Gambell takes down giants en route to BSSD volleyball title
The Gambell high school co-ed volleyball team was operating as the underdog in the proverbial David and Goliath story that unfolded last weekend as they played in front of their home fans during the 2016 Region 1 Western Conference Mixed-Six Volleyball Tournament.
The situation the Gambell Qughsatkut faced was actually more like David versus the Goliath triplets as they took down three Bering Strait School District powerhouses in the span of two days to become the Kings and Queens of the court. The team will represent the region as its top seed at next week’s ASAA Mixed-Six State Volleyball Championships in Anchorage.
Gambell’s ability to travel was hampered by weather during the regular season so their winning percent didn’t allow them to enter the regional tourney as a top seed. Instead, the Qughsatkut, who some thought were the best team entering the tourney, were a seventh-seed. They found themselves in a loaded bottom half of the bracket where they had match-ups with two teams that had made a combined 23 state tourney appearances in the last 12 years.
“After seeing this bracket, we said this is going to be something fun,” said Qughsatkut senior Wallace Ungwiluk.
The tournament’s host began play with a 25-10, 25-17, 25-12 opening round victory on Thursday over the Stebbins Grizzlies, who for the second time in as many years, drew the eventual tournament champs in the first round.
What followed on Friday afternoon was a de facto, 24-hour early finals match occurring in the second round. The noise of the crowd reflected a championship contest as the Qughsatkut avenged a 5-set 2015 conference tournament loss to the Unalakleet Wolfpack with a dominating 25-15, 25-12, 9-25, 25-14 win over the former two-time state champions.
The Qughsatkut featured the tournament’s top female-male-female front row, which consisted of seniors Danielle “Nalu” Apassingok, Wallace Ungwiluk and Kayli Apatiki. The team also presented the event’s top boy-girl-boy front trio of sophomore Earl Annogiyuk, and seniors Nalu Apassingok and Ungwiluk. Their talent and maturity was evident as they rebounded from their third-set hiccup.
Using three kill shots by Ungwiluk, the Qughsatkut jumped out to an early 6-2 fourth-set lead against the Wolfpack. More offensive fire power in the form of spikes by Annogiyuk and junior Shannon Apassingok brought the score to 10-4, and the team, as well as the spectators, knew they were witnessing a changing of the guards in BSSD volleyball. Aces by Nalu Apassingok and Apatiki helped put a stamp on the most significant victory in Gambell volleyball history.
“Last year’s (five set) game against Unalakleet popped it into our heads that they are just people, and that we have the strength to beat them,” said Nalu Apassingok after her squad sent Unalakleet to its earliest round loss in as many years.
The next titan for Gambell to fell was the Golovin Lynx, winners of three Mixed-Six state championships. The Qughsatkut helped prevent the Lynx from extending their state appearance record to 15 with a straight sets exclamation point victory in the third round.
Using a combination of energy from a raucous home crowd and leadership from four senior starters, which included Nadine Koonooka, Gambell jumped out to an early 8-1 first-set lead and never looked back. In beating the Lynx, the Qughsatkut proved they could be both dominant, as evidenced by their 25-18, 25-15 first and second set thumpings, as well as resilient, as they held on for a close third set win.
With the final set knotted at 22, the Qughsatkut followed a Golovin serving miscue with a block by Annogiyuk. The Lynx tied the score at 24, but Gambell closed out the match with a kill by Ungwiluk and a service ace by Annogiyuk. With the win came a ticket to the state tourney.
The tournament’s third behemoth was the top-seeded White Mountain Wolves. They earned a showdown with Gambell in the championship match by taking down the St. Michael Storm and Shishmaref Northern Lights in early rounds. For the Qughsatkut, the match represented an opportunity to claim the region’s first seed.
The Wolves, who own two state Mixed-Six volleyball titles of their own, presented a scrappy, defensive-minded bunch that was led by Julius and Felicia Ione, and proved they belonged in the finals by hanging tough in a four-set defeat.
After the stunning Qughsatkut run, Ungwiluk told of how third-year coach Suzanne Bell built the squad into champions. “At the end of last season she had a vote with us and asked us if we wanted to be a competitive team with a program that gets better and better every year, or just to play for fun,” he said. The results last weekend prove they made the right choice.
In reflected on what her team had accomplished, Apatiki gave high praise for the Qughsatkut reserve players and their importance in the team’s path to a championship victory. “They’ve improved so much,” she said. “And most of them are freshman. In the coming years we’ll still have an amazing team.”
While the smoke had cleared for Gambell early on Saturday afternoon, the skies were still very cloudy for Golovin Unalakleet and White Mountain, who each stood with a single loss to the Qughsatkut. Unalakleet advanced by defeating Golovin in a four-set consolation bracket final. They kept their momentum going in their fourth match of the day and became the conference’s second seed by getting by White Mountain in a four set, late-night, second-place match. The Wolfpack’s trip south next weekend will be their 13th in as many years.
The tournament featured great action by all thirteen participating teams and included several second-round consolation match-ups between neighboring villages. The battle for Port Clarence went to the Brevig Mission Huskies in a thrilling five-set win over the Teller Aklaqs. Bragging rights for eastern Norton Bay went to the Shaktoolik Wolverines as they downed the Koyuk Malemutes in four sets. And the clash between the district’s two southernmost teams went to the St. Michael Storm after they took down Stebbins in four sets.
Individual accomplishments were acknowledged during the post-tourney awards ceremony. Top Male and Female Attacker Awards went to Wallace Ungwiluk and Nalu Apassingok. The Top Server Awards were claimed by Jeremiah Iyatunguk and Tara Fernandez of Shishmaref. Fernandez was also honored as the tournament’s top setter.
Joining Ungwiluk, Nalu, Fernandez and Iyatunguk on the Western Interior All-Tournament team were Julius Ione, White Mountain; Earl Annogiyuk, Gambell; Jerilynn Wellert, Brevig Mission; Trace Larsen, Stebbins; Kayli Apatiki, Gambell; Travis Savetilik, Shaktoolik; Oswald Moses, Golovin; Sydney Kinneen, Unalakleet; Darrin Topkok, Teller; Arctic Ivanoff, Unalakleet and Felicia Ione, White Mountain.
The Academic Award went to St. Michael, who carried a 3.78 GPA. Gambell claimed its second consecutive Sportsmanship Award.