If only things had gone a little differently.
That must be the thought swirling in the heads of the Soldotna girls hoops team, a team that has finally found its stride again.
The Stars routed East Anchorage 54-32 in the Class 4A girls consolation semifinals Friday at the Sullivan Arena, setting them up with a Saturday date against the Dimond Lynx for fourth-place honors. The game is at 12:20 p.m. at UAA Wells Fargo Arena.
One day after losing a 58-55 overtime game to West, SoHi took control early and never let up on the T-Birds.
“We’re finally running, we’re not slowing down like we did midseason,” said senior Katelynn Kerkvliet. “We would slow down and run a lot of plays. Now we’re just running the ball and pushing it as fast as we can.”
The up-tempo, aggressive defense that SoHi has reverted back to has paid dividends in the two state games thus far. The Stars were so satisfied with Thursday’s performance that no one really felt upset about the loss.
“That’s what was important to us, we didn’t really think about that loss because of we were proud of the way we played, and we were happy to be here,” Kerkvliet said. “We didn’t really think about that, we just thought, wow we’re so proud of the way we played. It was really exciting to come back and play the way we’re used to.”
Kerkvliet led SoHi on Friday with a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds. Senior teammate Kelci Benson, fresh off a clutch shooting performance on Thursday, added 13 points.
Soldotna coach Doug Blossom said the play he has seen from his team during the two days of the tournament is not surprising to him at all, and he has expressed his confidence in the team since day one of the season.
“I think our energy is better than it’s been in a month,” Blossom said. “People don’t realize that these are kids, and stuff like WPI, looking at the ASAA site, keeping us on top, seeing how we’re seeded for regions … now, it’s all out the window. We’re having fun playing.
“I challenged them tonight to not be the best player on the floor, but to be the best team on the floor.”
The team effort paid off with 15 assists that were doled out by the Stars, compared to the three that East had. Of course, when the defense is working well, like it did against East, the transition offense picks up accordingly.
Soldotna also held every East player to single-digit scoring and rebounding totals.
“We had some practice over break about defense,” Kerkvliet said. “We really picked up our defense a lot. Coach (Guy) Hayes and Mr. (Matt) Johnson helped us a lot.”
The only lingering doubt is what could have been. If Soldotna could have beaten West in overtime on Thursday — a game that was won on a 3-pointer with five seconds left by a West player who hadn’t had a field goal all game — it would have advanced them to the state semifinal round, which would’ve pitted the Stars against their old conference foe, the Colony Knights.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we would’ve beat Colony tonight and been in the championship game,” Blossom said. “But you know what? It didn’t work out.”
Blossom pointed to the team’s struggles in the final month of the season, a period of time that dropped SoHi down the WPI rankings, from third to seventh. If SoHi had been seeded one spot higher in sixth — instead of Colony — the Stars would have faced East on Thursday.
As it is, Colony was the team to get the T-Birds in the first round, and ended up beating them 42-39 and advancing to the semis against West, the team that topped SoHi. The Knights beat the Eagles 48-46 to make the finals.
“We’re playing three games in the state tournament, and showing people that we are one of the best teams in the tournament,” Blossom said.
Immediately following the opening tip against East, the Stars put their energy into action. Only 38 seconds passed by the time the team scored its second basket, a short jumper by Kerkvliet.
Before the first four minutes were up, Soldotna held an 11-0 lead, and the defensive play by the Stars stifled the T-Birds to the tune of a 20 percent shooting performance in the first half.
Additionally, East turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, compared to six for Soldotna, and the Stars swiped twice as many steals from the T-Birds (20 to 10). Overall, East committed 26 turnovers in the game and shot 22 percent from the floor.
Senior Julie Litchfield had a hot start to score nine points in the first quarter, but she was shut out the rest of the way. Fortunately, her teammates helped her out, guiding SoHi to a 28-8 lead by the 6:05 mark of the second quarter, and a 32-21 lead at halftime.
East scored the opening basket of the second half to close to within nine points, but Soldotna answered back with 12 straight points to extend the lead to 44-23 with 2:48 left in the third quarter.
With 4:34 left in the game, a trey from Benson (who else?) put the SoHi lead at 22 points and realistically out of reach for East.
“It feels really good,” Kerkvliet said. “I’m glad we’re coming out here and playing with fire and we’re fighting. We picked it up and that’s what I really care about.”
Stars 54, Thunderbirds 32
Soldotna 22 10 13 9 —54
East 6 15 6 5 —32
SOLDOTNA (54) — Nelson 0 0-0 0, Benson 5 1-2 13, Litchfield 3 2-2 9, M. Wong 4 1-2 9, L. Wong 2 0-2 4, Hendrick 0 0-0 0, Kerkvliet 7 0-0 14, Miller 4 1-2 9, Jackson 0 0-0 0, McElroy 0 0-0 0. Totals 23 5-10 54.
EAST (32) — Villareal 0 1-2 1, McDiffett 0 0-0 0, Scaife 1 0-0 3, Makihele 2 0-0 4, Coffin 2 3-4 8, Pedro 0 0-0 0, Suaava 0 0-0 0, Makihele 0 0-2 0, Richard 1 0-0 3, Voliva 1 5-8 7, Page 3 0-0 6. Totals 10 9-16 32.
3-point field goals — Soldotna 3 (Benson 2, Litchfield 1); East 3 (Scaife 1, Coffin 1, Richard 1).