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The BRHS volleyball team is heading to the state tournament after winning regionals

The Bethel Regional High School volleyball team celebrates after winning the regional tournament on Nov. 5, 2021 in Bethel.
Nili Sundown
The Bethel Regional High School volleyball team celebrates after winning the regional tournament on Nov. 5, 2021 in Bethel.

The Bethel Regional High School volleyball team is preparing to compete in the state tournament. The event begins Nov. 11. At the regional tournament the week before, the Lady Warriors beat Kotzebue in the preliminaries and continued into the finals to take first against Nome, winning three sets to one.

“It doesn’t really feel real yet,” senior and Bethel team co-captain Jordan Wheeler said about their regional victory. The win marked the first time Bethel won volleyball regionals since 2007.

“We did such a good job this weekend. Everything that we had practiced, we put into our game,” senior and Bethel team co-captain Ava Lieb said.

The Lady Warriors won against high odds. Players hadn’t practiced in nearly two years, following COVID-19 restrictions on sports. Half the team had never played at the varsity level. And the head coach, Ryan Wheeler, had never before coached volleyball.

“I spent a lot of time watching videos on YouTube,” he said, explaining how he prepared for the season.

His wife played the sport in high school and helped at practice, serving balls to the players. His daughter, co-captain Jordan Wheeler, has played on the team since her freshman year. He had watched a lot of her games over the years.

“And that's it. That’s all I've done,” Coach Wheeler said.

But Jordan said that her dad isn’t giving himself enough credit.

“He did play friendly games in college, and he hadn’t really learned the rules, but he read the volleyball rule book from cover to cover,” she said.

And she helped him learn. For instance, she taught him that players can't block a serve.

With half the team new to the varsity level and last year’s season canceled, fellow co-captain Ava Lieb said that she and Jordan had large leadership roles to fill.

“Lots of communication and teamwork,” Lieb said were required, as well as watching each other and offering constructive criticism.

“Like you can say, ‘Hey, do this.’ And that’s how you get your hips to go down and your serve to float,” Lieb said.

The relationship is reciprocal. Other players gave the captains feedback on their technique as well. It may have been that friendship between the players that boosted the team to its first win in regionals in 14 years.

“I think what’s different about this team is we’re better at lifting each other up when someone makes a mistake. We’re really good at keeping each other grounded during the game, so we don’t have a lot of drama or emotion that stops us from succeeding,” Jordan Wheeler said.

Moving past mistakes to focus on the present is a lesson Coach Wheeler has emphasized.

“We talk a lot about [how] you definitely can’t change anything, and no one ever plays the perfect game. So just managing and minimizing mistakes. Because the fewer mistakes we can have, we're going to force the other team to make a lot more of them,” he said.

The coach said that this perspective was as much of a challenge to build as physical conditioning after missing last season.

“They had to learn the game, obviously physically, but [also] mentally learning how to win, learning how to expect to win,” Coach Wheeler said.

The players had to bring that mindset into play for their final regional match against Nome. Bethel lost the first set, but came back to win the second. In the third set, Nome took an eight-point lead. At 17 to 21, Nome needed only four more points to win.

“And we were in the portion of our rotation where our servers have struggled a little bit. And [with] the mental toughness that they've developed throughout the season, they were able to make their serves. And we played really good defense, and next thing, we won that set,” Coach Wheeler said.

The Bethel team won the fourth set as well, securing first place in the regional tournament. Nome placed second, Utqiagvik third, and Kotzebue fourth.

The Lady Warriors triumphed on their home court, surrounded by fans. Under COVID-19 restrictions, each player was allowed five spectators. Their cheers, Coach Wheeler said, helped the team believe they could win.

“It was great to have loud screaming fans in the Warrior Dome again. It's been a while,” he said.

Both Bethel and Nome will compete in the state championship tournament this coming weekend. The tournament runs Nov. 11 through Nov. 13 in Anchorage.

Anna Rose MacArthur is the KYUK News Director. She has worked at KYUK since 2015 and previously worked at KNOM in Nome, Alaska.