Soldotna High School is an institution of less than 800 students with a basketball program that won a single state championship in the 1990s. Go ahead and take a guess on how many of its players have taken their talents to the college hardwood in the last five years.
With five former alumni currently playing at the college level, the SoHi hoops program has turned out to be a small gold mine of talent in recent years.
Since 2010, the Stars have sent off a quintet that includes 2010 graduate Boomer Blossom, 2012 grad Evan Withrow, 2013 grad Kaillee Skjold and 2014 grads Katelynn Kerkvliet and Julie Litchfield.
So where did this explosion of skill come from?
Skjold, who is in the midst of her sophomore campaign with Division II University of Alaska Fairbanks, believes it can be traced to the athletic culture that has been cultivated by both coaches and parents alike.
“I think there was a group of students there that grew up together,” Skjold said via phone from Fairbanks. “I’ve played with some of them since we were little … it’s the same with the boys, we all played little kid basketball.”
Skjold, an emergency management major who holds a junior standing, is averaging 8.8 points per game this year for the Nanooks, fourth-highest on her team, and up from 7.7 ppg last year as a freshman. She has also seen gains in rebounds per game (grabbing 6.4 this year, up from 4.6 last year), minutes per game (28.2, up from 20.9) and has over twice as many starts this year (19) as last year (9).
Skjold picked up the sport at a young age, having grown up in a hoops-crazy household that included older sisters Heidi and Kjersten Skjold, both of whom played for legendary Ninilchik coach Dan Leman.
“I learned a lot of what he had to teach them,” Skjold said about Leman.
Skjold also attributed much of her formative training to middle school coach Phil Sheridan at the Boys and Girls Club. But on the playground, the one kid that she often found herself matched up against in those early days and which drove her to be better on the court ultimately became her teammate at Soldotna High, Julie Litchfield.
“The incorporation of sports into the high school experience taught me teamwork, dedication, and leadership,” Litchfield wrote in an email, echoing the remarks of her former teammate. “At least on the girl’s side, Soldotna helped us grow as players because we were put on the court as freshman. This forced us to mature and handle pressure quickly because we were already playing against the best teams in the state. Coach (Doug) Blossom was helpful in that he called any college coach as a reference for me.”
Litchfield committed to George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, last spring, and in her freshman year has averaged 3.7 minutes per game coming off the bench for a team that just completed a perfect 25-win regular season record. It marks only the third perfect season in Bruins history.
It’s a season that has seen Litchfield gain a new understanding of team, which in turn has led to success. It’s been a season that has shaped Litchfield into an improved role player.
“The style of our team is fast paced and aggressive,” Litchfield wrote. “I walked into a very good program and although I will always work hard to change my role in the future, I think it’s important to accept where I’m at and do the best I can be to make my team better.”
Skjold recalled her days as an adolescent competing for fun against her friend.
“Her defensive tenacity so annoying,” Skjold said about Litchfield. “She was the one you never want to have guard you, she’s in your face all the time.”
As the pair entered high school, they found themselves matching up with each other, not against.
“(Skjold) is an excellent player and she can think through the game well,” Litchfield wrote. “I don’t think anyone ever doubted her success at the (collegiate) level.”
The duo would eventually be paired on the same Stars team with Katelynn Kerkvliet and Kelci Benson to create a fearsome foursome that would help bring the SoHi girls back into the spotlight on the statewide level.
“I think we communicated to the younger groups at SoHi that this is something that we want,” Skjold said. “We want to be known for academics, effort and competition. I’m really proud of what we accomplished.”
Skjold, Litchfield and Kerkvliet were all multisport athletes as well. All three played volleyball in the fall, and in the spring, Skjold brought her speed to the track team while Kerkvliet and Litchfield proved a dominant force on the soccer pitch.
When basketball season rolled around, head coaches Mark Tuter and Doug Blossom were there to polish the players’ talents and push them to excel on the court and off it. Tuter handed over the reigns of the girls team to Blossom following the 2010-11 campaign, but Tuter and Blossom combined for three state trips in a four-year span, with a best finish of fourth in 2014.
“They were big encouragers,” Skjold said. “(Tuter) saw potential and so did Blossom … they really pushed us to accept the challenge of being a competitive team, a team that plays for region championships and competes at state.
“They pushed an identity on us, and that was something Soldotna really had to fight for. We didn’t walk into a winning program at first.”
The SoHi girls also produced finishes of sixth in 2012 and tied for seventh in 2011. Soldotna could have been to state four straight years, except a last-minute correction in the Win Percentage Index standings forced the Stars out of the 2013 state tournament a day after being told they were in.
The addition of Kerkvliet to the Skjold and Litchfield tandem in 2011 helped the skill set develop further by adding a post presence. It continued into the senior year of Kerkvliet and Litchfield, when they brought home a fourth-place finish at state, the best result by the SoHi girls since 2003.
“Kerkvliet definitely stepped up our senior season and provided us with a post presence several other teams lacked and I’m glad she has the opportunity to play at school this year,” Litchfield wrote.
Skjold said Kerkvliet’s addition allowed her to change her game up, as the 6-foot-1 center left Skjold more as a perimeter threat to opposing teams.
“Katelynn is a perfectionist,” Skjold said with a laugh. “She wants to do things right and be successful, and she’s a very competitive player.”
Kerkvliet committed to the University of Mary hoops squad in Bismarck, North Dakota, last spring. The Marauders play at the NCAA Division II level and won a national championship in 2000. Over the past 20 years, the team has posted only two losing campaigns.
Standing as the third-tallest on the Marauders, Kerkvliet’s post game has not diminished, but it certainly has been tweaked.
“I’ve learned a lot of post moves I’ve never done before,” she said. “I had to adjust to those. I have a role on the team.”
It’s a style of play that Kerkvliet credits Skjold for, adding that her former teammate’s intensity pushed her to continually improve.
“It was a lot more serious (in high school), Kaillee had us on our case,” Kerkvliet said. “They definitely were just a pleasure to play with, they were dedicated and passionate about their game. Some people would just be messing around in practice, but they were there to be serious.”
Heeding the advice of coach Blossom, Kerkvliet stayed serious once she earned a spot at the University of Mary.
“(Blossom) warned me that college is another step up,” she said. “If I played, I would have to adjust to learn to play at the college level.”
Kerkvliet is averaging over six minutes of playing time per game as a bench player, as well as 3.5 points and 1.7 rebounds.
As well as each of them have fit into their new roles, the former prep trio have not forgotten where they began their journey, nor will they ever.
“I knew I would miss my SoHi teammates as soon as my senior season ended,” Litchfield wrote.
“I love them both,” Skjold added.
In the two years preceding the SoHi girls run of prosperity, the Stars were already making an imprint on the state hoops scene.
The SoHi boys partook in the big dance two years in a row, and effectively kicked off Soldotna’s six-year run of success with a berth in the 2009 championship game, where they ultimately lost. The Stars also finished fifth at the 2010 tournament.
Evan Withrow and Boomer Blossom were a part of both teams, and both have gone on to collegiate success.
Blossom, the son of coach Doug Blossom, is a 6-foot-2 senior guard for the UAA Seawolves, and ranks among the bottom half of his team in height. But don’t let that fool you.
“I’m not a very athletic guy by any means, I’ve just gotta be able to guard and stay in front of these guys,” Blossom said.
A science of technology major, Blossom has come into his own at UAA as a scrappy player that also exhibits exquisite ball control. Blossom dished out 27 assists last year while committing only one turnover all season in 253 total minutes. He went the final 20 games without a giveaway, and was also voted Best Defensive Player by his teammates.
Perhaps it was a change in scenery that helped Blossom find his style of play. In 2012, the college sophomore transferred to Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls. In Minnesota, Blossom was often matched up to guard the other team’s best player.
“I had to play a lot bigger role on that team,” Blossom said. “The style was different too. As a junior college it was more fast paced, it was different because the guys were playing more for themselves, they were a little more selfish.”
Boomer (whose given name is Brendon) enjoyed a productive season in Minnesota with 11.7 points and 7.9 rebounds in 25 games, helping the Spartans to a 20-8 record and one game shy of the national tournament. The sophomore also shot 44 percent from the floor and 35 percent from beyond the arc.
But on defense, he remained just as frustrating.
“I would say I’m mostly defensive-minded,” Blossom said. “When I go out there, my playing style is busting my butt on the defensive end, and coach trusts me when I’m guarding guys.”
In high school, Boomer’s production on offense wasn’t too shabby, either.
As a senior at SoHi, Blossom posted an average of 20 points and seven boards per game. Blossom helped guide the Stars to the infamous 2009 Alaska state final against the Dimond Lynx, where SoHi put up a valiant fight in a 55-52 double-overtime loss.
“That’s the reason the 2010 team was successful, he was our energy,” Withrow said about his former teammate. “He knew how to get the spark going.”
But with college scouts in attendance at the state tournament, Blossom believes it was that kind of state success that helped bridge the gap between collegiate coaches and Peninsula athletes.
“If players tell a college coach, ‘I made it to state the last two years,’ he’ll know he’s on a good team,” Blossom said.
Blossom also noted that coach Matt Johnson, a former college player himself, provided a mental edge to a team that became the first in its history to make it to a state hoops final.
“He kind of brought a college-type attitude,” Blossom said. “He knew what it took to play, he’s an intense guy but fun guy.”
Withrow, a freshman on the team that played for the state title, saw his breakout moment come the next year, as a sophomore. It was Blossom’s senior year, and after qualifying to the big dance on the heels of a third-place finish at the region tourney, the Stars drew a first-round matchup at state with none other than Dimond.
Withrow stepped up with 29 points to help the Stars claim revenge over the Lynx in another double-overtime class, hitting 8-of-10 from the 3-point line. Withrow credits coach Johnson as being instrumental to helping him reach that high point.
When he graduated in 2012, Withrow had a commitment to play at South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City, a Division II Independent school. There, Withrow is pursuing a major in mechanical engineering. Withrow redshirted his freshman year, got playing time last year, but had to take on a medical redshirt status after a nagging hip injury forced him to get surgery in November. A second procedure was done this month as well, but the good news is he still has three years of eligibility left with the Hardrockers.
“I was kind of bummed,” Withrow said. “Last summer I thought I made huge strides, I was getting quicker and more athletic, but right at the end of summer I knew something was wrong with me.
“But my coach said if I can play defense, there’s a spot on the floor for me.”
Before his injury last year, Withrow saw playing time in events that served as exhibition games for South Dakota. In a span of eight games, Withrow said he averaged about 20 points, including a high of 31. That prompted Hardrockers coach Jason Henry to take a closer look at getting Withrow extended minutes on the court.
That process still hasn’t been easy, especially when his injury cropped up.
“Everybody is big and everybody is athletic,” Withrow said. “The speed of the game is way faster.”
Known as a talented shooter in his days at Soldotna, Withrow’s long-range threat did not go unnoticed outside of the coaching staff.
“I just remember him against Dimond, he comes off the bench and makes (eight) 3s,” Blossom said. “He always was a threat.”
Withrow returned the kind words for his friend. Two years younger than his old teammate, Withrow described Blossom as a different person when he steps onto the court.
“Boomer is a goofball, that’s the only word to describe him,” Withrow said. “But when it comes to basketball, the kid’s a machine, and what’s awesome about him is he’s a really good rebounder. He’s obviously a great shooter but one of the better rebounding guards.”
Now entering his senior season, Blossom is hoping to return home by enrolling in the Kenai Peninsula College paramedic program either this fall or the next.
If he does, the possibility of seeing a return of the glory years may be out there. Blossom said he may be persuaded by his father, Doug, to get back into the swing of things at SoHi with an assistant coaching role for the Stars. Of course, that may be an easier decision to make when his younger sister Brittany enters high school with a chance at joining the hoops team.