Wasilla’s Diondra Lawhead attempts to block a shot from Soldotna’s Danica Schmidt Saturday in the Northern Lights Conference girls championship at Soldotna High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Wasilla’s Diondra Lawhead attempts to block a shot from Soldotna’s Danica Schmidt Saturday in the Northern Lights Conference girls championship at Soldotna High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

SoHi teams ready for deep 4A state fields

The trajectories that have taken the Soldotna boys and girls basketball programs to the Class 4A state tournament have been markedly different, but with March Madness in full swing, their postseason paths are eerily similar.

Both SoHi teams punched their tickets to the big dance with triumphant conference tournament semifinal victories on their home court, but both lost the title games the next day to finish second.

Both teams also start their state runs with the same opponent in West Anchorage. In the 4A girls bracket, the fourth-seeded Stars match up with fifth-seed West Anchorage today at 9:30 a.m., while in the boys bracket, the fifth-seeded SoHi boys also match up with the West Eagles, the No. 4 seed, for an 11 a.m. opener.

Both SoHi first-round games are also rematches from earlier this year. It was even the same day, Feb. 9 — the SoHi girls prevailed 60-52 over West at the Lady Lynx Prep Shootout in Anchorage, while the SoHi boys fell agonizingly short 58-57 in a nonconference contest across town.

Those two seesaw affairs have set the stage for first-round battles with the Eagles at the Alaska Airlines Center. The eight-team tournaments for both boys and girls will end Saturday with championship games at 6 p.m. (girls) and 8 p.m. (boys), but both Soldotna coaches are not looking past their opening tilts against West.

“We’re focusing on taking it one game at a time,” said girls coach Kyle McFall. “We’re not looking past West, we’ve been preparing for them. That’s really our whole mentality right now.”

SoHi boys coach Nolan Rose echoed that same cliche, adding that SoHi is one of the greener teams at the tournament. The girls team hasn’t been to state since 2014, and hasn’t won it all since 1993, while the boys haven’t gotten to state since 2010 and have never won the big prize.

In the bright lights and cavernous arena of the Alaska Airlines Center, Rose said his team needs a fast start.

“It might take our kids a minute or two to adjust because none have played there before,” Rose said. “West is there annually, it seems like.”

The Stars left the school Wednesday morning to great fanfare, receiving a police escort as they bussed up to Anchorage for early shoot-arounds.

On the heels of a 24-4 season, including endowment and tournament games, the SoHi girls are looking to put a successful period on what has been a successful season.

The Northern Lights Conference championship loss could be a big motivator. The Wasilla Warriors rallied from an early hole to beat Soldotna 57-39 after losing both regular season contests to the Stars.

“We got up early (in the game), and it was like the moment became too big and we froze up,” he said. “We definitely weren’t moving, the offense wasn’t running anything like it was supposed to, and the girls recognized that.”

McFall said after reviewing game film, the team came out with renewed hope in practice over spring break.

“Last week was probably some of the best practices of the year,” he said. “We didn’t rise to the challenge (of the NLC) in the moment, but we’re determined not to let it happen again.”

The Soldotna girls’ lone title-game appearance in program history was 1993, when the Molly Tuter-led Stars won it all in a classic battle against Kenai Central.

The program’s most recent state appearance was 2014. That year’s Stars also matched up with West in the first round, a mighty clash that ended with SoHi falling 58-55 in overtime.

This year, the SoHi system is mostly predicated on the success of seniors Brittani Blossom and Danica and Aliann Schmidt, and junior Ituau Tuisaula. Blossom’s perimeter shooting has fueled SoHi’s offense to many wins this year, while Tuisaula — the conference MVP — has provided a stubborn post presence that few opponents have solved, and the ballhandling guard skills of both Schmidts have helped the offense.

That helped SoHi defeat West the first time around on Feb. 9, but McFall is wary of the Eagles, who now have one of their star players back in the fold in senior Nyeniea John, who McFall said was out of the lineup in their first clash.

“She’s a really athletic forward for them,” McFall said about John. “She’s a slasher attacker, a good defender, and obviously she’ll make a difference.”

That earlier game with West was preceded by two losses in the Lady Lynx tournament — one to Dimond and another to West Valley, both of which are seeded first and second at this weekend’s state tourney.

On the boys side, the Stars look to avenge not only a region tourney loss, but their regular-season loss to West.

In that game, Soldotna got 22 points from junior guard Jersey Truesdell and 16 from Ray Chumley, both of whom have played integral roles in leading the offense in 2018-19, but after a big third quarter led to a 51-46 Soldotna lead entering the fourth, the Stars could only get six points over the final eight minutes as the Eagles escaped with the win.

“If it was a typical NLC, grind-it-out, 45 to 44 type slugfest, that would help us,” Rose said about Thursday’s rematch.

Rose is making his first state tournament appearance as a coach in his third year with the SoHi boys, and anticipates another close game with the Eagles.

“We’ll recap things after the season and congratulate ourselves on a good year, but right now, we’re thinking only about West,” Rose said. “We’re not going up there just happy to be there. We’ve got a young group, and we want to go up there and beat a tea m we know we can beat.”

Rose acknowledged that the Eagles feature a deep lineup full of talented guards and shooters, but he said that the Stars have shown they have the top-end talent to equal that, most notably in Truesdell.

Truesdell has led the Stars this year with multiple 20-plus point games, and typically finds his best shooting from beyond the 3-point line. Rose pointed to Truesdell as being one of the most underrated 4A players in the state.

“I don’t think he gets a lot of publicity because we’re down here on the peninsula,” Rose said. “The talking heads don’t see a lot of him, but he’ll play really well and he’s ready to go.”

Rose added that Chumley is also a big shooter who complements Truesdell’s game, and as long as SoHi gets contributions from players like David Michael, Tyler Morrison, Zach Hanson and Brock Kant, he feels confident about moving on.

“We don’t need 20 (points) from all of them, but if they chip in four to six to eight, that’ll go a long way for us,” Rose said.

Class 4A State Basketball Tournament

At Alaska Airlines Center

GIRLS

Thursday’s games

Game 1 — Dimond (1) vs. Ketchikan (8), 8 a.m.

Game 2 — Soldotna (4) vs. West (5), 9:30 a.m.

Game 3 — West Valley (2) vs. Chugiak (7), 3:30 p.m.

Game 4 — Bartlett (3) vs. Wasilla (6), 5 p.m.

Friday’s games

Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 8 a.m.

Game 6 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 9:30 a.m.

Game 7 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 3:30 p.m.

Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 5 p.m.

Saturday’s games

Game 9 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 11 a.m. (4th place)

Game 10 — Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 loser, 8:30 a.m. (3rd place)

Game 11 — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 6 p.m. (Championship)

BOYS

Thursday’s games

Game 1 — West (4) vs. Soldotna (5), 11 a.m.

Game 2 — East (1) vs. Ketchikan (8), 12:30 p.m.

Game 3 — Colony (2) vs. West Valley (7), 6:30 p.m.

Game 4 — Dimond (3) vs. Palmer (6), 8 p.m.

Friday’s games

Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 11 a.m.

Game 6 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 12:30 p.m.

Game 7 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6:30 p.m.

Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 8 p.m.

Saturday’s games

Game 9 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 12:30 p.m. (4th place)

Game 10 — Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 loser, 10 a.m. (3rd place)

Game 11 — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 8 p.m. (Championship)

Soldotna’s Jersey Truesdell puts up a shot against Wasilla’s Daniel Headdings Friday night in the Northern Lights Conference semifinals at Soldotna High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Jersey Truesdell puts up a shot against Wasilla’s Daniel Headdings Friday night in the Northern Lights Conference semifinals at Soldotna High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

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