The West Valley volleyball team will play Bartlett in the first round of ASAA/First National Bank Alaska Class 4A State Championships / Photo credit Missy Poeschel
This was supposed to be the year West Valley didn’t win the Mid-Alaska Conference.
The Wolfpack were ripe with youth and inexperience, and had already lost three times to an undefeated North Pole Patriots squad stacked with upperclassmen when the teams met in the conference final in Fairbanks.
The fourth time was the charm for West Valley, which posted a four-set victory to claim an eighth straight MAC title and snag the conference’s lone berth to ASAA/First National Bank Alaska Class 4A state tournament this week in Anchorage.
“Even though they beat us three times, the matches were close,” West Valley coach Dave Cox told me. “We just needed to come out and play well.”
The Wolfpack dropped the first set before roaring back for a 24-26, 25-17, 25-19, 25-19 victory on North Pole’s home court to hand the Patriots their first loss in 15 best-of-5 matches this year.
Cox credited North Pole for making his team better in the sense that the Patriots drew out West Valley’s best effort each time they played.
“North Pole has been working very hard in the offseason and in the summer. They do open gyms, workouts; they were a very dedicated, committed group,” he said. “I just kept telling my players to hang in there. I felt we were close.”
To be fair, this wasn’t the same West Valley team. The Wolfpack spent much of the regular season nursing injuries, bringing along some sophomores and waiting for the seniors to assert their much-needed veteran leadership.
“All season long I’ve been trying people at different positions, looking for consistency. I was even playing my young guns because the veterans weren’t getting it done,” Cox said. “I’ve been imploring my seniors to start leading the team. That finally started to happen right before the Dimond/Service Tournament. They started stepping up, playing harder and with more consistency.
“They took the team by the reigns.”
After that it became a story of how the Wolfpack got its groove back.
Senior newcomer Cassie Olsen is one of the team’s leaders that Cox singled out because of her versatility and positivity.
She came to the team without a position so she was a utility bench player for much of the season before moving to starting libero full time.
“She was just working so hard in practice,” Cox said. “She’s been unstoppable. Even coaches in Anchorage when were down there said, ‘Man, where did you get your libero?’ I wish I had her for another season.”
Offensively, the Wolfpack has found their rhythm thanks to improved consistency and communication.
Cox actually blamed himself for making too many moves early in the season and not allowing his players to get into sync.
“I finally settled on this group of girls because they were my most consistent hitters and they are just getting stronger and stronger, and more confident,” he said. “Now they are starting to place their attacks where we want them.”
The communication comes from the back row talking to the setter and hitters, relaying the open areas on the court.
“Everybody on the court has to talk,” Cox said. “From there it’s just a matter of moving the ball around. Don’t put it in the same spot.”
Both Class 3A and 4A state tournaments begin Thursday at the Alaska Airlines Center on the UAA campus. State championships will be determined Saturday night.
“Only half of my squad has been there before,” Cox said. “The biggest battle for us every year is that first match. They want to do it all once. Hopefully the team chemistry will lead them in a proper way. The real core group of girls I have are starting to really work together and bring up those younger girls.”
Van Williams is a freelance writer in Anchorage and a correspondent for the Alaska School Activities Association.