Story last updated at 2:31 p.m. Thursday, November 7, 2002

Spikers head to region tourney on winning note
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: sports

  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
Senior middle hitter Chelsea Ward makes a solo block during the Homer High School volleyball team's sweep of visiting Soldotna on Saturday. The Mariners finished the season by winning three of their final four matches.  
The Homer High School volleyball team went 4-1 during a whirlwind final week of regular conference play, giving them second place in Region III's South Division and the second seed in their bracket as the region tournament kicks off today at Skyview.

The Mariners started a rain-check trip to the Matanuska Valley on Oct. 30 with a match that featured a powerhouse duel between Mariner Chelsea Ward and Emily Sakis of Palmer, two of the state's top middle hitters. While Ward notched more kills than Sakis, 20 to 19, Palmer walked away with a 15-9, 12-15, 15-12, 15-6 win in the match.

The two big middle hitters repeatedly found themselves toe to toe at the net, with one or the other trying to hit through or block the other.

"Chelsea outplayed Emily in terms of middle against middle," said Homer head coach Beth Trowbridge. "But defensively we weren't there, and we weren't taking advantage of key serves."

On Thursday, the Mariners picked up their effort and dispatched host Colony 15-7, 15-13, 15-13, in a match that allowed Trowbridge to work some of her younger players into the rotation, a practice she said will have to continue if the Mariners are to finish in the top three at regions and advance to state.

Ward contributed 17 kills, nine digs and three solo blocks, while Holly McCune added 16 kills and 12 digs. Setter Sara Thompson put up 30 assists and nine digs.

By the time the Mariners returned to Homer for Friday's senior night match against Wasilla, Trowbridge had some different looks in her rotations. Among other changes, junior varsity call-up Nami Sato, a Japanese exchange student, occasionally found herself in the setter role.

After a slow start, the Mariners rallied for a 4-15, 15-12, 15-7, 6-15, 15-9 win over the Warriors.

"We said, 'Oh no! This is not happening on our senior night,'" Ana Gronseth said of her team's reaction to a first-game loss. "So we pumped up the intensity. It was awesome."

The Mariner seniors left their mark on the stat book. Ward led the way with 22 kills, 19 digs and a whopping nine solo blocks. McCune was the defensive backboard, posting 26 digs. Thompson had 36 assists, while Tabitha Johnson served up a pair of aces and closed out the match with five straight service points.

The Mariners finished the regular season with a sweep of Soldotna, 15-5, 15-6, 15-3, behind a stellar service game from Thompson.

Thompson whacked 10 aces and finished off the Stars with 11 straight service points in game three.

The new-look Mariners also got solid play from senior Gronseth at the outside hitter position, where she contributed four kills. Sato continued to adjust to her new roles on the varsity team.

The Japanese exchange student, who never misses an opportunity to smile and laugh, came into varsity match play without the benefit of a team practice and without full command of the English language.

"The language barrier was the biggest thing," Trowbridge said. "But she's a good passer and reads the ball really well."

Trowbridge said Sato's spectacular round-house serve and positive attitude were having a good influence on the team. She also credited her players for rallying around Sato as she learns the new system.

"Everything (had been) kind of running like a machine," said Gronseth. "When Nami came in it changed the whole dynamic. It brought us more into the game."

That is the mind-set Trowbridge said she hopes to see from her team when it faces Kodiak in opening-round action at the Region III tourney today at 1 p.m.

The Mariners bring a 7-3 regular season record into the tourney, while Palmer comes in at 9-1, with its only loss coming to Skyview, which also finished the season 9-1.

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer