Soldotna senior Cally Christianson (2) fights against a block by Kenai Central teammates Nikki Prior (5) and Jaiden Streiff Oct. 27 at Soldotna High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna senior Cally Christianson (2) fights against a block by Kenai Central teammates Nikki Prior (5) and Jaiden Streiff Oct. 27 at Soldotna High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

SoHi, Kenai volleyball teams to clash in NLC tourney’s 1st round

Soldotna coach Sheila Kupferschmid and Kenai Central co-coach Pako Whannell don’t need to be told anything can happen in the Northern Lights Conference volleyball tournament when it is held in Kodiak.

Both have already lived it.

In 2006, Whannell was the coach of a Soldotna team that was 2-8 in conference when it traveled south for the NLC tourney, while Kupferschmid was directing a Skyview team that was undefeated.

The Stars pulled off an upset of the Panthers in the semifinals to make the state tournament.

So when Soldotna and Kenai play in the first round of the NLC tourney at 3 p.m. today in Kodiak, don’t expect the Stars to overlook the match even though SoHi comes in at 6-4 in the conference, while the Kards are 0-10.

“It’s always a hard place to play,” Kupferschmid said of Kodiak. “With all the travel it takes to get over there, the kids aren’t used to that kind of travel and it can be a challenge.”

Despite tough trips to Kodiak in the past, Kupferschmid is feeling good headed into the tournament. She said the team is staying at a church where everybody can be together, as opposed to a hotel.

Most importantly, the No. 3-seeded Stars have all of their starters available for play, which has not happened in the past few years due to injury. Senior opposite hitter Ella Stenga had been working her way back from an injury, but is now fully ready to go.

“Anything can happen, but to be honest I like the direction we’re going,” Kupferschmid said. “The kids played very well at Dimond-Service and we were just getting Ella back into the swing of things.”

The quickest way for the Stars to earn their first state trip since 2015 is to beat Kenai, then beat No. 2 seed Wasilla on Thursday at 8 p.m. The Warriors and Stars split in conference play this season. An early loss would mean SoHi must travel through the consolation bracket and be one of the last three teams standing.

Soldotna will have to get key performances from players untested in the tournament. The only players with significant tourney experience are Stenga, seniors Shay Zener at outside hitter and Cally Christianson at setter, and junior middle hitter Aliann Schmidt. Junior Kodi McGillivray also got key time due to injuries at last year’s tourney.

“We are still very young but I think the young kids have really stepped up defensively,” Kupferschmid said. “My offense, I’ll put against anybody’s offense.”

The coach also is looking for big efforts from sophomore libero Holleigh Jaime and sophomore middle hitter Bailey Leach.

While SoHi comes in healthy, the Kardinals suffered two key injuries in Friday’s three-game loss to the Stars. Junior setter Maddie Galloway is out with a broken scapula, while senior outside hitter Denali Lockwood is out with pulled back muscles.

“We’ve got some young girls ready to step up,” said Whannell, who coaches along with Jason Diorec. “All they can do is play their hearts out and learn to get better.”

The coach said 2006 is a prime example of what can happen when a team improves all season and peaks during the conference tourney.

“We have an 0-10 record but the girls have been getting better and better every time they play,” Whannell said. “We’ve been talking with the girls and telling them to play with confidence, play with passion and play with heart.

“That’s what volleyball is about. That’s what any sport is about.”

One example of Kenai’s constant improvement is junior libero Hayley Maw. Maw had never played volleyball before this season but Whannell said she now is a key part of the defense.

The coach said senior right side Mayzie Potton has given the team consistency while also stepping up to set, while senior Sam Kompkoff has made a successful transition to middle hitter.

Whannell added freshman Bethany Morris and sophomore Jaiden Streiff have also stepped in and played fearlessly for Lockwood.

“Anything can happen and anything is possible,” Whannell said. “You just have to believe in your teammates and yourself and go and play your heart out.”

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