The Soldotna volleyball team did it all Thursday night at the Northern Lights Conference tournament — swift attacking, stingy blocking, crafty defense and tough serving. In the end, that extra effort paid off big time.
The Stars put together the game of their lives Thursday evening at Kenai Central High School and dispatched the Wasilla Warriors in a three-set sweep to punch their ticket to the Class 4A state tournament for the first time since 2012, winning with scores of 25-15, 25-21 and 25-21.
“It’s really something,” said Soldotna coach Sheila Kupferschmid said. “It makes me feel good as a coach.”
In Thursday’s opening game, Soldotna beat Colony in four sets with scores of 25-14, 22-25, 25-18 and 25-19, advancing the Stars to the quarterfinals against Wasilla.
Led by a fierce front line that stifled the Wasilla attack, SoHi took an early lead in all three sets and managed to contain the Warriors, who came into the tournament as the second seed with a 7-3 record.
“As a senior, it’s good because I’ve never been there, so it’s a big accomplishment,” said senior middle hitter Lindsey Wong.
Wong, who usually takes up the setter role, and outside hitter Sylvia Tuisaula combined to create a formidable force at the front of the net, a spot that had been shared by senior middle hitter Makenna Rosin. Unfortunately, Rosin suffered an ligament tear in her knee two weeks ago, and so the SoHi staff was forced to make adjustments, which included moving Wong up to the net.
“At first it was a huge downer, but we’ve learned to do with what we have with our bench,” Wong said. “We have a pretty good defense, so we just had to pull it together without her.”
SoHi had not beaten Wasilla this year, so Thursday’s match could not have come at a better time. SoHi will face Kodiak in Friday’s semifinal game at 5 p.m. The winner advances to Saturday’s Region III championship bout at 1 p.m., while the loser drops to the second-chance bracket with a 10 a.m. game Saturday.
Wong and Tuisaula both notched nine kills Thursday, and Wong added three blocks.
“Sylvia had the game of her life,” Kupferschmid said. “I’m so happy for her, because this meant a lot to her.”
Tuisaula is herself a former Wasilla athlete, so getting the better of her old team made the occasion all the more special.
Junior outside hitter Judah Aley added seven kills, junior middle Drewe Zeek had four kills and three blocks, and sophomore libero Shaylynn Zener notched five digs. Coach Kupferschmid said Zener’s defensive play gave the Stars new life on multiple occasions.
“We served very tough and took them out of their game,” Kupferschmid said. “Incredible chemistry tonight. They started to believe in themselves, and it snowballed from there.”
The Stars opened up a 12-6 lead in the first set and controlled play from there to take a 1-0 match lead.
In the second set, Wasilla used a 5-2 run midway through to grab a 17-15 lead, but exceptional serving by Aley and Kearstin Yarnes got SoHi back into the game with a 9-1 run.
The back-and-forth third set eventually led to a 20-17 lead for Wasilla. However, Soldotna was not ready to quit just yet. A powerful kill by Zeek sparked a run of six straight points that put SoHi into the lead 23-20, and the Stars won it with a service point by Wong.
“It feels really good, I don’t think we’ve beat them since I’ve been here,” Wong said. “I think the intensity from our bench, cheering after every ball, we were staying positive.”
Earlier in the day, host Kenai Central knocked off Palmer in three sets with scores of 25-21, 25-17 and 25-22, but fell to No. 1 seed Kodiak in three sets, with scores of 25-16, 25-17 and 25-18.
The loss relegated the host Kardinals to the second-chance bracket and an 11 a.m. matchup with sixth-seeded Colony, a team that Kenai split its regular season meetings with.
Against Palmer, junior Abby Beck notched 15 kills and five aces, while senior Alli Steinbeck set up 28 assists. Emily Koziczkowski and Cierra King had five kills each, Alexis Baker had four kills and Jacey Ross provided six aces.
Beck then added 15 kills for the Kards against Kodiak, along with 12 digs. Steinbeck had 22 assists, Cori Holmes added 15 digs, Koziczkowski had three stuff blocks and King notched two stuff blocks.
“Kenai got my heart rate up, they were bringing the heat,” said Kodiak Amy Willis. “Abby Beck is hard to stop, and we had some trouble with her tonight.”
In the quarterfinal round, junior Tracy Gatter’s 22 assists and three aces helped Kodiak to the three-set sweep. Kodiak junior outside Ryana Recustodio notched eight kills, middle Richelle Walker had six kills, Mikayla Lirette provided 11 digs and Amanda Magnusen notched three crucial service aces in the third set to ice the match.
Kenai coach Tracie Beck said she believed her team entered the match against Kodiak overthinking the process, which ultimately led to them playing tight.
“I told them to try and not overthink things and just enjoy the match,” coach Beck said.
Several explosive kill points by Koziczkowski and Beck resulted in an early 7-5 lead for Kenai in the first set, but Kodiak’s service game eventually pulled the Bears back into the game with a 21-14 lead, which they managed from there to take a 1-0 match lead.
In the second set, Kenai streaked out to a 9-5 lead, but a string of kill points by Walker and Recustodio put Kodiak back into the lead. A kill point by Beck tied the set back up at 14-14, but a 7-1 run iced the game for the Bears.
In the third set, Kenai had cut the lead to 15-14, but with the help of three service aces from Magnusen, Kodiak was able to pull away and seal their spot in the tournament semis.
Willis added that she was nervous that her squad would come out flat after having to sit and watch the opening matches early in the day, but her worries were quelled in due time.