fourth set, and match deciding, victory.

The Saturday loss brought the Nanooks season record to 3-3, but dropped them to 1-3 in the conference. The Huskies improved to 6-2, and sit on top of the conference with a 4-2 record. Barrow, who split with Kotzebue in week one, sits at 1-1 in the conference. Bethel has yet to play a conference match.

The Huskies, whose passing on Saturday seemed to improve with each set, relied on their experience to get the job done. Their squad lost only two seniors from last year’s team, and the bulk of their roster has received important minutes the past two seasons. After the match, co-captain Cassidy Kramer said, “Today we played more as a team, and we were able to pick ourselves up when we got down. We communicated more.”

“We fixed a lot of the mistakes that we were making yesterday. We really focused on our passing,” added co-captain Calia Sieh. “We made sure to get all of our serves in. Our coach (Garret Danner) reminded us that serves are really important in a game. If you miss a serve it’s just an easy, free point for the other team. We got that into our heads, and really focused when we got to the line to serve.”

While each squad has only two seniors, the Nanooks have had far less varsity court time. Only four of their current 12 varsity players were on 2015’s top squad. Last season's starters — Clark, Ahmasuk and Lie — are all playing new positions, and the team is breaking in a new setter in Gray. They flashed their potential on Friday, and taking the improvement over the last week into account, seem built for a strong couple of years.

After a breakout 2015 campaign as a front row player, co-captain Clark has become the Nanooks new libero, or back row defensive specialist. All weekend she demonstrated the wisdom of her coach’s move with a bevy of slick defensive digs and dives.  Before the season, the team-first oriented senior approached Frost. “I went to him asking if he had a libero yet,” she said. “Kastyn stepped in for me (at front row outside hitter). She does amazing.”

Kotzebue’s junior varsity squad also traveled south for a pair of matches. The junior varsity Nanooks led off Friday night with a 25-18, 25-15, 11-25, 25-21 match victory over the Huskies. Nome followed that up with a 25-17, 18-25, 15-6 abbreviated match win over Kotzebue on Saturday morning.

The Lady Nanooks will travel to Anchorage West High School for a tournament next weekend. The Lady Huskies are off to play at Anchorage Christian Schools.

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