Soldotna sophomore Jersey Truesdell looks for an opening against the Kodiak defense Jan. 18, 2018, at Soldotna High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna sophomore Jersey Truesdell looks for an opening against the Kodiak defense Jan. 18, 2018, at Soldotna High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Season preview: SoHi hoops facing challenges as lone 4A peninsula team

Upon waving goodbye to its crosstown rival in the N0rthern Lights Conference, the Soldotna Stars suddenly have no one else with which to play.

The inevitable exit by Kenai Central from the Class 4A level of prep basketball has left Soldotna as the lone peninsula team still competing at 4A, leaving the Stars to battle it out with Northern Lights Conference opponents Colony, Wasilla, Palmer and Kodiak. SoHi’s closest conference opponent on the road is Palmer, a solid 3 1/2-hour drive north.

“It’s tough,” said SoHi boys coach Nolan Rose. “All the 4A schools want to play other 4A schools, so it’s difficult to schedule them to come down here.”

Not only is SoHi the last remaining 4A hoops team on the peninsula, but the Stars still must compete with the big dogs from the north. The Wasilla Warriors are the defending boys and girls NLC champions and the Wasilla boys are the reigning 4A state boys champions. Both Colony boys and girls programs finished runner-up at the conference tournament last year after stellar seasons.

With the Northern Lights Conference tournament being held at Soldotna in March, SoHi girls coach Kyle McFall said home court will be big, but not as important as seeding going into the weekend. With the loss of Kenai leaving the NLC with five teams, the bottom two squads will play on opening night of the tournament, while the top three seeded teams get a bye.

McFall said he hopes the Stars can secure a top three spot headed into the tournament, which will allow them a first-day bye.

“It’s still going to be a matter of who executes better and can we not turn the ball over in big moments,” McFall said. “We’re capable of beating those teams, but we’ve got to make sure we’re being consistent and maintaining that intensity.”

That won’t be easy on the girls side, as the defending NLC champion Wasilla returns senior Olivia Davies, the reigning conference girls MVP.

Last March at the NLC tournament, Soldotna lost to Kenai on the first day and was left to fight for fifth-place honors, which the Stars ultimately earned. McFall said SoHi has suffered from defensive lapses in the past, but with the growth and experience the Stars return, he thinks a shift in fortunes is in order.

“The big mantra this year is about consistency and building toward that,” McFall said. “We’re getting better at that.”

On the boys side, the Stars are looking to build upon a near miss at last season’s region tournament, when SoHi lost a tournament semifinal to No. 1 Colony and an automatic berth to state. The Stars ended up with a fourth-place tourney finish after losing to Palmer on the final day.

The Soldotna boys haven’t been to state since a fifth-place showing in 2010.

“The formula’s the same,” Rose said. “It’s all about getting in that semifinal game and figuring out a way to knock these teams off, and a little home-court advantage is good.”

The SoHi boys have yet to play a game this year after last weekend’s Powerade/Al Howard tournament was canceled due to multiple teams pulling out, but Rose said two basketball camps in June — one at Colony High and another at one of Gonzaga University’s camps — have already put 26 games under the player’s belts. Plus, a holiday tournament in Ketchikan, the Clark Cochrane Classic, next weekend should help him figure out the team’s strengths and weaknesses.

Until then, Rose joked that the only thing his players can do is gain some height.

“If we could get about 6 inches taller in each spot, that’d work,” he said. “Those (Valley) teams are really good, they’ve done well at the state tournament. These are some of the best teams in the state, and beating them is difficult.”

The SoHi boys lost a chunk of seniors off the 2017 squad, including four that started, and Rose said his returning cast includes just two names that hold significant varsity starting experience — junior point guard Jersey Truesdell and 6-foot-3 senior post David Michael. Truesdell returns after grabbing Second-Team All-Conference honors last year.

Joining Truesdell and Michael is senior forward Brock Kant, 6-2 junior Zach Hanson and 6-2 junior shooting guard Ray Chumley. Rose said Hanson is out for an injury but expects to return later in the season. Until then, Rose said Tyler Morrison will be filling in on the starting list.

Rose tabbed junior guard Mekhai Rich as one of his top bench options, along with senior forward Tommy Wells, 6-8 senior Wyatt Denna, junior Levi Rosin and 6-3 junior Hudson Metcalf. Rose said Metcalf is currently recovering from a shoulder injury, but is hopeful to return to action.

The Soldotna girls return four starters as part of an experienced senior class that McFall hopes can take SoHi back to state for the first time in five years. SoHi’s most recent state appearance resulted in a fourth-place finish in 2014.

“The big thing I love about this group is they’re really unselfish,” McFall said. “Teams can’t just focus in on one person and try to stop them.”

SoHi’s starting five includes senior guard Aliann Schmidt, who McFall said can also use her 5-foot-10 height as a post player. Schmidt is a returning First-Team All-Conference player, and is joined by senior sister Danica Schmidt, a 5-foot-11 guard. Danica returns after a Second-Team All-Conference member in 2017.

“(Danica) has improved in breaking down defenses, she has good vision, and now she’s developed a good outside shot,” McFall said.

The Schmidts are joined by senior shooting guard guard Brittani Blossom and 6-foot junior post Ituau Tuisaula, both returning starters, and junior Drysta Crosby-Schneider.

McFall’s first options off the bench include senior Haley Buckbee, junior Meijan Leaf, senior Kalyn McGillivray and sophomore Morgan Bouschor.

Soldotna’s Brittani Blossom launches a 3-point shot Dec. 14, 2018, over Kodiak defender Lisa Marcelo at the Powerade/Al Howard Tip-Off tournament at Soldotna. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Brittani Blossom launches a 3-point shot Dec. 14, 2018, over Kodiak defender Lisa Marcelo at the Powerade/Al Howard Tip-Off tournament at Soldotna. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

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