The Soldotna Stars stood as the top seed on the girls side, while the Soldotna boys caught a break as the top-seeded Colony Knights suffered an upset loss.
Both SoHi basketball teams faced golden opportunities this weekend to pull of a sweep on home court in Saturday’s Northern Lights Conference championships, and both fell in upset losses.
But that’s why they call it March Madness.
The No. 3 Soldotna boys were stunned by the No. 5 Palmer Moose 62-58 in the boys title game and were followed by a 57-39 loss by the top-seeded SoHi girls to the Wasilla Warriors. It extended Soldotna’s region hoops title drought to 26 years for the girls and 29 years for the boys.
Wasilla girls 57, Soldotna 39
SoHi had won both regular season meetings with Wasilla, but with head coach Jeannie Hebert-Truax at the helm and star senior Olivia Davies back in the lineup, the Warriors proved yet again that they’re still the team to beat when championships are on the line.
The win pushed Wasilla’s girls region streak to five in a row, and 15 of the last 19 years.
“The kids had confidence in themselves to stick with the game plan and go from there,” Hebert-Truax said.
The Stars looked to be on their way to a third win over the Warriors this season after taking a 14-7 lead in the first quarter, but the momentum quickly shifted and SoHi couldn’t stop the bleeding.
Wasilla scored 10 unanswered points in the final 2:15 of the first quarter, which was part of a larger 30-7 run to end the first half, by which time the Warriors opened up a 37-21 advantage.
Hebert-Truax said a smothering defensive push helped knock the Stars off their game, giving them fits as the turnovers piled up with the points.
Soldotna head coach Kyle McFall admitted that Wasilla’s experience in big games like region and state championships may have helped propell the Warriors in a crucial time against the Stars. None of SoHi’s starting lineup had competed in a region championship, and none have state experience.
“We just kind of froze in the moment,” McFall said. “Just didn’t respond to adversity well tonight, and that’s not something that’s very characteristic of this team. I don’t know if it’s because we haven’t been in this spot before, but we lacked the mental toughness that we’ve shown all season.”
Having senior guard Olivia Davies back in the lineup also made things easier for Wasilla. Davies only finished with eight points, but went 6 for 6 from the foul line and made her imprint on the game with multiple steals and forced SoHi turnovers.
“She’s only played the last three or four games, so she’s starting to get her wind back and she can fight more than two minutes at a time,” Hebert-Truax said. “The thing is the other kids learned what they can do without her. It just helped us, when she came back in the other kids had a lot of confidence.”
Aliann Schmidt scored 12 points for Soldotna, which also got 11 from Ituau Tuisaula and nine from Brittani Blossom. Harmony McSorley led Wasilla with a game-high 20 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter.
The Stars had particular trouble keeping Warriors freshman Bella Hays contained in the second quarter run as Hays helped clean the offensive glass with four buckets in the frame to pace Wasilla.
“We stopped playing defense there for a while,” McFall said. “We were giving up layups, we weren’t rebounding, we were turning the ball over like crazy. It really came down to Wasilla wanting it more than us.”
The momentum continued in the second half as Wasilla was able to push the lead to 48-29 early in the fourth quarter on a McSorley 3-pointer.
Soldotna tried one last gasp effort at a comeback in the fourth quarter, aided by Wasilla senior Cheyenne Green fouling out and Davies landing her fourth foul. SoHi went off on a 10-0 run to close the gap to single digits with 3:20 to play, capped by a drive to the basket by Drysta Crosby-Schneider for a 48-39 game.
However, McSorley abruptly stopped the run with three consecutive uncontested layups in the final two minutes, helping seal the win.
“Three layups happen and killed all our momentum,” McFall said. “We call it a gear malfunction that hurt us.”
Palmer boys 62, Soldotna 58
The Palmer Moose have shown a knack for winning region sports titles as long shots.
They did it again Saturday at Soldotna High School, capturing the 2019 Northern Lights Conference boys championship as the lowest seed in the tournament with a narrow win over Soldotna. It gives Valley schools 25 of the last 27 boys NLC crowns.
It’s the first region hoops title for No. 5 Palmer since 2016, and it comes on the heels of region titles in the past calendar year as the No. 4 seed (hockey) and the No. 7 seed (baseball). Saturday’s basketball crown just added another remarkable Cinderella story to the mix.
”Anything’s possible,” said Palmer senior guard Ronny Marshall. “We had no (expectations). It was a shock to all of us, we didn’t expect to be region champs.”
Marshall finished with 20 points to lead the Moose, while teammate and brother Lavar Marshall had 14, Jacob Titus had 15 and Dae Osiensky notched 13.
Jersey Truesdell fueled SoHi with 24 points, including 18 in the second half, while Stars teammate Ray Chumley recorded 13, but it wasn’t enough to beat the Moose, which constantly stayed one step ahead of the Stars.
“We didn’t finish at the rim like we needed to, didn’t shoot free throws well,” said SoHi head coach Nolan Rose. “They were just a little better than us today.”
The Stars ended 7 for 14 from the free throw line, including all four misses in the fourth quarter.
Palmer led 45-43 entering the fourth quarter, and Lavar Marshall helped pad the lead with two drives to the rim and was joined by Osiensky’s trey with 5:46 remaining that pushed the lead to 52-45.
“We all work together really well,” Lavar said. “We have a good leader in Ronny.”
Lavar later grabbed a steal from Truesdell and laid in the transition bucket with 3:19 left to forge a 58-49 advantage, a lead that held despite three putback baskets from SoHi’s Tyler Morrison and a triple by Truesdell with 50 seconds left that cut it to four points.
Palmer coach Jeremy Arnhart said he had seen flashes of championship material from the Moose throughout the regular season, but had yet to see it come together in one game.
“We had games where we played three quarters of good basketball and then we’d have a quarter where we’d play just bad,” Arnhart said. “When you do that it’s really hard to win, because in this conference, every team is really good.”
Truesdell slashed the lead to 60-58 with 1.4 seconds left on a roll to the rim, then immediately fouled Titus on the ensuing inbounds pass. Titus converted both foul shots to give Palmer a two-possession lead.
SoHi was in search of its first region boys title since 1991, but the long wait will last for a 29th year.
However, Rose said with the hopes of a deep state run in their minds, the Stars will be back soon enough.
“To fall short really hurts,” Rose said. “But we can either feel sorry for ourselves or get back in the gym and get better for next time.
“We’ve got more games in front of us.”
Colony girls 69, Kodiak 32
The Knights wrapped up third place by toppling the Bears.
Indiya Clarke had 18 points to lead Colony, while Hannah Duguid added 12. For Kodiak, Avery Kreischer had 13.
Colony boys 67, Wasilla 46
The Knights topped the Warriors for third place, eliminating defending state champion Wasilla from a chance of an at-large berth to get back to state.
Sullivan Menard had 20 for Colony, while Patrick McMahon had 19 and Colton Spencer added 15. For Wasilla, Kody Campbell had 13 points and Daniel Headdings added 12.
Kodiak girls 49, Palmer 45
The Bears moved to the third-place game by topping the Moose on Saturday. For Kodiak, Avery Kreischer had 18 and Leslie Speare added 13. For Palmer, Abriana Busbey and Avery Pettingill had 13 apiece.
Wasilla boys 50, Kodiak 28
The Warriors won early Saturday to make the third-place game. Luke Devine had 14 points for the Warriors, while Andrew Devine had 13 and Daniel Headdings added 10. For Kodiak, Sam Galindo had seven points.
Moose 62, Stars 58
Palmer 16 15 14 17 —62
Soldotna 7 21 15 15 —58
PALMER (62) — Osiensky 13, L. Marshall 14, Maclean 0, Titus 15, Rankin 0, R. Marshall 20, Brown 0.
SOLDOTNA (58) — Rich 1, Morrison 6, Hanson 4, Chumley 13, Truesdell 24, Kant 6, Michael 4.
3-point FG — Palmer 6 (Osiensky 3, Titus 3); Soldotna 5 (Chumley 2, Truesdell 2, Kant 1).
Team fouls — Palmer 13; Soldotna 13. Fouled out — Morrison.
Warriors 57, Stars 39
Wasilla 17 20 8 12 —57
Soldotna 14 7 8 10 —39
WASILLA (57) — McSorley 20, Anderson 0, Lawhead 4, S. Green 8, C. Green 2, Davies 8, Cox 2, Hays 13.
SOLDOTNA (39) — McGillivray 0, Blossom 9, A. Schmidt 12, Tuisaula 11, Holland 0, Crosby-Schneider 5, D. Schmidt 2.
3-point FG — Wasilla 2 (McSorley 1, S. Green 1); Soldotna 2 (Blossom 1, A. Schmidt 1).