With one mighty comeback, the Soldotna volleyball team punched their ticket to the big dance with a big win over Wasilla.
The Stars toppled the Warriors in five sets Thursday at the Northern Lights Conference tournament, winning with game scores of 17-25, 26-28, 25-19, 25-13 and 15-12.
The Stars, who earned their fourth state berth in six years, can advance to Saturday’s region championship by winning Friday’s 7 p.m. semifinal against the winner of Colony and the Palmer-Kodiak winner.
But it was the Class 4A state tournament that was really on everyone’s minds.
“We knew if we got this win, it was going to take a big load off our shoulders,” said SoHi head coach Luke Baumer. “Everybody here, their whole goal is to get to state. That’s the pinnacle. That’s where people want to get to, so we got there the first night. These girls can now go home, rest and have some pressure taken off.”
The match was the only one played Thursday after the Kodiak Bears were delayed due to fog at the Kodiak airport. Friday’s bracket was subsequently shifted. The schedule can be found at the end of this story.
Following an opening set loss, SoHi led by eight points late in the second set but Wasilla rallied back to stun the Stars en route to a 2-0 match lead.
Baumer said that’s when SoHi found its magic.
“We’ve been in that situation so many times this year,” Baumer said. “I told them in the huddle, we are no stranger to this. This is exactly where we perform the best, when our backs are against the wall … they step up when it’s time to step up.”
Led by the powerful kills from senior Ituau Tuisaula and clutch digs from senior libero Holleigh Jaime, the Stars began making inroads on Wasilla’s lead. Tuisaula finished the night with 29 kills for SoHi, while Jaime had 16 digs.
Tuisaula said the team enforces the belief that they are the best in the region at making in-game adjustments, and said that the Stars watched film to pick out Wasilla’s vulnerabilities on the court.
“During practice, our coaches pretended to be one of the players on Wasilla,” Tuisaula said. “They worked one of their high-percentage hits and got us prepared getting those hits up.”
SoHi’s practice plan targeted Wasilla junior outside hitter Josi Schachle and junior middle hitter Jada Schultz, who stands at 6-foot-2. Baumer said both players had 18 kills against SoHi earlier in the year, and while Schachle recorded 15 kills Thursday, Schultz was contained to single-digit points. Schachle also tallied 16 digs, while teammate Heidi Brewer led the Wasilla defense with 22 digs.
Wasilla head coach Katie Oxspring left the gym disappointed after her Warriors entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed, and said the team suffered a lapse in concentration after going up 2-0 in the match.
“We stopped playing,” Oxspring said. “It’s been an uphill battle this year with our body language and mind-set, and they lost it. It ate us alive.”
Prior to the comeback, Wasilla was finding ways to beat Soldotna. The Stars led 18-10 in the second set, but Schachle and Schultz led the Warriors back to tie it at 23 apiece. From there, both teams reached set point, but it wasn’t until two mistakes by SoHi allowed Wasilla to score the final two points to win it 28-26.
In set three, a late five-point SoHi run with hits from Bailey Armstrong and Morgan Bouschor helped the Stars reach a 22-14 lead, which was enough to hold off Wasilla.
In the fourth set, SoHi led by three until a 9-0 run broke it wide open, allowing the Stars to coast to the set win and force a winner-take-all fifth set.
In that final set, Tuisaula unleashed her power with a jumble of kill points and big shots that left Wasilla reeling. SoHi led early but Wasilla came back to take a brief lead, then tie it at 10 apiece.
From there, SoHi scored three straight points — two from Tuisaula kills — to force a Wasilla timeout. Schachle helped get Wasilla back within one, but a kill by Tuisaula set up match point, and the Stars clinched it with an outside shot.
“We knew Wasilla is, in my opinion, the best team in the region,” Baumer said. “When it comes down to big, big opportunities and big wins under pressure, Wasilla is 100 percent.”
SoHi senior Bailey Armstrong tallied nine kills, while Tuisaula had 13 digs, Hosanna Van Hout notched six digs, Sierra Kuntz had 43 assists and Trayce Lyons had seven kills.
Game 1 — Palmer vs. Kodiak, 11 a.m.
Game 2 — Colony vs. Palmer/Kodiak winner, 3 p.m.
Game 3 — Wasilla vs. Palmer/Kodiak loser, 5 p.m.
Game 4 — Soldotna vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 2 loser vs. Game 3 winner, 10 a.m.
Game 6 — Game 4 loser vs. Game 5 winner, 12 p.m.