SoHi, Kenai begin fight for NLC supremacy

With a quick glance at the Northern Lights Conference volleyball season rankings, it doesn’t appear too difficult to see who stands above the rest and who fits the mold as cellar dweller. Kodiak ended its regular season with a perfect 10-0 conference record, followed by Wasilla at 7-3, Soldotna at 5-5, Palmer at 4-6, Kenai Central at 3-7 and Colony at 1-9.

But the Region III tournament doesn’t always play out with such precision. For three days, it likes to jumble things up like a washing machine, and by the time everything is done and settled, one or two teams have lost their favorite socks.

Heading into this weekend’s NLC tournament, held today, tomorrow and Saturday at Kenai Central High, all six conference squads harbor hopes of making it to the Class 4A state tournament. But with only three available tickets, not everyone has a seat at the head table. Something must give.

Soldotna coach Sheila Kupferschmid said the tournament — which is essentially a home meeting for the Stars — is by no means locked up for one single team to advance to next weekend’s season-ending state meet. The Kenai and Soldotna home crowds will see to that.

“I hope to use that to our advantage,” Kupferschmid said. “It’s pretty even the way the bracket is, and you’ve just got to play hard and stay focused.”

The Stars begin play with a matinee matchup against Colony today at 3 p.m. The winner will advance to play an awaiting Wasilla, the No. 2 seed, at 6 p.m.

“I was hoping for a little higher seed, but we were right in there with Wasilla,” Kupferschmid said about SoHi’s matchup with opposing NLC teams this season. “If this was during the regular season, maybe I’d say (Kodiak and Wasilla are the favorites), but not now at the end of the season.”

Kenai, hosting Palmer at 1 p.m. on its own Cliff Massie Court, knows what the power of a noisy student section can do. The raucous home crowd at Kenai helped spur the Kards volleyball team to a five-set victory over Wasilla on homecoming weekend in mid-September, a match that Wasilla coach Josie Cannon openly suggested was influenced by the opposing support.

“Our crowd is a big deal,” said Kenai coach Tracie Beck. “We have amazing kids.

“We won a (girls) state title in cross-country, we watched the football team go to state, so it’s a group of kids with a lot of school spirit.”

Here’s a closer look at the opening matches of the weekend:

(4) Palmer vs. (5) Kenai, 1 p.m.

As the fifth seed with a 3-7 region record, the Kards may not look like favorites to win the conference crown, but who said the underdogs never win?

Fresh of a 3-1 victory over SoHi in their regular season finale last Friday, the Kards are rolling with momentum.

“I don’t know how it could’ve been better,” coach Beck said. “We’re going right in with a good attitude, and winning that SoHi game and being able to be on our home court, we couldn’t ask for anything better.”

The Kardinals are looking for their first trip to state in a decade. Not since the 2005 Kenai squad took seventh at the state tournament have the Kards been back, but as good coach can attest to, streaks are meant to be broken. In her fourth year as head coach, Tracie Beck is at least three wins away from accomplishing that goal.

However, Kenai must get past Palmer first, which isn’t a given. Three weeks ago, in an Oct. 15 meeting, the Kardinals blew a two-set lead and lost to Palmer in a complete meltdown. After winning the first two sets 25-18 and 25-22, Kenai dropped three straight with scores of 25-19, 25-10 and the all-important fifth set 15-7.

“I think that’s the biggest thing, the mental component,” Beck said. “I’m grateful for the SoHi game (last Friday), because it was the same setup, yet we finished. It’s built up a lot of confidence, knowing we can lose the third game and battle back and win the fourth.

Kenai’s strong front net presence — thanks to junior hitters Abby Beck, Emily Koziczkowksi and Cierra King — will be a key matchup against Palmer’s stingy defense, which is anchored by libero Carly Venzke, a typical thorn in opponents sides.

“Palmer is hard to get a ball down on,” coach Beck said. “That great libero is a great read, but the first time I’ve seen her flustered is when we played them up there.”

(3) Soldotna vs. (6) Colony, 3 p.m.

SoHi coach Sheila Kupferschmid made it clear that she does not have any preference to which team her Stars will face first, but the sixth-seeded Colony Knights are not a bad draw. SoHi swept Colony 3-0 in both conference matches this year with a combined score of 150-108 between all six sets played.

“It’s a good start,” Kupferschmid said. “But honestly, when the season’s done all those records are gone, and when you play this tournament, it all boils down to which team wants to compete, and who’s still fresh enough to fight and put it on the floor.”

SoHi hasn’t been to state since 2012, the final year with Bruce King at the helm.

Last year, Soldotna came up against Kodiak on the first day of the region tournament and was promptly knocked out. This year, they won’t have to face Kodiak until at least Friday’s semifinal match, which is a completely winnable matchup, said Kupferschmid.

Although they were defeated by Kodiak in both conference matchups this year, Soldotna beat Kodiak in two sets 25-16 and 25-20 at the Dimond-Service tournament, then went on to topple a good Juneau squad 17-25, 25-17 and 16-14.

“I tell my kids, it’s not always the rotation, it’s the fight in the dog,” she said.

The biggest challenge the Stars have been fighting with is finding the right adjustments on the floor lineup since senior middle hitter MaKenna Rosin went down with an anterior cruciate ligament injury Oct. 24 at the Dimond-Service tournament in Anchorage.

With such a crucial piece of the Stars puzzle out, the SoHi staff had to do a bit of reshuffling, starting with senior setter Lindsey Wong, who saw time at every position on the floor last Friday against Kenai.

“I think Lindsey is everything on the floor,” Kupferschmid said. “I’ve got her doing everything, and she can do it all.”

With Rosin out of the picture, the remainder of SoHi’s power will have to come from senior outside hitter Sylvia Tuisaula, junior outside Judah Aley and junior middle Drewe Zeek. Tuisaula, Wong and setter Kearstin Yarnes are the only three remaining healthy seniors on the team, which Kupferschmid said is a challenge at the Class 4A level.

“It’s going to come down to the younger players,” she said. “There’s not much else we can do with changing our rotations, I’d rather just plug in other players. I’ve good enough athletes, but it’s just about can they bring it together on game day?”

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