The Soldotna Stars had a lot to celebrate Friday night.
After a senior night celebration put seniors Ella Stenga, Cally Christianson and Shaylynn Zener in the spotlight before the action started, the Stars rolled to a three-set sweep of Northern Lights Conference rival Kenai Central, putting SoHi squarely into the region tournament picture with the third seed.
The Stars finished their regular season with a 6-4 conference record (8-5 overall), behind the 9-1 Colony Knights and 7-3 Wasilla Warriors, both which will receive byes in the first round of the NLC tournament next weekend in Kodiak.
“I’m fine with it,” said SoHi head coach Sheila Kupferschmid of the team’s region seeding. “I hope we can get the first match jitters out of the way and set us up to win some games.”
SoHi held off an improved Kenai team with scores of 25-18, 25-20 and 25-16. The Kardinals finished the year 0-10 in conference and sixth in the division.
The third seed pairs SoHi up with Kenai for a quarterfinal clash at the NLC tournament. Kupferschmid said the Stars are not overlooking the winless Kards.
“Kenai’s a much better team,” Kupferschmid said. “This is a game of momentum, and I think we had a little lack of focus (in the second set).
Kenai had its hands full with a pair of injuries, as outside hitter Denali Lockwood strained several back muscles and setter Maddie Galloway suffered a bizarre injury with a fractured scapula after diving for a ball.
Kardinals coach Pako Whannell said both girls will not be returning for the region tournament, which will expose her young squad even more so.
“I said, hey, the younger girls are ready to step up and do the best with the team we have,” Whannell said.
However, if any team can stage a Cinderella story, it’s a team coached by Whannell. As head coach in 2006, Whannell guided a Soldotna team that went 0-10 in the regular season to the NLC tournament final, helping the Stars get to state.
“Anything can happen,” Whannell said. “We went through that 11 years ago, and it can happen again.”
The Kards pushed the Stars early on in both the first and second sets. Kenai tied the proceedings at 7-all in the first game with a high-flying presence at the net from a combination of Mayzie Potton and Sam Kompkoff, and Nikki Prior and Bethany Morris.
Potton ended with 12 kill points, while Kompkoff had eight points.
“Soldotna has more experience, and they have such a solid setter that’s been with them for three years,” Whannell said. “We didn’t, and so we’re proud of the girls for competing with them.”
Stenga, who finished with five kills and 14 service points, helped SoHi pull away after that with a 5-0 run and two points off serves.
Kupferschmid said Friday was Stenga’s first full match since returning from an injury earlier in the season. Stenga missed four matches after a collision against Palmer two weeks ago.
Stenga teamed up with Aliann Schmidt to put up blocks on several occasions, tipping balls down to Kenai’s floor that helped the Stars take a 21-14 lead. A tip by Christianson ended the game to put the Stars ahead 1-0 in the match.
Schmidt finished with seven kills and four blocks, while Christianson had 15 assists, nine service points and two kills.
Kenai streaked out to leads of 5-0 and 11-7 in the second set, getting tips from Potton and service points from Maddie Galloway.
Soldotna answered with an 11-3 run that put the Stars ahead 18-14 before Kenai decided to call timeout. The Kards scored five of the next eight points to close the gap back to 21-19, but the Stars finished the set with two big kills from Schmidt and Stenga.
Kupferschmid credited the team’s effort to crank up the offensive tempo.
“We’ve been working on becoming faster,” Kupferschmid said. “We want to be a faster offense.”
Zener blasted open the third and final set, starting with two consecutive service points, to help put SoHi up 9-2 early. SoHi eventually led 20-6, helping the Stars cruise home to the win.
Zener, who finished with 13 service points, two kills and nine digs, used a newfound jump serve to give SoHi some needed energy in the third game.
“This felt really good,” she said. “We’ve been looking forward to this game.”
Zener said she and teammate Holleigh Jaime had both been working recently on perfecting the jump serve, moving away from their traditional standing serve. The extra injection of power and speed has been working for her, Zener said.
“Holleigh is an evil genius,” Zener said.
That plus the switch from her traditional libero spot to the outside hitter position this fall has also given her a new perspective.
“I have to get used to it in college,” she said. “So I feel like I’m getting more touches on the ball, which is good.”
Sophomore Bailey Leach, who Kupferchmid noted has been a pleasant offensive force at the net, finished with five kills, four blocks and four service points.
Kenai freshman Bethany Morris finished with a team-high 18 kill points, while sophomore Jaden Streiff equaled that with 18 points and 10 digs. Libero Hayley Maw finished with 20 digs.
The NLC tournament gets started Thursday in Kodiak.
Nikiski 3, Houston 0
The Bulldogs swept the Hawks with scores of 25-11, 25-19 and 25-9 Friday night at Houston to claim a perfect 12-0 Southcentral conference season. Nikiski improved to 14-1 overall.
Bulldogs coach Stacey Segura said her team was a little casual in the second game, but otherwise played a great match.
“I definitely think they came out of Game 2 ready to go in Game 3,” Segura said. “I’m looking forward to watching them play in the region tournament.”
Elisa Fardin had six aces and 12 digs for Nikiski, while Bethany Carstens had seven kills, Melanie Sexton had six kills and eight digs, Rylee Jackson had five kills and three blocks, Ashlee Tiner had two blocks, Kelsey Clark had 16 digs, Kaitlyn Johnson had 10 assists and Emma Wik had seven assists.
Seward 3, Grace Christian 2
The visiting Seahawks topped the Grizzlies 25-21, 25-22, 23-25, 23-25 and 25-15 to sew up the No. 2 seed in the Southcentral Conference.
“It was an intense game and the games we all love to watch,” Seward coach Jodi Kurtz wrote in a text message.
Both the Seahawks and Grizzlies finish 9-3 in the league, but Seward won the tiebreaker.
Kurtz said Coral Petrosius had a couple of kills in each game and was really effective with her blocking. Riley Von Borstel came through with some kills as well.
The Seward coach said defensive specialist Ashley Jackson was vital in digging up a lot of balls, and Maille Moriarity used her quick feet to get sets to the hitters.
“The team communicated as always and showed what a great team they are and when they want something, they go for it,” Kurtz wrote.