Last Friday’s Northern Lights Conference tournament semifinal victory was one of the sweetest for the Soldotna volleyball team in a while, but for the Stars, it wasn’t enough to satisfy their appetite.
The big hardware is still standing out there for eight teams at the Class 4A state tournament, set to tip off today at West High School, and for a team that does not own one state volleyball crown in school history, the hunger is fierce.
“If we can get by Juneau and get up to play the number one team in the state, talk about a Cinderella story,” said Soldotna head coach Sheila Kupferschmid.
Soldotna’s quest for its first state title begins today with an 11:45 a.m. meeting with Juneau-Douglas, champions of the Southeast Conference. Among the eight-team field, SoHi is the lone school without a volleyball championship.
But to get there, the Stars will need to topple the giants of the Alaska volleyball scene.
The Bartlett Bears enter as one of the favorites after claiming their first Cook Inlet Conference crown in 24 years last week over East, and Dimond, state champions the past two years, just snuck in as the third seed from the Anchorage area.
After missing last year’s big dance, SoHi’s core of returners are glad to be back in with the big dogs.
“People love underdogs,” said junior middle hitter Aliann Schmidt. “I’m expecting to go give it a fight.”
“We don’t go in thinking we’re not going to win,” added senior Ella Stenga, an opposite hitter. “We have to know we have nothing to lose.”
Kupferschmid is a veteran of deep state runs that goes back to her days as head coach at the defunct Skyview High. The longtime peninsula coach said the NLC tournament last week proved to her that her squad has the talent and, more importantly, the guts to make some noise at state.
“I thought the nerves would be over with after beating Kenai,” Kupferschmid said about an opening day win over the Kardinals. “But we were a totally different team after that. I preached attitude and having the mental aspect with the game.
“I felt the kids changes, and they came back with a more determined attitude.”
The Stars traversed a roller-coaster of a region tournament, starting with the high of beating longtime rival Kenai Central to get things started on day 1, then sliding to the low of losing to Wasilla that evening, putting their backs against the wall.
From there, Soldotna could not afford to lose again, and the Stars did not. A refreshed mindset sparked the Stars to a five-set victory over Kodiak, then a semifinal win over Palmer, which officially clinched their state spot.
“Sometimes it creates a little more hunger and focus,” Kupferschmid said about the turnaround.
Schmidt pointed to the teamwork, trust and chemistry the Stars have built up this year in their quest to make it to state. As the season rolled along, Schmidt said she became more familiar with which teammates were around her at all times during a match, which makes it easy as a team to string together points.
“Me and Callie (Christiansen) don’t even have to communicate,” Schmidt said. “We just know what we’re going to do.”
After the win against Palmer on Friday night, SoHi avenged its loss to Wasilla with a clutch victory in four sets on Saturday morning.
“To beat them and take them out of the championship was killer,” said junior outside hitter Kodi McGillivray. “They were crushed.”
However, the climb back to the championship game on Saturday evening took its toll, and once the ball was served against Colony, the Stars were running on fumes.
“We were dead tired,” recalled Stenga. “Mentally, we were in it, but physically it was tough.”
The wait to make it back to state was worth it, all agreed. Last year, the Stars missed out in a season that was marred by the loss of senior outside hitter Judah Aley, who suffered a season-ending knee injury midway through the campaign.
That, combined with the loss of Ituau Tuisuala to injury, helped give McGillivray a shot. McGillivray, then a JV starter, was promoted to the varsity lineup in place of Aley, and since then has learned the ropes. Starting today, the Stars will need that power.
Juneau, however, presents quite a wild card. SoHi has not played the Crimson Bears this year, although both teams competed at the West Spiketacular tournament this season. Kupferschmid believes the Stars will have a fight on their hands, but not one that they can’t handle.
“I think we’ll be competitive with them,” she said.
A win over Juneau today would catapult SoHi into a high-energy meeting with the winner of Bartlett and Wasilla.
Kupferschmid believes SoHi can contend with a service and serve-receive game. That part of the Stars’ execution flourished in the region tournament, particularly against Colony in the title bout.
“Aliann (Schmidt) had a fabulous game,” Kupferschmid said. “She had a great game against (conference MVP) Eve Stephens.”
With the front line humming, thanks to a stingy net presence by Schmidt and McGillivray, Kupferschmid said SoHi has the pieces to make a state run. Senior outside hitter Shaylynn Zener, formerly a libero, has become a crucial piece of the puzzle this year in a new spot on the floor, and combined with emerging sophomore Bailey Leach has helped SoHi rack up six wins in conference play.
“Shay is one of the smartest players I’ve coached,” Kupferschmid said. “And Bailey is a big kid that can put away balls at the net.”
But all that matters now is the big trophy.
“The pep talk will be, ‘Let’s give ourselves the opportunity to play the top teams at state’,” Kupferschmid said.