The Soldotna Stars volleyball squad had quite a week. It just didn’t end the way they dreamed it would.
Before the three-day Class 4A state tournament began, the Stars got a proper sendoff from the city of Soldotna with an escort out of town Wednesday — similar to the one the football team received a month earlier — from various crews, including Central Emergency Services, the U.S. Wildlife Refuge, the Soldotna fire department, Alaska State Troopers and the SoHi school band.
Then, following a split on the tournament’s opening day, Soldotna seniors Shay Zener, Ella Stenga and Cally Christiansen shared some valuable advice to the rest of their teammates with their backs against the walls.
“We told them to take nothing for granted and enjoy it,” Zener said. “To be able to go the furthest SoHi has gone, we’re very blessed.”
Ultimately, SoHi’s season ended Friday afternoon at West High School against West Valley, which prevailed 3-1 with scores of 25-19, 21-25, 25-23 and 25-11.
The loss left Soldotna in a tie for fifth in the tournament, the best state result by a SoHi team in Kupferschmid’s four-year tenure at the school.
Even with the 1-2 showing in the Stars’ first state appearance in two years, Kupferschmid said the sendoff was one memory that would stick with the team.
“That was special for the kids,” she said.
In their final match of the year, the Stars shined at times against a tall West Valley squad that won the Mid-Alaska Conference title a week earlier, but couldn’t string together enough points to force an upset win.
The Wolfpack feature three players that stand at six feet or above, topped by 6-foot-2 senior setter Eva Heinrichs. Heinrichs finished with 11 kills total, while 6-1 teammate Ellen Silva had 14 kills and seven blocks. At times, SoHi lined up three blockers at the net to help contain West Valley’s attacks.
“Their swings were super powerful,” said SoHi junior Aliann Schmidt, who ended her day with 12 kills and five blocks. “They were hard to read.”
However, Schmidt and the rest of the Stars stayed upbeat throughout the match and composed after the final blow from the Wolfpack. Schmidt said it was all owed to Zener — who is considering several college volleyball offers — and the senior class’ message the previous night.
“They taught us to work hard, both in and out of practices,” Schmidt said. “Smile through the hard plays and sacrifice everything to be fearless.”
Zener finished her final game with 16 service points, eight kills and nine digs, while Christiansen chipped in 15 service points, 31 assists and three blocks, and Stenga notched nine kills, five serve points and 14 digs in their finale. Additionally, sophomore Holleigh Jaime had 11 service points and 14 digs for SoHi.
With the Nikiski volleyball team, which had hours earlier been eliminated themselves from the 3A tournament, cheering on their peninsula rivals from above in the bleachers, it was only appropriate given how a match against the Bulldogs earlier in the season helped turn around SoHi’s 2017 campaign.
Kupferschmid said a 3-1 nonconference win Oct. 17 over Nikiski at home played a role in changing the mindset of the players. Even as a 3A squad, Kupferschmid said the Bulldogs are a determined bunch that can test any team’s mettle.
“They saw then that they can pull out a close game,” Kupferschmid said. “It toughened the kids.”
From there, the SoHi coach said she saw her players steadily progress to the level of chemistry that helped propel them into the Northern Lights Conference championship final Nov. 4 in Kodiak.
In the region tournament, SoHi lost on the first day, only to rally back through the loser-out bracket and clinch a spot at state.
The season was also a clean one. Kupferschmid said she was relieved to complete the year without a key injury on the team, following three straight years of season-ending injuries to stars such as Makenna Rosin, Judah Aley and Ituau Tuisuala.
This time, with the eight best teams in the state thrown together, the Stars were simply lacking the horsepower that their opponents possessed. Just like Thursday’s quarterfinal against Bartlett, SoHi had difficulties containing the West Valley hitters on the front line.
“This was a very good West Valley team,” Kupferschmid said. “We were playing against the land of the giants.”
Consecutive service points by Zener got SoHi off on a fast start to the match and a 6-2 lead, which blossomed into a 12-7 advantage.
However, Silva and McGaffigan began to turn on the power and soon eclipsed the Stars to take a 16-14 lead before Kupferschmid called timeout. The 15-3 run by the Wolfpack put them ahead 1-0 in the match.
SoHi responded in the second game to tie it up 1-all. Holleigh Jaime helped put the Stars ahead early with consecutive serve points before SoHi caught fire late with a 9-2 run that lifted the Stars from a 15-12 hole to a 21-18 lead.
On the second set point attempt, Schmidt sent a powerful spike to the floor to clinch the set victory and tie the match up at one game apiece.
A close game 3 saw SoHi take an 18-15 lead thanks to several big kills by Stenga, but West Valley answered with a six-point run that put them ahead 22-19 and take a 2-1 match lead.