Story last updated at 2:53 p.m. Thursday, December 19, 2002

Sweet Perfection
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: sports

  Photo courtesy of Vivian Rojas-Mickelson
Members of the state-champion Susan B. English School volleyball team have more than a few grins as they grip their hardware following a five-game win in the state championship match at Bartlett High in Anchorage.  
Where do you start with this year's Susan B. English School volleyball team?

How about with the first state title in Sea Otters' team history? Impressive.

What about Seldovia's perfect 28-0 season? Unbelievable.

Or the fact that the team started the season with the bare minimum of six players? Incredible.

No matter how you look at this team, the Sea Otters' success stems from that rare combination of elements that all teams dream of -- talent, heart, cohesion and a little bit of good fortune.

Seldovia's run through last weekend's Class 1-2-3A West state volleyball tournament at Bartlett High in Anchorage is a perfect example.

After sweeping their way through the Region II tournament behind the MVP play of setter Paula Fernandes, the Sea Otters came into state as the top seed and waltzed into the semifinals after a 15-6, 15-4, 15-6 win over Klawock of Prince of Wales Island in Southeast.

All the drive of an undefeated season was behind the Sea Otters.

"In that first game, we were fired up," outside hitter/setter Ashley Darien said.

The semifinal match was a different sort of affair all together, pitting Seldovia against defending champion Koliganek, a small western Alaska village north of Dillingham. Koliganek's tenacious defense was the toughest test thus far for the Sea Otters, who had only lost three games all season.

Every time middle hitters Emelia Dillon or Jaime Geagel unleashed a spike, the Husky defenders would dig it out.

The match lasted more than two hours, and when it was all said and done, the Otters took a 17-15, 10-15, 15-9, 5-15,15-8 win and moved into the finals.

"The Huskies really gave my girls a workout. We're not used to having the ball come back after so many of our spikes," said coach Ila Dillon. "That was a huge win for us."

In the championship game, the Sea Otters started a little apprehensively but ultimately showed their grittiness as they rallied from 2-0 deficit in games to beat Hoonah 6-15, 10-15, 15-9, 15-10, 15-7.

"The first two games we played terrible," Geagel said. "It was embarrassing.

"There was no excuse. So we had a pep talk and came out and won three."

Geagel said that as the match moved along, the team's confidence began to return. Putting the first two games out of their minds, the Sea Otters found their stroke.

Backed by a stellar defensive effort from the backcourt and fed by Fernandes's sets, Dillon and Geagel provided the offense the team had come to expect, combining for 46 kills.

Assistant coach Tracie Beck said that the support that Dillon and Geagel got was the difference, as it had been all year.

"The other girls stepped it up with consistent serving and great digs," Beck said. "They did a lot of the things that don't get noticed."

Ila Dillon noticed, giving due credit to the serving of Ruby Mason and Emily Rojas-Mickelson, as well as to the fearless defense of Darien, who she said "gave one for the team on her defensive digs."

After two straight years of falling short in the state tourney -- Seldovia finished third in 2000 and sixth in 2001 -- the Sea Otters had run the table for the school's first team state title in any sport.

"It doesn't get much better than that," Geagel said.

Amelia Dillon, Geagel and Fernandes were all named to the state all-tournament team.

Beck said there was a tremendous sense of relief that came with the win, especially after fighting through an undefeated season.

"It was a huge relief because they put so much pressure on themselves to win," Beck said.

Rojas-Mickelson agreed and added that it was also a nice change to end the tournament on a winning note.

The Sea Otters' season picked up steam right from the start, as they grabbed early-season wins in Homer and Ninilchik, despite having only six players on their roster. After adding three other supporting players, Seldovia continued to steamroll through its opponents.

While it was nice to have the players on the bench "it was almost better to have only six, because there was more room in the van," Rojas-Mickelson joked.

The accomplishments of this team did not go unnoticed in Seldovia, where Mayor Jerry Willard and other boosters rolled out the red carpet for the girls by showing up at the airport with congratulatory banners.

Each of the 10 girls on the team received a gift certificate to the Tide Pool Restaurant.

Back on the south side of the bay, memories of a perfect season seemed certain to offer a particularly cheerful cast to the holiday season.

Dillon said in an e-mail that watching her team battle back to beat Hoonah was a fitting end to a magical season.

"This team has not been one to give up," she said. "We have been down 0-10 and 2-12 in games and just keep fighting for the win.

"They are an incredible group of girls."

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer