A serve that trickles off the net chord and falls on the opponent’s side of the court. An attempted attack that is shanked, yet still somehow finds its way to the weakness of a defense. A perfect bump and set leading to a golden attack opportunity, leading to a resounding slam that goes just long.
These are the momentum-changing plays that are expected to decide a tight dash for the championships and the state qualifications at the Northern Lights Conference and Southcentral Conference volleyball tournaments.
The six-team NLC tourney, which begins today at Palmer High School and includes Peninsula squads Soldotna and Kenai Central, will determine three state berths. The seven-team Southcentral tourney, starting Friday at Grace Christian School, will include Peninsula teams Nikiski, Homer and Seward, and also will determine three state berths.
If regular-season play is any indication, the difference between celebrating a state berth and ending a season will be razor-thin at both tournaments.
In the NLC tourney, Palmer is the top seed with an 8-2 record, while Kodiak is second at 7-3. Both SoHi and Colony finished at 5-5, and a series of four tiebreakers was needed to give the third seed to the Stars.
No. 5 seed Wasilla (4-6) and No. 6 Kenai Central (1-9) have served notice they won’t go down quietly.
In Wasilla’s final two matches, the Warriors lost to Colony and Wasilla, but each match went to 15-13 in the final game. Meanwhile, the Kards have a victory over that Wasilla squad and took top seed Palmer to five games earlier in the year.
The tournament is also a true double-elimination format, which could only add to the drama.
“It’s a very, very, very even region,” Soldotna coach Sheila Kupferschmid said. “It’ll depend on confidence, and you’ve gotta have some luck as well.
“You’ve got to have balls drop in. These are such momentum matches.”
Momentum is something the Stars carry into their first-round match with Kenai today at 3 p.m. The winner of that match plays Kodiak at 8 p.m. for the right to go to state.
After getting swept in a three-match trip to the Valley, SoHi ended the season on a four-match winning streak, and added a Silver Bracket victory at the Dimond-Service tourney to boot. Two of those victories were sweeps of Kenai.
Kupferschmid said seniors Haley Miller, Bailey Rosin, Alex Ashe, Skylar Shaw, Hayley Ramsell and Taylor Wilson will play a vital role.
“I would love it if they would step forward and play the best ball they can play,” Kupferschmid said. “They’re hungry and confident.”
Kupferschmid said controlling the ball will be vital, and she said Shaw, Ashe and Rosin excel at that. Miller and junior Makenna Rosin have helped the back row by putting up a stronger block as the season has progressed.
Ramsell provides offensive firepower and all-around play, while Lindsey Wong has improved running the offense. Kupferschmid also said she has a feeling sophomore Judah Aley could play big minutes in the tournament.
“I believe the kids will be ready to play the best ball they can,” Kupferschmid said.
Kardinals coach Tracie Beck has a similar vibe about her squad.
“I’m excited because Soldotna is the team we know best,” Beck said. “I just feel like we have a good shot against them.”
Beck said the Kards have yet to put their best foot forward against the Stars. In the first loss, a couple of players had recently left the team. In the second loss, senior leader Kiana Harding was running a fever and didn’t play her normal game.
“Kiana’s definitely still a little weak, but she’s times 10 better and we’re excited to have her back in our offense,” Beck said.
Coach Beck can also count on offense and overall play from Abby Beck.
Like Kupferschmid, Beck said ball control will be key. She said Heidi Perkins has been coming on in that regard. The coach said libero Jamie Bagley worked out a few kinks in practice and is back to putting the ball in the setter’s hands.
Beck said Emily Koziczkowski has really come on as a hitter, and senior Kyla Whannell is doing the best hitting of her career. Alli Steinbeck and Amber Walter have also been doing a good job setting.
Coach Beck said the Kards’ serving was bad in the second loss to SoHi, but that has been shored up in practice as well.
“It’s crazy,” Beck said. “There’s no domineering teams. I think whoever shows up for this tournament and peaks at the right time will go on to state.”
Area coaches feel the same way about the Southcentral Conference tournament.
Host Grace nabbed the top seed at 11-1, but coaches think even the Grizzlies are vulnerable.
“They’re far above in win-loss record, but looking back at scores they haven’t really outplayed anyone that strong,” Homer coach Beth Trowbridge said of Grace.
After Grace, things get real tight, as No. 2 seed Anchorage Christian Schools, No. 3 seed Homer and No. 4 seed Cordova all finished at 7-5.
It took a series of tiebreakers to separate them into seeds. Who knows what it will take to separate them at the tournament?
And right on their heels are No. 5 Nikiski at 6-6 and No. 6 Seward at 4-8. No. 7 Houston was 0-12.
Homer, seeking a first state berth since 2003, opens with a match against Seward at 2 p.m. Friday. Homer beat Seward twice in the regular season.
“They are a great defensive team,” Trowbridge said of the Seahawks. “We can’t afford to get into games where there are long rallies and we are just waiting for an error to happen.”
The Homer-Seward winner plays the ACS-Houston winner at 8 p.m. Friday for a spot in the championship and a state berth.
Trowbridge said outside hitters Larsen Fellows and Jane Rohr will be important in the effort to get the ball down as quickly as possible. Middle hitter Kyla Pitzman has also shown offensive abilities since coming back from injury.
Trowbridge said setter McKi Needham and libero Maggie Larue also will be key, especially because of their tough serving.
“The teams are all pretty even and have their strengths and weaknesses,” Trowbridge said. “If any one of the teams really shows up to play, that team could be a lot better than the other teams.”
Seward is led by senior captains Maria Jackson and Paige Carter-Kurtz. The tough serving of the duo gave Grace trouble as Seward lost three close games to the Grizzlies on Saturday. Kiana Clemens was Seward’s top offensive threat in the match.
Nikiski opens with a noon match against Cordova. The Bulldogs lost both matches to the Wolverines this season, but Nikiski coach Stacey Segura said her team is looking forward to a third chance.
The matches were both in Cordova, with Nikiski taking the ferry to Cordova on a Friday and playing that night.
“We need to clean up the silly mistakes we made against Cordova,” Segura said.
The Cordova-Nikiski winner faces Grace at 6 p.m. Friday for a spot in the title game and a state berth.
The coach said the key for her team is focusing on each point.
“Sometimes teams can get caught up in regions and lose focus because it is so intense,” Segura said. “We have to make sure we encourage each other and work hard point to point.
“If one person is not working hard, our system will not work.”
Senior Rachel Thompson will be the rock upon which Segura rests her squad’s conference run. Senior libero Laura Hufford also will provide steady passing.
Segura said those two seniors will be particularly important because they have the experience of what it takes to qualify for state, owing to the Bulldogs’ run two years ago.
The offense will come from hitters Ayla Pitt, Brittany Perry.