For a span of about 20 minutes Thursday night, it looked as if the team from the smallest school in the Class 4A state volleyball tournament was on its way to stunning the biggest.
Ultimately, the Soldotna Stars fell 3-1 to the biggest school in the tournament, the West Anchorage Eagles, in a quarterfinal matchup. The Eagles won with scores of 25-9, 25-12, 26-28 and 25-21, advancing them to Friday’s semifinal round against the Dimond Lynx.
Soldotna, meanwhile, will need to win three games in the “loser-out” bracket to reach Saturday’s final, starting Friday with a 1:30 p.m. matchup against the winner of Wasilla and Colony.
After falling into a 2-0 match hole with lopsided scores, SoHi was able to eke out a slim third set victory, then came close to forcing a winner-take-all fifth set, leading 20-17 late in the fourth.
“I told them to hang in there,” said SoHi head coach Sheila Kupferschmid. “Other teams sometimes will let up when they go up (2-0), and my kids kept their foot on the gas.”
The late motivation was the result of a complete team effort. Junior outside hitter Ituau Tuisaula pumped in 11 kills, while Bailey Leach scored four aces and 11 points overall, libero Holleigh Jaime had 14 digs and Brittani Blossom recorded 15 digs.
Earlier on Thursday, the Stars prevailed 3-2 over West Valley, advancing them to the late game against West.
SoHi faced difficulty in West’s tall front line, namely senior middle hitter Danika Brown, who pelted the Stars defense with kill points.
“They’re big and they swing well,” Kupferschmid explained. “They have a good setter.”
Kupferschmid said she felt the key different against West was Soldotna’s serve-receive, which struggled against a deep Eagles team that had defensive stars Jaime, Blossom and Kylie Ness scrambling.
West opened up a 17-6 lead in the first set before Kupferschmid was forced to call timeout to discuss how to contain the service game of West senior Kathleen Dexter, who put up a handful of service points on the Stars.
SoHi didn’t fare much better in the second set, although Leach and Tuisaula were able to pair up for several SoHi block points. Brown made sure to record her impact on the game with three kill points out of four in a 5-3 West run. The Eagles clamped down on defense to take a 23-11 lead late that stood up.
West looked to be on its way to the sweep when it took a 12-8 lead in the third set, but a timeout seemed to organize the Stars, who rallied to tie it at 16 apiece.
The Eagles led 20-17, but Tuisaula pounded the Stars pack into contention with strong hitting. SoHi staved off match point three times, first at 24-22 and then at 25-24 and 26-25. A ball from Jaime sailed wide after glancing off a West player, lifting SoHi into set point, and the Stars delivered to take the set and stay alive in the match down 2-1.
In the fourth set, a 9-3 run by SoHi midway through pushed the Stars to a 19-16 lead, which then moved to 20-17.
However, a kill point by Dexter sparked a 5-0 West run, and ultimately the Eagles were able to close on an 8-1 run to win the match and send SoHi to the elimination bracket.
Soldotna 3, West Valley 2
In Thursday’s state opener, the Stars went punch for punch with the Wolfpack to secure a spot in the quarterfinal round, winning with scores of 21-25, 25-21, 25-23, 19-25 and 15-8.
Aliann Schmidt paved the way with 18 kills and five blocks, while Ituau Tuisaula added 16 kills and 11 points total and Bailey Leach scored 10 kills. Holleight Jaime had 26 digs and Brittani Blossom notched 19.
SoHi lost after leading 15-5 in the first set. The Stars scored seven of the first eight points of the set only to see West Valley claw back 15-3 run, buoyed by a strong attack by middle hitter Sonia McGaffigan and outside Jozey Martellaro.
Kupferschmid said several substitutions she made with setters caused the lead to evaporate quickly as the team on the floor struggled to find chemistry.
“I tried to find an edge with the kids,” Kupferschmid explained. “We had setters switching in and out of there.”
Eventually, Kupferschmid said, the Stars regained balance after the first set with great serving by Tuisaula.
In set two, Tuisaula combined with Schmidt to put SoHi up 19-16, but West Valley clawed back with points from McGaffigan and outside Sarah Cooper, helping the Wolfpack to take a 20-19 edge.
Blossom and Tuisaula both notched several timely kills down the stretch to put the second set away and tie the match up at 1-all.
West Valley started strong in the third set with a 9-3 lead, but several big serves by Paulyne Catacutan closed up the gap for SoHi. Schmidt was able to make her mark on the game with a team block with Carsen Brown that tied it at 21 apiece, then scored a kill point to put SoHi at set point, which Tuisaula delivered with a tip down to the court.
A strong 14-7 start for the Wolfpack in the fourth set held up as West Valley forced the winner-take-all affair.
West Valley opened up a 4-2 lead in the fifth set, but SoHi used an aggressive attack to score seven unanswered points to grab a 9-4 lead. Schmidt rained down shots on the Wolfpack down the stretch to clinch the victory for SoHi.