PALMER — Thursday’s first round of the Northern Lights Conference Championships turned out to be the rivalry round. But after beating by a pair of natural foes earlier in the day, Soldotna and Wasilla each found itself facing a long road toward a potential spot in the state tournament.
After scoring a win over rival Kenai Central in the first round, third-seed Soldotna suffered a 3-0 loss to Kodiak on Thursday evening during the final match of the first day of the Northern Lights Conference Championships volleyball tournament in Palmer.
Second-seeded Kodiak clinched a state tournament berth with a 25-15, 25-13, 25-20 win over the Stars.
Earlier in the day, despite a slow start, the Stars cruised to a 22-25, 25-16, 25-18, 25-12 win over the Kards.
“I saw a little bit of tension,” Soldotna head coach Sheila Kupferschmid said of early in the match. “Kenai was mistake-free in the first set.”
Hayley Ramsell collected a dozen kills and eight digs to help the Stars move forward in the winner’s bracket. Alex Ashe led the Stars with 30 digs. Skylar Shaw added 18 digs and six kills. Lindsey Wong added eight digs.
Abby Beck led Kenai with 11 kills and 14 digs. Heidi Perkins collected a team-high 22 digs for the Kards. Kiana Harding had five aces and four blocks.
Thursday afternoon, the Palmer Moose players and coaches were sprinkled throughout the bleachers as they watched the resilient Wasilla Warriors rally to stun the rival Colony Knights during the first match of the NLC championships.
Hours later, with a state tournament berth on the line, a pair of Palmer senior captains used a late effort to ensure the Moose wouldn’t be on the losing end of another Warriors rally.
Senior captains Mariah McNamara and Leiah Reichel combined for a half-dozen kills on six of Palmer’s final seven points of the fourth set to help Palmer score a 25-16, 25-23, 19-25, 25-12 win over the Warriors during winner’s bracket play.
“We look for senior leadership all the time. It’s good to get it at regions,” Palmer head coach Steve Reynolds said after the victory.
Palmer jumped to a quick lead in the match, winning the first two sets. But just as it did earlier in the day against Colony, Wasilla fought to stay alive. Wasilla won the third set.
Palmer responded by storming to a quick lead in the fourth game. The Moose led 10-1, and 17-5 midway through the game. Reynolds said his team’s ability to jump to the quick lead in the fourth game was certainly key.
“They had that long five-game match,” Reynolds said of the Warriors. “If you have the bye and you’re waiting, you like people to go extra innings.”
While the Warriors were elated to earn the 3-2 win over the Knights in the first round, Wasilla head coach Josie Cannon said exhaustion set in later in the day.
“We were very tired going into that,” Cannon said of the 6 p.m. match. “The Colony game took a lot out of us emotionally and physically.”
McNamara led Palmer in the match with 20 kills, 14 digs and four aces.
“Mariah was clutch,” Reynolds said. “She played like the senior captain she is. She had a heck of a night out there.”
Reichel added 17 kills in the match. Naomi Graham led the Moose with 25 assists. Ellen Groseclose added seven kills and three blocks. Reynolds also noted the serving of Groseclose.
“She had big strings of serves, good production,” Reynolds said. “It was a good night for her.”
Amber Sizemore led the Warriors with 13 kills and two aces against the Moose. Kylie Gilbert added seven kills. Peyton Mobley finished with 30 assists.
With the win, Palmer moves forward in the winner’s bracket and will face Kodiak today at 5 p.m. at PHS. The winner of the Kodiak-Palmer match moves into the conference title match.
With the loss, Wasilla drops to the loser’s bracket and will play Kenai today at 11 a.m. Colony meets Soldotna at 1 p.m.
The winner of the two loser’s bracket games will meet tonight at 7 p.m. with a state tournament berth on the line.
“I had to remind my girls, this is a true double-elimination tournament,” Cannon said after the loss to the Moose. “There’s more than one way to win this tournament.”
Earlier in the day, Wasilla, 0-4 against its Valley rivals during the regular season, used a bit of resiliency to rally to a 20-25, 27-25, 13-25, 25-23, 15-13 win over Colony during first-round play.
Colony led 23-18, in what could have been a match-clinching Game 4 for the Knights. But with the lead of senior setter Peyton Mobley, the Warriors stormed back into the match. Mobley served the final seven points of the match, to help Wasilla take the set 25-23.
“Absolutely huge,” Cannon said of Mobley’s work behind the service line. “(Peyton) is one of our most consistent aggressive servers.”
Mobley also clinched the set for the Warriors, tipping the ball into an open hole in the Colony defense.
“That dump was perfect timing,” Cannon said of the play.
Wasilla led by as many as five points (12-7 and 14-9) in the fifth set, and survived a late Colony run to hold on. Colony outscored the Warriors 4-1 late, but Wasilla won the decisive fifth set 15-13.
Colony appeared to be taking control of the match in the third set, using a 15-point run to take a 21-5 advantage. Wasilla tacked on eight more points in the set, which Cannon said were key.
“We were able to get a few points there. We reset and came back with more momentum,” Cannon said. “Volleyball luckily is one of those sports, you can get absolutely slaughtered in one set, but it doesn’t change the fact that you lost it. You can lose by two points or 20 points, and the results are the same. You can always come back and fight.”
Wasilla’s win over Colony came following a week in which the Warriors lost tough five-set matches to both Palmer and Colony. Both matches were decided by a 15-13 score in Game 5.
Cannon said the Warriors have been building toward this throughout the season.
“We finally came alive in the fourth set of that match,” Cannon said. “They started playing like the team I’ve been wanting them to play like.”