Walking off Kenai Central’s Cliff Massie Court on Halloween night had the Soldotna volleyball team feeling the sting of a rivalry loss, one that head coach Luke Baumer hopes will light a fire under the Stars.
One week later, the Stars will walk onto their home court hungry to prove it was just a fluke.
As hosts of the Northern Lights Conference championship tournament, which begins Thursday and ends Saturday with the championship match, the Stars hope to turn home court advantage into a fourth state berth in the last six years. SoHi gets its region title hunt started today with a 5 p.m. meeting with Wasilla.
Colony finished with a 6-2 NLC record to clinch the top seed, while Wasilla beat out Soldotna for the No. 2 seed on a tiebreaker. Both schools finished 5-3 in NLC play but the Warriors received the second seed thanks to a better record against Colony, the lone team with a higher seed. Wasilla went 1-1 against the Knights this year, while SoHi went 0-2 against the Knights.
The winner of SoHi and Wasilla moves on to Friday’s semifinals. No. 4 Palmer (4-4) will begin the tournament Thursday at 3 p.m. with a game against No. 5 Kodiak (0-8). The winner of that game plays No. 1 seed Colony at 7 p.m.
A victory Thursday would automatically punch SoHi’s ticket to the Class 4A state tournament. A loss would drop SoHi into the loser-out bracket and two wins away from making state.
Baumer said the Oct. 31 loss to Kenai, which capped a 1-3 finish (in nontournament play) to end the regular season, could either send SoHi into a downward spiral, or it could light a fire under the players with the most important tournament of the year on the line.
“That game definitely kind of gave them a reality check,” Baumer said. “It wasn’t a loss of momentum … (Kenai) had a very outstanding game, and we didn’t play to our potential, we missed plays and missed passes. Kenai came out and executed and played with a lot of grit.
“We talked the next day and I asked them, what does this loss against Kenai do to your confidence? Everyone unanimously said it makes them want to go harder.”
Baumer attributed the loss in part due to a position reshuffling that SoHi was still learning to play in after the loss of a key senior starter in Kylie Ness. Baumer said Ness was injured prior to an Oct. 19 game with Colony, and is missing the rest of the season due to a separate issue.
Soldotna began the year with a 10-game win streak in nontournament play, but the loss of Ness in mid-October threw a wrench into the program.
With Ness vacating the opposite hitter spot in SoHi’s attack, Baumer said he moved senior Bailey Armstrong to that position, which left Serena Foglia and Trayce Lyon alone as middle hitters. Baumer said the current lineup has had a little over two weeks together.
The adjustment took SoHi some time to learn, Baumer said, but he believes the squad will be ready for regions.
“You hope to be working with the team you’re taking to regions for the last half of the year,” he said. “You want your starting six to be consistent, and we’ve had a hard time dealing with that this year, the consistency. We’re really working on new rotations.”
As long as the Stars can play with consistency and trust with each other, Baumer said his crew can supply the rest of what it takes to advance deep into the postseason.
“Right now, we’ve come to a point where it’s mainly about finishing strong and not being outworked,” he said. “We don’t need to go over everything from the beginning of the season to now. Now, our jobs of coaches is just giving them confidence and repetition. We’ve done quite a bit of preparation and we’ve done as much as we can. Now it’s all about performance.”
Baumer said having the tournament on home court is crucial to the team’s success, adding that the crowd at road games can be hostile against the Stars.
“I think SoHi’s athletic programs have been pretty successful over the years, and they want to cheer against you,” Baumer said. “Having the court and entire gym cheering for us, it’ll be a nice change of pace for these girls.”
SoHi went 1-1 against Wasilla this year in full matches, but also lost two other times in singles games at tournaments. In a pair of NLC matchups in early October, the two sides battled closely, including two sets that went that over 30 points for the winner. SoHi took the first match 3-1 on that weekend, and Wasilla returned the next day to win 3-2.
The stats against the Warriors easily proved who is most dangerous for SoHi. Senior outside hitter Ituau Tuisaula had 47 kills combined between the two games with Wasilla, and she got help from junior setter Sierra Kuntz, who recorded 102 combined assists, and senior libero Holleigh Jaime, who had 42 digs over the two matches.
Baumer said those same players will need to step up again to combat Wasilla, which he expects to be tougher than ever.
“We know every time we go against Wasilla, it’s neck and neck,” he said. “We knew early in the season this was going to be a close region, it’s just been back and forth, neck and neck, and we’ve done really well against Wasilla. In the past, we’ve gone to Wasilla and lost, so the fact we’ve taken a game from them and come back the next night and fight, it’s big.”
Northern Lights Conference tournament
Hosted by Soldotna High School
Game 1 — Palmer (4) vs. Kodiak (5), 3 p.m.
Game 2 — Wasilla (2) vs. Soldotna (3), 5 p.m.
Game 3 — Colony (1) vs. Game 1 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 4 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 3 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 4 winner vs. Game 3 loser, 5 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 2 winner vs. Game 3 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 7 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 loser, 10 a.m.
Game 8 — Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner, 1 p.m. (championship)
Game 9 — Game 8 winner vs. Game 8 loser, 3 p.m. (if necessary)