The 2015 Soldotna volleyball team is a group of athletes that have never experienced the bright lights of the state tournament.
But the coach guiding them to the big dance this season? Been there, done that.
The Stars couldn’t have picked a better guiding force than Sheila Kupferschmid, who enters today’s 1 p.m. matchup against the Dimond Lynx — the Cook Inlet Conference champs — with six previous appearances at the state tournament, all with Skyview High, which closed in 2014. The state tournament runs three days, starting today, at the Alaska Airlines Arena in Anchorage.
Among those six state showings, Kupferschmid’s 2001 squad came the closest to winning a state crown, losing to Wasilla in the Class 4A final. In 2013, the final season with Skyview, Kupferschmid led a perfect 17-0 (regular season) team to a third-place result at the 3A state tournament.
Now, a “Coach K” led squad has made it to state for a third time in four years.
“I’ve been through a lot of tournaments, and I’ve seen many teams win the region tournament and then get beat at state by the team they beat,” Kupferschmid said.
The 17-year high school coach just lived through that scenario last week. SoHi took on a Wasilla team that had beaten the Stars in each of their regular-season meetings — including a tight 3-2 final loss at the Shayna Pritchard Memorial tournament in September — and swept them in three sets to clinch the Stars’ first state berth since 2012.
Kupferschmid said the fight she saw in her team that Thursday night reminded her of a few of her former Skyview squads.
“The upperclassmen have a lot of drive, they never say quit,” Kupferschmid said. “That’s something that this team resembles with my Skyview teams. When it gets down to business, they play hard.”
None of the current varsity members were a part of Kupferschmid’s most recent Skyview squad, but the four seniors on the team — outside hitter Sylvia Tuisaula, setter Lindsey Wong, setter Kearstin Yarnes and middle hitter MaKenna Rosin — have embraced coach Kupferschmid’s drive to succeed.
“We hadn’t beaten (Wasilla) all season, and we did it at regions,” said Tuisaula. “I don’t think I was the only one that was happy.”
“I was really shocked,” added Yarnes.
Wong, who has had to adjust to more of a hitting role up front after Rosin was sidelined for the season with a ligament tear in her knee, said the feeling of relief overcame her after the Stars discovered they were heading to state following their win over the Warriors.
“All of our hard work paid off,” Wong said. “We were just happy that the season wasn’t over.”
Of course, losing Rosin to injury will prove to be a massive obstacle to overcome if SoHi wishes to play more than two games in the double-elimination style tournament. As a formidable blocker on defense and an explosive hitter on offense, Rosin had been able to match much of the state’s top talent on the front line.
Now, the Stars will have to decide what style of play works the best against teams that hold few weaknesses.
“She was our number one blocker, and maybe our number one point-getter off of kills and serves,” Kupferschmid said. “When you lose that, the other kids have to step forward.
“That would’ve gone a long way against Dimond.”
As valuable supporting members, Yarnes and fellow defensive specialists Abi Tuttle, Taylor Earll, Hallie Allen, Callie Christianson and Ella Stenga will all be relied upon for their ability to ward off the nasty attacks that the Lynx are sure to send their way. It also puts the onus on sophomore libero Shaylynn Zener to do her role on the back line.
The time to tweak the shift in rotation has come and gone, Kupferschmid said. The players know their responsibilities in coverage and to change it would be a mistake.
“I used to play all around, and would sub in a lot, and now it’s a bit weird,” Yarnes said of the change. “Different people have to step up in different spots.”
Tuisaula added that the way opposing teams set themselves up is what determines how she anticipates the SoHi attack.
“If they’re backed up on defense, I know I have to keep forward,” Tuisaula said. “If they’re inching up on the net, I have to hit.”
The senior originally from Wasilla notched nine kills against her former squad in what Kupferschmid described as the “game of her life.”
With Dimond on the menu, Kupferschmid said the Stars are facing one of the top teams in the state, but if they can scratch out a repeat of last Thursday, there is no telling what can happen.
No matter the result in today’s match, Soldotna will face either Kodiak or East in the second game. If they beat Dimond, a 7 p.m. meeting awaits them. If they lose, then it is on to the second-chance bracket for a 1 p.m. Friday game.
SoHi was swept by Kodiak in conference games this season, but beat the Bears 25-16 and 25-20 at the the Dimond-Service tournament on Oct. 24. Against the Thunderbirds, SoHi lost to East at the West Spiketacular 25-20 and 25-18, then split a pair of games with East at the Dimond-Service tournament 22-25 and 25-19.
“I always tell my kids that every match is different,” Kupferschmid said. “I want to see my kids play them hard, with tough serving, good defense and swing at them a little bit.”