Yaks finish third in NWAC championships
Yaks achieve best results at NWAC championships since 2010
Despite season-ending injuries to key players, Yakima Valley College’s volleyball team achieved its third consecutive berth to the Northwest Athletics Conference playoffs this fall, earning the No. 3 seed in the East Region with a conference regular season record of 10-6 (overall record of 17-13). But the Yaks weren’t satisfied with just making the playoffs this year, going on a run through the regional round and Elite 8 that culminated with a third place finish in the conference, the program’s best showing since 2010.
“Our continued success is becoming part of the culture we have worked to build within the program,” said Head Coach Darci Dekker. “Our players are ‘team’ players and learn to understand the importance of it.”
Before the Yaks traveled to Linn Benton Community College in Oregon for the regional round of post-season play Nov. 11-12, Dekker said the team hadn’t peaked yet and the keys to success were learning to relax, have fun and believe in themselves.
“We knew going in that we were the underdog. But we also believed that we could beat anybody at any time,” she said. “We started to peak at just the right time, which was regionals, and then onto the Final Four.”
During the regional round, the Yaks defeated North Region No. 2 seed Edmonds College 3-2 in the team’s first game on Nov. 11. The following day in a contest for the region’s No. 1 seed in the Elite 8, YVC’s squad took on undefeated Linn Benton team. Though the Yaks fell short, they became just the second team this season to force Linn Benton to five sets. Finally, in a rematch against Edmonds with the region’s second seed in the Elite 8 at stake, YVC dropped the first two sets before grabbing the momentum to win three straight sets.
“They played so well this last weekend, I am beyond proud of each and every one of them,” said Dekker following regionals. “They battled through three, 5-set matches that were really tough. We played gritty and with a ton of heart.”
In the first round of the Elite 8 on Nov. 17, the team’s first appearance since 2010, the Yaks got off to a fast start, taking down West No. 1 seed Lower Columbia 25-17, 26-24, 23-25, 26-24. The Yaks had a balanced attacked featuring Ana Hrle (12 kills), Kaylee Wheeler (11 kills) and McKenna Steiner (10 kills), while setters Jessica Mariscal and Hayley Pyrah had 25 and 17 assists, respectively. Brynn Widner led all players with 28 digs from the libero position.
The following day in the semifinals against East Region No. 1 North Idaho College, which was undefeated in conference play this season, the Yaks couldn’t keep pace, falling 25-18, 24-26, 25-15, 25-17. Steiner led the Yaks with 13 kills, while Widner had 18 digs and Hayley Pyrah put up 20 assists.
Taking on Highline College in the third place game, the Yaks showcased their resilience in a come-from-behind, five-set victory 15-25, 25-22, 20-25, 28-26, 15-12. Staving off multiple Highline match points in the fourth set to even the match, the team continued its momentum into the deciding set.
Dekker credited her players for staying calm and believing in themselves even as they faced match points.
“We had the skill, we had practiced countless hours and at that point in the match it was all mental,” she said. “The question was, who had more heart, grit and belief.”
Steiner tallied 19 kills and 16 digs in the match for the Yaks while Haylee Holker posted 12 kills and 11 digs. Brynn Widner finished with 18 digs while Jessica Mariscal added 28 assists, eight digs, five kills and seven block assists. Chloe Neil paced the Yaks in block assists with eight.
Dekker said the team’s unselfish play during their playoff run was the catalyst for success.
“Every single player on our team has helped us get to where we are today,” Dekker said. “The credit goes to all of us. We have all put in hard work and sacrificed for the better of our team. These girls bought into what we coaches were trying to do from the beginning of the season. Although we struggled along the way we never lost sight of our goals.”
This year’s appearance in the Elite 8 was the fifth in program history, following a second place finish in 1989, third place finishes in 1990 and 2010, and a fourth place finished in 1991. Steiner was named to the NWAC Tournament All-Star First Team while Widner was named Second Team.
Claiming All-Region Honors for their play during the 2023 season were sophomore defensive specialist/libero Brynn Widner (First Team), freshman outside hitter McKenna Steiner (Second Team), and sophomore outside hitter Haylee Holker and freshman middle blocker Chloe Neil (Third Team).
With 13 players from across the state of Washington as well as Idaho and Utah on this year’s team, Dekker said the Yaks were able to form a tight-knit family that made lifelong friendships and memories.
“We have grown closer and learned about each other not only in an athletic sense but also in a personal sense,” she said. “We have found ways to bring out the best in each other.”
Dekker describes the 2023 team as resilient, first and foremost.
“I need to give my girls and my assistant coaches a ton of credit,” she said. “It hasn’t always been an easy road for us this season but they manage to push through the hard times and find ways to make things work. I am extremely proud of each and every one of them.”
As the team heads into the offseason, Dekker said its priorities will include honing in on passing/defensive skills along with playing more in tempo.
“We need to get rid of some bad habits and work at becoming comfortable in uncomfortable situations on the court,” Dekker said. “For myself, I need to continue to recruit high-character athletes that make great teammates.”
Among individual honors during the 2023 season, sophomore libero Brynn Widner was named the NWAC’s volleyball defensive player of the week in consecutive weeks in the middle of the season. Widner was honored for the week of Sept. 25 – Oct. 1 when she had 34 digs in the Yaks’ five-set victory over Columbia Basin College, and again the week of Oct. 2 – 8 when she compiled 18 digs in a loss to Wenatchee Valley, followed by 22 in a sweep of Walla Walla, while also adding five assists.