Two weeks into the prep volleyball season and Soldotna is already making a case for itself that it will be one of the teams to beat.
A week after sweeping reigning Northern Lights Conference champions Kodiak over two days, the Stars continued the early momentum with a championship win at the ninth annual Shayna Pritchard Memorial Tournament in Nikiski.
SoHi defeated Kenai Central two sets to one in the title game Saturday afternoon with scores of 25-22, 18-25 and 15-7.
With senior outside hitter Judah Aley leading the attack, the Stars managed to overwhelm the Kardinals with brute power.
“I felt pretty good, but I had a lot of help,” Aley said. “Our freshman middle (Ituau Tuisaula) was killing it, and Drewe (Zeek) and Aliann (Schmidt) were great in the middle.”
The Stars are coming off a two-game sweep of Kodiak in the their season opener last weekend, and got through the two-day Shayna Pritchard tournament with a perfect 4-0 record. Friday in pool play, SoHi went 2-0 to win pool No. 1, while Kenai finished atop its pool with a 2-0 record as well.
Saturday morning, SoHi rallied from behind to beat Nikiski in the semis with scores of 23-25, 25-11 and 15-11, setting itself up in the title match with Kenai. The Kards also got to the championship game with a comeback win, beating Bethel in the other semifinal 22-25, 25-20 and 15-9.
Host team Nikiski ended up taking third-place honors with a two-set win over Bethel with scores of 25-17 and 25-19. Seward claimed fifth place with winning scores of 28-26 and 30-28.
SoHi coach Sheila Kupferschmid said the weekend provided the Stars, as well as other teams, an opportunity to tune up their team chemistry and discover what needs work.
“We’ve got to get the connection down between our passer and our setter,” she said. “I don’t think we’re utilizing our strengths.”
Aley attributed the good start of the season to the offseason work put in by her, Zeek and Shaylynn Zener, among others. Aley said between club volleyball, a Wednesday night rec program and sand volleyball, the Stars have been busy.
“Our libero Shaylynn really stepped it up, she was flying around,” she said.
Kupferschmid added that sophomore Aliann Schmidt played exceptional with several big blocks.
“That kid’s going to turn heads some day,” Kupferschmid said.
Kenai coach Tracie Beck said the Kards simply lacked consistency Saturday, but the tournament experience proved to be crucial.
“As we get in the groove of things, we’ll get used to others around us,” Beck said. “These things are easy fixes.”
Senior outside hitter Abby Beck led Kenai with 10 kills against SoHi on Saturday, along with seven digs. Kenai libero Jillian Kindred added 11 digs and Bethany Coghill provided 27 assists.
In the title game, SoHi got off to a fast start in the first set with an 8-2 lead before Kenai called the first timeout. The short break helped as the Kards rallied back to tie it up at 9 points apiece with a few net violations from SoHi.
Tuisaula got her game going with a few big points on balls batted down that Kenai couldn’t handle, leading to a 17-13 lead, but the Kards answered again with seven straight points to take a three-point edge.
Coming out of a timeout, Aley pasted a service point onto Kenai’s court to tie the game at 21-all, then followed it up with a kill to take the lead. Drewe Zeek finished off the set victory with a service point.
In the second set, a seesaw battle eventually led to a 16-16 deadlock, which is when Kenai made its move. The Kards won eight of the next nine points to reach set point, thanks to a few dropped balls and net errors by SoHi, and a Stars serve into the net won it for Kenai to forge a 1-1 match tie.
In the third and final set, Aley showed her hand by striking for five out of six SoHi points, giving the Stars a 9-5 lead.
“I didn’t start off strong, but once the adrenaline kicked in, I got going,” Aley said.
A stretch of three points given up out of four attempts by Kenai due to the ball sailing out of bounds only helped SoHi build its advantage, and a serve by Cally Christianson was unable to be returned by Kenai for the match win.
Earlier on Saturday, Nikiski toppled Seward in the quarterfinal round with scores of 25-15 and 27-25, advancing the Bulldogs to the semis against SoHi. Bethel moved on with a 25-23, 25-21 win over the Soldotna JV squad.
In Friday’s pool play, SoHi took the first pool, while Bethel was second with a 1-1 record and Seward was third at 0-2. In the second pool, Kenai won with Nikiski at 1-1 and SoHi JV at 0-2.
Now in its ninth year, the tournament is played in memory of Shayna Pritchard, a Nikiski High volleyball and basketball player who was tragically killed in a June 2007 car accident in Colorado.