The Soldotna volleyball squad beat Kenai Central on the Kardinals home floor earlier in the season, so naturally, the Kards were seeking retribution.
They got it Friday night at Soldotna High School in the form of a thrilling 3-1 Northern Lights Conference victory over the Stars on their senior night, with set scores of 25-15, 26-24, 20-25 and 26-24.
SoHi finishes third in the NLC standings at 5-5, while Kenai is fifth at 3-7. Also in the NLC, Kodiak is first at 10-0, Wasilla is second at 7-3, Palmer is fourth at 4-6 and Colony is sixth at 1-9.
Led by the 18 kills and 32 digs of Kenai junior Abby Beck, the visiting Kardinals jumped out to a daunting early lead in the first set, then rallied from a SoHi match point in the second set to win and take a 2-0 match lead. Beck said Friday was the first time she had beat Soldotna in conference play.
“We were all really excited and were trying not to be nervous,” Beck said. “We wanted to play to win, not to not lose.”
Also for Kenai, Cori Holmes notched 25 digs, Alli Steinbeck had 29 assists and two stuff blocks, and Emily Koziczkowski had eight kills and two aces.
Soldotna senior Sylvia Tuisaula finished with nine kills and eight other attacks, Judah Aley had eight kills and 15 other attacks, Lindsey Wong had six kills and one block, libero Shaylynn Zener notched six digs and Drewe Zeek had one kill and two other attacks.
SoHi was also missing a crucial piece of its puzzle — senior middle hitter Makenna Rosin, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament last Saturday at the Dimond-Service tournament and is out for the season. Rosin supported the team from the sidelines Friday while on a pair of crutches, and the support was returned in the form of multiple posters adorning the walls of the SoHi gym with encouraging phrases.
SoHi coach Sheila Kupferschmid avoided placing blame on the absence of one of the team’s most powerful hitters.
“My kids gave a valiant effort,” Kupferschmid said. “We had them where we wanted them, but we just could not execute at the end.”
With Rosin out of the lineup, the SoHi coaching staff had to make adjustments to counter the Kenai front line. In Rosin’s place was Wong, typically a setter, and it was Drewe Zeek that was tasked with containing Beck on the outside.
Facing elimination in the fourth game, SoHi erased Kenai’s match point by stopping a potential kill at the net, forcing the ball to Kenai’s floor and tying the set at 24 apiece.
However, Kenai responded with a monstrous kill point by Koziczkowski, then got a well-timed hit from Cierra King that won it all.
“It’s huge going into regions,” said Kenai coach Tracie Beck. “It’s about when do you want to peak and play your best, and I think we’re playing our best right now.”
Kenai will be hosting the Northern Lights Conference tournament next weekend.
“It’s all mental,” coach Beck said about being able to beat SoHi. “We had Palmer on the ropes earlier this year, and we couldn’t finish the job that game.
“This one was huge for us.”
Kenai rushed out of the gate in the first set of the night, staking out a 15-4 lead with potent kills from Beck and Koziczkowski to cruise to the 10-point win.
The Kards started fast again in the second set with a 7-2 lead, but SoHi answered back with five straight points to tie it. Tuisaula helped to lead the Stars with an outside presence that got them to set point at 24-23, but Kenai scored three in a row to take the slim victory and a 2-0 match lead.
A tight third set was broken open with a 7-2 run by SoHi midway through that placed the Stars with a 21-17 lead. The home team managed it from there, forcing Kenai into several side-out plays that gave SoHi the points needed to win 25-20 and force a fourth game.
“We came out slow, but then we started to settle in and play volleyball,” Kupferschmid said. “Once the momentum began to switch, we battled very well.”
In order to avoid going to a winner-take-all fifth set, Abby Beck said the Kards had to dig down and play with passion.
“We started to not doubt ourselves,” Beck said. “We started to play with much more confidence and kept swinging hard.”
In the fourth set, Wong began to assert herself at the net with several key tips to the Kenai floor, giving the Stars an early 9-5 lead, but the determined Kards kept up the defensive front that stymied their opponents. After a side-out point, SoHi led 19-16, but Beck continued attacking and helped to tie it up at 21 apiece.
Two Soldotna mistakes left the Kards with a 23-21 lead, but a pair of kills by Aley and Tuisaula knotted it up again at 23-all. Two points later and facing a 24-all tie, Kenai dropped the hammer with two points by Koziczkowski and King that sealed the victory.