By CRAIG GIAMMONA
Courtesy Daily Sitka Sentinel
The Mt. Edgecumbe Lady Braves volleyball team captured the second state title in school history Nov. 12 with a straight sets win over defending state champion Grace Christian.
The Lady Braves have dominated 3A Southeast volleyball for the better part of seven seasons, winning six Region V titles. They’ve had their share of state success in recent years too, taking second in 2005, 2007 and 2010, with back-to-back fourth-place finishes in 2008 and 2009. But amid all the victories, including a 58-game conference winning streak and a 79-4 record against 3A Southeast teams over the last five seasons as they captured five straight Region V titles, one milestone had remained elusive for coach Rich Calkins and the Lady Braves: a state title. That monkey is now off their backs.
Coming about 20 months after the Lady Braves beat Anchorage Christian School for a 3A state basketball title, the first in school history, the MEHS volleyball team put together its best match of the 2011 season and downed Grace 25-23, 25-19 and 25-21 at the Menard Sports Center in Wasilla. It was the second state title in the history of Mt. Edgecumbe, a state-run boarding school that opened in 1947.
Senior Brenna Johanson, who made the all-tournament team for the second straight year, led the way with 14 kills, while freshman Taryn White had 11 and junior Mariah Martin added three. MEHS also got five aces in the championship match, three from senior Donnita White and two from Katelyn Cook, a junior. Calkins said it was an important win for the Lady Braves, and one he hopes will set a new standard for the MEHS program.
“It’s a very nice validation,” Calkins said this morning. “We’d like to think of it as a building block. We’d like to think the program has progressed – the standards for what we expect from the girls has increased. We don’t expect to be satisfied winning one state title.”
And while Calkins noted that he should have four of his seven main varsity players returning next year, he said he would take some time to relish the victory over Grace. “We’re going to enjoy this one for a while,” he said. “It’s really still sinking in.”
Mt. Edgecumbe fell in straight sets to an undefeated Grace Christian team in the 2010 state championship game, but the Lady Braves were determined to change their fate this time around. After cruising past Eielson (25-14, 25-15 and 25-12) in the first round, the Lady Braves watched Grace dispatch Barrow 3-1.
And after the Lady Braves booked their ticket to the championship round with a 3-1 win over Dillingham in the semifinals (12-25, 25-16, 25-14 and 25-10), they watched Grace beat Valdez 3-1 to set up the championship rematch.
Calkins said the Lady Braves gained confidence from the time they spent as spectators watching Grace. They understood they had to play well to win state, but felt they were just as good as the Lady Grizzlies.
“They knew they could win the match and they felt they would win the match,” said Calkins. “They wanted to compete and they came out and took control of the match in the very first game ... It was a total team effort. We had kids step up and make plays and we didn’t have those lapses that he had throughout the season.”
The Lady Braves returned to Sitka just after midnight Nov. 14 and were greeted by a large contingent of Edgecumbe students at the airport. In addition to Johanson, Katelyn Cook, Taryn White and Mariah Martin made the all-tournament team for MEHS. It was the second straight year Cook earned state honors.
Johanson had 19 kills in Edgecumbe’s semifinal win over Dillingham, with White dropping 13 and Martin adding 11. Donnita White had four aces in the match, with Cook recording a pair. Aquilina Active and Maggie Okakok also played important roles in the state championship run, Calkins said. Eden Cronk, Renatta Olson and Victoria DeGroot rounded out the MEHS roster at state. Archie Young and Brenda Calkins were the team’s assistant coaches. Johanson, Active and Donnita White were the team’s three seniors.
Calkins, in his 10th season leading the Lady Braves, had been close before at the state tournament, notably in 2007, when a loaded MEHS team lost in five games to Cordova. He knows that the state championship game, not to mention the tournament, where the draw is based on geography, can be a bit of a crapshoot. His hope, each season, is that his players will perform their best when the money is on the line. And that’s what they did Saturday.
“In some ways it’s a relief,” Calkins said. “It was just nice to see the girls go out there and play as a team. It would have been hard to take another loss, it would have been devastating.... But we won it as a team. We didn’t sit back and hope the other team would make a mistake. We attacked all the way through, we played aggressively the whole time.”
For the second straight year, the state volleyball tournament was played in Wasilla, rather than Anchorage. Still, there was a solid contingent of Mt. Edgecumbe alums and former players in the gym for the state championship game, Calkins said. He said some of the credit for the state win belongs to former players who set a high standard for the program.