Two volleyball teams that finished No. 2 in their respective conferences put an end to successful regular seasons Saturday at Soldotna High School, when the Stars defeated Nikiski in four sets.
After huddling together for a pregame photo op with Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, who paid a visit as part of her election campaign, SoHi beat Nikiski 25-15, 22-25, 25-13 and 25-22.
“It was a very nice evening for SoHi volleyball,” said coach Sheila Kupferschmid.
Soldotna ended its season 6-4 in Class 4A Northern Lights Conference play, placing the Stars second in the league behind the 9-1 Wasilla Warriors. The Colony Knights and Palmer Moose finished in a tie for third with 5-5 records, while Kenai is fifth at 4-6 and Kodiak is last at 1-9. Kenai Central finished its 2016 campaign with a two-game road split against the Kodiak Bears on Friday and Saturday.
Nikiski clinched the second seed out of the Class 3A Southcentral Conference earlier in the week with a win over Seward, boosting its final mark to 10-2, only behind the 12-0 record of Grace Christian. Nikiski is 10-6 overall.
Earlier in the season, Nikiski pushed the Stars to five sets in a thriller in Nikiski, only to come up short in the winner-take-all game.
Saturday at SoHi, the Stars recovered from a 25-22 second-set loss to the Bulldogs with a dominant third game in which Nikiski never threatened. Kupferschmid said several of her seniors stepped up in their final prep appearances on their home court.
“I was really happy with Taylor Earll, she had a fabulous floor game,” Kupferschmid said. “Taylor did not make a lot of mistakes, and I told her she’s making things confusing for (Nikiski).”
Earll notched three kills on 20 hits and doled out six service points, while senior middle hitter Drewe Zeek rolled with seven kills on 16 hits and 14 service points, three of them aces.
The method to SoHi’s madness Saturday? Flaunt their fast-paced game to keep the Bulldogs off kilter.
“We tried to work on speed because there are a lot of big girls in our region and big blockers,” Zeek said. “We have a lot of energy in practice. We don’t like to play slow.”
Zeek and company kept Nikiski’s defensive core busy all match. Interim libero Melanie Sexton held stout with 33 digs for the Bulldogs and Dessy Napoka had 13 digs.
“It’s hard when the other team doesn’t play fast,” she said. “Nikiski is a good defensive team, and they play scrappy.”
Sexton was temporarily filling in for sophomore Kelsey Clark, who recently sprained her ankle and was held out of competition against Soldotna.
Without Clark’s masterful defense, the Bulldogs had their hands full.
“Soldotna has awesome serving, and there aren’t many players in our conference that can serve that well,” said Nikiski coach Stacey Segura.
Segura also praised junior Rylee Jackson’s outside game in helping to keep SoHi on its toes.
Four straight serves by Zeek in the first set scored points to put SoHi ahead 19-9, which lasted to the end for a 1-0 match lead.
A tight second set saw the two teams play nearly point for point with each other, but Nikiski broke out in the end with three straight points, one on a stuff block by Ayla Pitt and Emily Hensley, and another on a tip point by Jackson, which put the Bulldogs up 23-21. Consecutive net violations by SoHi finished off the game to force a 1-all match tie.
A series of kill points by Zeek and SoHi freshman Ituau Tuisaula got the Stars out to a 10-3 lead in the third set, which then expanded to 20-7 at one point. A service point by libero Shaylynn Zener ended the set and put SoHi up 2-1 in the match.
Nikiski led by as much as 18-15 in the fourth game, thanks to solid play up front by Pitt, but the Stars clawed their way back and took the lead 20-19 with a kill from sophomore Kodi McGillivary. The final four points for SoHi came courtesy of Zeek and Tuisaula, and Zeek put it away with two service points in a row.
Cally Christianson finished with nine service points for SoHi, while Tuisaula had nine kills, nine blocks and 11 service points, Zener had 13 service points and McGillivary had six kills on 18 hits.