Harpooners claim 7th Mix-Six state title
ANCHORAGE — The Point Hope Harpooners didn't bring the biggest players on the court, or even the hardest hitter, when they faced off against Matthew Tua'au and the Gustavus Foxes on Saturday evening in the championship game of the 2017 ASAA Mix-Six State Volleyball Championships. What they did have, however, was the better team.
Anchored by the play of sophomore Jalen Cannon and juniors Nichole Hank and Kaliksun Kirk, the Harpooners rallied from an early deficit to upend Gustavus in five games, and capped a historic season with the team's seventh Mix-Six state title since 2001. Playing in front of a standing-room-only crowd in the Dimond High School gymnasium, Point Hope claimed a thrilling 3-2 victory.
With the come-from-behind victory, the Harpooners finished their season with a perfect 36-0 mark and, more importantly, ended a 6-year title drought.
"They played incredible," said Point Hope coach Jan Vincent, who guided the team to its first title since 2010. "This team has been together forever. They didn't worry about getting down or anything. They just kept playing hard and it paid off. I couldn't be happier for them."
The Foxes didn't make the victory easy. Led by the play of Tua'au - an imposing 6-foot-5 senior who had powered Gustavus to a 16-1 mark this season - and 6-foot-3 freshman Blaine Shatswell, the Foxes withstood an early run by Abraham Kowunna and the Harpooners in Game 1 to put Point Hope on its heels. Kowunna, Terza Oviok and Kirk each served up key points early on that enabled the Harpooners to race to a 6-5 lead. Hank, sparked by hard spiked from Kowunna and Cannon, followed with three straight service points that upped Point Hope's lead to 9-5.
Gustavus roared back, however. After fighting its way to a 21-21 tie, Gustavus sophomore Faith Wagner served up three straight points, before Tua'au sealed the Foxes' 25-22 win in Game 1 with a thundering spike.
Tua'au's success at overpowering the Harpooners at the net — with hard spikes and soft lobs — proved to be the Foxes' undoing.
After watching Tua'au in Game 1, Point Hope assistant coach Jazmine Kirk said she and Vincent decided to take advantage of the Foxes' reliance on their main hitter.
"After watching the first match, we got together and were like, 'Alright, we need to rework how we are going to play this team,'" said Kirk. "Based on what we saw, they revolved around their main hitter. With that in mind, we told our two tallest players to come up and block every time, and to have our other players ready in coverage for his tips."
"He (Tua'au) is an all-around player, so we knew we had to do something different," she said. "Also, about halfway through the first match, we noticed they couldn't get to our hits, so we just told them to keep hitting, keep hitting."
The defensive change brought immediate results for the Harpooners. Point Hope beat out an 8-4 start to Game 2, and breezed to a 25-14 victory that knotted the game count at 1-1.
The Harpooners continued to roll in Game 3. After the Foxes built a 12-9 lead, Kowunna helped the team rally and tie the game at 13-13. Oviok took over from there. The PHHS junior served up several clutch points, and staked the Harpooners to a 15-13 lead.
Point Hope didn't look back from there. The Harpooners reeled off a 9-7 run over the final few minutes of the game, before Kaliksun Kirk offered up a hard serve that handcuffed the Gustavus defense and salted away a 25-21 win.
Vincent said the key to the team's ability to rally from a 0-1 deficit was simple. They never got down on themselves.
"After the first game, I told them to bring a good attitude and not bring each other down. Just to have fun."
Hank, who was awarded the Player of the Game honors, agreed.
"We just stayed positive," she said. "We just tried to stay with our coverage and communicate the whole game."
Gustavus, which had defeated Tanalian in the semifinals on Friday to earn a berth in the finals, fought its way back in Game 4. The Foxes rode a 4-0 start to the frame to a 25-21 win that forced a decisive Game 5.
That turned out to be Gustavus' last run.
Kowunna and Oviok helped the Harpooners get off to a quick start in Game 5. The two combined to serve up five of the first six points in the frame, and powered Point Hope to a 5-1 cushion. Moments later, Kirk tacked on four more service points and boosted the PHHS lead to 9-3.
The Harpooners closed out the contest with a 6-3 run over the final minutes and salted away the team's fourth state title in the past nine years.
"I'm really proud of my team," said Hank. "We never got down on ourselves. We are such a young team and we still managed to win. This team has been so amazing."
The Harpooners earned their way into the championship game with a rousing 3-0 sweep of Shishmaref in the semifinals on Friday. Point Hope won the matchup of the two Western Alaska powers, 25-15, 25-17, 25-19.
The Harpooners, who had advanced to the championship bracket as the No. 2 seed from Thursday's Pool D play, opened their run to the title with a quarterfinal win over Noatak on Friday morning.
In pool play, Point Hope posted a 1-1 mark and finished behind Nikolaevsk.
Noatak, sparked by the play of Levi Mills, rebounded from their first-round loss to Point Hope in grand fashion. The defending Northwest Arctic Conference champion, dispatched Alakanuk in the consolation semifinals, and moved into the fourth-place game to face off against Nikolaevsk, which had suffered a first-round loss to Gustavus.
In the fourth-place game, Nikolaevsk came out on top, 25-22, 25-17, 25-16.