The Soldotna boys quenched one nine-year drought Friday night with a wild 43-41 semifinal win over Wasilla in the Northern Lights Conference tournament.
Saturday the Stars will attempt to snap a much longer dry spell.
Soldotna escaped with the narrow NLC semifinal victory Friday over the defending Class 4A state champion Warriors on a late go-ahead bucket by Brock Kant to secure the Stars’ first state tournament spot since 2010. The win advanced SoHi to Saturday’s region championship tilt, which the Stars haven’t won since 1991.
“The basketball gods were with us tonight,” Kant said after the game.
The boys win preceded a dominating victory for the SoHi girls, who also punched their ticket to state with a 62-22 win over Palmer. The girls team returns to state for the first time in five years.
SoHi boys head coach Nolan Rose emerged from the postgame locker room soaked from a celebratory water dump and said the win represented the next step the basketball program had to take in a process.
“To beat (the defending state champs) is awesome,” Rose said. “We don’t necessarily have the strongest basketball tradition, everyone knows we’re a football powerhouse, so we’re trying to build that.
We’ve (taken) our lumps. We just keep getting better each year.”
Kant said the senior class has waited a long time for the chance to play at the state tournament.
“We’ve worked all season for this, all offseason, all four years,” Kant said. “We worked our butts off all season, and it’s great to get the win.”
The Stars caught a break earlier in the day when the top-seeded Colony Knights went down in a shocker to No. 5 Palmer, 58-55. The Moose and Stars meet for the boys region title Saturday at 4 p.m.
The Colony loss looms large for the defending state champs. Wasilla has a shot to return to the big dance on an at-large bid, but with Colony (22-3 overall regular season) appearing to be in line for that spot, the reigning champs may be done.
“I don’t know if we have a shot now with Colony getting upset,” said Wasilla head coach Ryan Engebretsen. “It’s a very slim chance if anything that we get an at-large bid.”
SoHi junior Jersey Truesdell poured in a game-high 20 points for Soldotna while teammate Ray Chumley added 10. Wasilla senior Daniel Headdings, who was announced as co-MVP of the conference, led the Warriors with 18 points but only had six after halftime after tallying 10 in the first quarter.
Tied at 41 apiece with 9.2 seconds left, the final sequence began with SoHi inbounding along its own baseline. Chumley found Mekhai Rich at the top of the key, who dumped it off to Truesdell, who saw a wide-open Kant in the paint for the easy layup and the lead with four seconds remaining.
“My teammate Jersey set me up great,” Kant said. “We ran a great play coming out of bounds, and I was just open. My teammate got it to me perfect and I just had to execute.”
Wasilla had one last shot to win it, but had to inbound the ball from across court and couldn’t get close enough in time for a decent look, although Wasilla’s Luke Devine gave it all he had with a running 3-point attempt.
Devine originally had Kant guarded but moved out on Truesdell, leaving Kant open in the paint for the go-ahead bucket.
“To Jersey’s credit, because he’s been such a clutch player for us all year, he didn’t take the shot,” Rose said. “He had the poise and vision to find Brock underneath and make a great pass and Brock knocked it in.”
Engebretsen said while the loss stings, he can take solace that the senior class was able to enjoy a well-earned state title from 2017-18.
“My seniors that were on the roster last year, the state championship that they won last year will never be taken from them,” Engebretsen said. “Obviously they wanted to give themselves a chance to repeat, but kudos to Soldotna for playing hard and finding a way.”
Wasilla got the upper hand early in the game and led 14-4 in the first quarter. SoHi hung around and trailed 23-17 at halftime.
Truesdell and Chumley both got hot in the third quarter with a trio of 3’s that gave SoHi its first lead with 4:45 left in the quarter, and Kant added a triple of his own to help in the barrage.
SoHi led by four early in the fourth quarter but Wasilla came back with a gametying bucket from Headdings with 4:20 remaining. Truesdell hit a trey and a jumper to put SoHi up 41-36 with 1:30 left, but the Warriors answered right back to tie it again at 41-all with 37.7 seconds remaining, thanks to a pair of made foul shots from Devine.
That all set up the late drama for the Stars.
In the earlier semifinal, Palmer skated off with the upset win thanks to 24 points from Ronnie Marshall, who had 10 in the second quarter alone. The Moose defense also played a role by holding All-Conference selections Jeremiah Hersrud and Sullivan Menard to five and 10 points, respectively.
Soldotna girls 62, Palmer 22
The Stars streaked out to an early lead and never let up in securing an automatic bid to the 4A state girls tournament, the first for SoHi since 2014.
The semifinal win set up an NLC championship showdown with Wasilla, 49-47 winners over Colony in Friday’s first semifinal. The Stars and Warriors will tip off at 6 p.m.
But the most important achievement Friday was clinching that state spot, the first for the team and for head coach Kyle McFall in his fifth season at Soldotna.
“That was a huge step that we talked about before the game,” McFall said. “To get to that point and make sure we take advantage of the situation. We finally did that.”
The regular season leaders on the team all rose to the occasion with big nights. Brittani Blossom led the way with 14 points, Danica Schmidt had 12 and Alianna Schmidt and Ituau Tuisaula each notched 11.
Blossom said after last year’s “heartbreaking” first-round exit, a tournament loss to peninsula rivals Kenai Central, the Stars were motivated and ready to redeem themselves this year, and the senior class wanted to make a state run.
“We came back this year, and it’s nice to accomplish all the things we worked so hard for,” Blossom said. “We’ve worked four years for this. Me, Aliann and Danica have worked four years and a lot of the girls have put in so much time and effort.”
The hard work paid off against Palmer as the Stars raced out to a 13-2 lead in the first four minutes of the game. Danica Schmidt played a big role with a pair of 3-pointers on consecutive possessions, then was joined in the scoring barrage by Tuisuaula, who knocked in a couple layups with her dominant post play.
Blossom soon joined the party by connecting on two triples that pushed the lead to 27-8 midway through the second quarter. By halftime, the advantage stood at 29-10.
McFall said after watching the Colony-Wasilla game earlier, in which the Warriors scrapped out a two-point victory by winning the fourth quarter 15-12, he made sure the install the message of not letting up until the win was in hand.
“The girls did a great job of capturing the game right away,” McFall said. “We played exactly how we wanted to play. Defensively they were locked in, offensively they executed. They came out with real good focus.”
The Stars kept the momentum going in the second half with an 8-0 run to start the third quarter, which helped extinguish the hopes of a comeback by Palmer.
McFall’s praise of the defense was also merited. The Stars held Palmer’s three captains — seniors Abriana Busbey and Avery Pettingill and sophomore Catherine Uschmann — in check, holding the three star players to a combined two points.
Tuisaula received the girls Northern Lights Conference MVP award after the game, a remarkable honor given that Tuisaula has battled back from not one, but two knee ligament injuries, which have caused her to miss significant time, including her entire sophomore campaign in 2017-18.
“I didn’t even think I’d be close to getting this kind of recognition,” Tuisaula said. “It really means a lot to me that me working hard finally paid off.”
In a rare move, the boys MVP was shared between Colony’s Sullivan Menard and Wasilla’s Daniel Headding. Coach of the Year honors went to both Soldotna coaches; girls coach Kyle McFall and boys coach Nolan Rose.
Regular season awards
MVP — Sullivan Menard, Colony; Daniel Headding, Wasilla.
Coach of the Year — Nolan Rose, Soldotna.
All-Conference — Patrick McMahon, Colony; Luke Devine, Wasilla; Colton Spencer, Colony; Jeremiah Hersrud, Colony; Jersey Truesdell, Soldotna.
All-Conference Second-Team — Roberto Giron, Kodiak; Kody Campbell, Wasilla; Ronny Marshall, Palmer; Andrew Devine, Wasilla; Wyatt Baker, Colony.
MVP — Ituau Tuisaula, Soldotna.
Coach of the Year — Kyle McFall, Soldotna.
All-Conference — Harmony McSorley, Wasilla; Aliann Schmidt, Soldotna; Brittani Blossom, Soldotna; Tori Schwantes, Colony; Bella Hays, Wasilla; Danica Schmidt, Soldotna.
All-Conference Second-Team — Indiva Clark, Colony; Abriana Busbey, Palmer; Kali Bull, Colony; Leslie Speare, Kodiak.
Stars 62, Moose 22
Palmer 6 4 6 6 —22
Soldotna 18 11 23 10 —62
PALMER (22) — Maclean 2, Busbey 0, Pettingill 2, Lundin 2, Uschmann 0, Benshetler 0, Russell 8, Patton-Meyer 0, Prickett 0, Toro 6, Umbarger 0, Omatak 2.
SOLDOTNA (62) — McGillivray 6, Buckbee 0, Blossom 14, A. Schmidt 11, Bouschor 2, Tuisaula 11, Holland 4, Leadens 0, Burns 2, Crosby-Schneider 0, D. Schmidt 12, Fischer 0.
3-point FG — Palmer 0; Soldotna 4 (Blossom 2, D. Schmidt 2).
Team fouls — Palmer 16; Soldotna 17. Fouled out — none.
Stars 43, Warriors 41
Wasilla 14 9 10 8 —41
Soldotna 10 7 15 11 —43
WASILLA (41) — L. Devine 3, Campbell 7, Kauffman 2, Headdings 18, Koval 0, Lawhead 5, A. Devine 6.
SOLDOTNA (43) — Rich 1, Morrison 4, Hanson 0, Chumley 10, Truesdell 20, Kant 5, Michael 3.
3-point FG — Wasilla 3 (Headdings 2, Lawhead 1); Soldotna 8 (Truesdell 5, Chumley 2, Kant 1).
Team fouls — Wasilla 13; Soldotna 8. Fouled out — none.