As the West Central bi-district volleyball tournament is set to start Friday, Kentwood and Tahoma look to make it back to the state volleyball tournament this year while Kentlake enjoyed its first post-season appearance in at least seven years.
Neither Tahoma or Kentwood made it out of the district tournament a year ago, which was particularly tough for the Conquerors who made it to the state title game two seasons ago and lost to Olympia.
With a 7-1 record in the South Puget Sound League 4A North, the Conquerors won the division in the last match of the regular season, a 3-1 victory over the Ravens of Auburn Riverside.
“It was such a relieving accomplishment,” said senior opposite hitter Sarah Toeaina. “We knew we had the potential to do it. Very exciting and very proud of the team for doing that — I think I had a little more joy beating (Riverside) than winning the title because of our history with them — I loved that.”
Winning the North was something Kentwood had its eyes on, explained Lauren Hackett, a senior outside hitter.
“It’s definitely something that has been a goal every year, so to follow through, especially with so many younger players this year, is exciting,” Hackett said. “It’s also good to beat Riverside because they knocked us out last year.”
It was a bit of revenge for the Conks in the win Oct. 29 over the Ravens. Hackett explained they played well to start off with then let Riverside back in before closing it out. As satisfying as it was, Hackett said, there are lessons in every match.
“We learned a lot this season about how when we lose focus, that’s our fatal flaw,” Hackett said. “That ends up biting us in the butt. I think that’s what happened against Kentridge.”
It was a 3-2 loss to the Chargers Oct. 14, the Conquerors only defeat of the league season, which really provided a learning opportunity.
“That’s something we’re learning as the season goes on,” Hackett said. “We’re prepared. We just have to close out.”
Hackett added that because the team has fun and plays relaxed, it is sometimes hard for the Conks to finish a match strong, but they’re learning how to do that now.
Kentwood’s primary strength, Hackett said, is the fact that opponents need to be prepared to defend all three of its hitters — Hackett, Toeaina and Mele Halahuni.
“It’s not just one hitter, it’s me, it’s Sarah, it’s Mele,” Hackett said. “And Sarah’s been killing it.”
Toeaina echoed Hackett’s sentiment about Kentwood’s offensive weapons.
“You can shut down one hitter,” Toeaina said. “But to shut them all down is hard to do.”
Hackett said she and Toeaina take their roles as captains seriously, too, which she thinks is important to build on Kentwood’s volleyball tradition.
“The fact the underclassmen look up to us, that pushes us,” Hackett said. “We have to lead them, how much they give in a game is how much we give.”
And the Conquerors will not be happy with winning the division, the top seed out of the SPSL into the district tournament, no they want more.
“Definitely winning state,” Hackett said. “Coming off that second place finish two years, ago, that was not enough.”
In order to do that, Toeaina said, Kentwood has to focus on the basics.
“Remember the fundamentals and always have a team first mentality,” Toeaina said. “I feel like we’re reaching our peak and gelling together.”
Getting back to the state tournament and coming home with a trophy, preferably the biggest one, would be a fitting end to their four year varsity careers for Toeaina and Hackett.
“It would mean so much to leave the volleyball program with a bang,” Toeaina said. “To show the younger generations you can come close, but, if you keep trying you can always reach your goals.”
Tahoma, meanwhile, finished third in the North and is the fourth seed out of the SPSL.
Bears captains Natalia Burdulis and Kayse Guest explained their biggest strength as a team is defensively in blocking at the net.
This season, however, Tahoma spent the first part of its non-league schedule working out the kinks with a number of new players.
“Our biggest goals were to communicate and to gel,” said Burdulis, a junior outside hitter. “Our communication, from this year to last year, our blocking defense, all has gotten better. We’re better able to read hitters.”
Burdulis said a highlight of the season for Tahoma was a 3-0 victory over Kent-Meridian Oct. 9.
“Because we were all healthy,” Burdulis said. “We had very few errors. We played really well.”
Burdulis said the Bears need to remember how it felt during that match, particularly how well they communicated, in order to translate that into success this post-season and get back to the state tournament.
“Simple is better,” Burdulis said. “We just have to get the ball in so we can score. Our biggest thing is to win two in districts. I think we can go to state then it’s a different game from there.”
Guest, a senior setter, said she is excited about making it to the playoffs because it’s her final year with Tahoma.
She explained that the Bears were able to come together quickly in the pre-season which translated to success during league contests. That should help as they prepare for the district tournament.
“Just knowing how each other plays, helping each other’s weaknesses and playing off each other’s strengths as we’ve gotten to know each other,” Guest said. “When we all focus, it’s really good, and we pass really well. We’re going to need to work hard and come out strong and believe that we can get there.”
Tahoma has the skills and the talent, Guest explained, it’s just a matter of focusing in practice and not getting intimidated by some of the tough players from other schools.
“We’re coming out to fight this year,” Guest said.
Burdulis said Tahoma may have a lot of new faces but no one should look past the Bears.
“We’re scrappy,” Burdulis said. “Everybody can play every position. It helps when everybody has confidence in each other.”
And while Kentlake did not win its loser-out SPSL crossover Nov. 2 against Spanaway Lake, the experience was an important one for the team.
“It’s a really exciting experience for everyone,” said junior outside hitter Lexi Lockhart. “It’s a big thing to get to that level and continue our season.”
Thanks to a 4-4 record in league, the Falcons made their first appearance in years, despite having a young team. Lockhart attributed some inspiration to Kentlake graduate Courtney Thompson, who visited with the team, watched the Falcons play and offered insight on success against tough odds. Thompson won three state titles at Kentlake, a national championship in 2005 with the University of Washington and a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics in London despite being told in high school she wasn’t tall enough to play at an elite level.
“After that we were really inspired to see someone like us could make it to that level,” Lockhart said. “She’s so nice. She came and watched our game, she came to our practice.”
Lockhart said that after a rough start, the Falcons started to click.
“We started winning games,” Lockhart said. “We started beating people we hadn’t beaten before. I think we surprised the heck out of everyone.”
Junior middle hitter Victoria Boyko explained that the Falcons found success this season and earned a playoff contest because they stepped out of their comfort zone.
“(We) changed into a new team,” Boyko said. “The old team didn’t think we could make it into the playoffs. We changed our mentality.”
At the start of the season the goal was to make the playoffs, Boyko said.
“And just go out there as a family and be proud of what we put out there,” Boyko said. “It’s a whole other level (this season), every aspect, friendships, intensity, effort.”
For Sean Taylor, a senior outside hitter, making the post-season was particularly sweet.
“I am just happy and so proud of my team for making it as far as we’ve come,” Taylor said. “From the start we’ve wanted to go to playoffs. We’ve worked really hard to accomplish that.”
Taylor said she hopes the team’s success from this season can be built on next year as there are many young players who will return.
“I just hope that they can work together as a team to overcome any obstacles they face whether it’s in volleyball or outside of school,” Taylor said.