The Soldotna volleyball team celebrates on the floor after beating Wasilla Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, at the Northern Lights Conference tournament at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

The Soldotna volleyball team celebrates on the floor after beating Wasilla Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, at the Northern Lights Conference tournament at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

State 4A volleyball: SoHi faces juggernauts at big dance

The drama from last weekend’s Northern Lights Conference volleyball tournament perfectly illustrated how topsy-turvy postseason sports can be.

Soldotna survived the wackiness to grab the third seed out of the conference and punch a state ticket for the fourth time in six years, but now the Stars are banking on more craziness to help them advance at the Class 4A state tournament.

SoHi begins its state run against a behemoth today at 3:15 p.m. at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage. The Dimond Lynx are the four-time defending state champions, as well as the freshly crowned Cook Inlet Conference champions. The Lynx have dominated the state tournament in recent memory with eight state titles in the last 11 seasons.

In fact, the entire field will be hard-pressed to knock off Dimond or South Anchorage. The two volleyball juggernauts have combined to win the last 14 state titles at the 4A level. The most recent year a team other than Dimond or South won was 2004, when the Service Cougars reigned.

SoHi head coach Luke Baumer said it sure makes for a David vs. Goliath showdown for the Stars, one of the smallest schools in the tournament by school size.

“We’re going at it like there’s nothing to lose,” Baumer said. “Dimond has a high percentage of winning and never losing to Soldotna. … The first match is always the one you think you can catch them sleeping. That’s kind of my thought process here, we’re going in really determined.”

If the Stars have learned any lessons from last weekend’s NLC tournament, held on SoHi’s home floor, it’s that never overestimate anyone, no matter the seed number.

The Palmer volleyball program entered the region championships as the No. 4 seed but proceeded to wipe the floor with the competition en route to capturing the region title. That included a three-set sweep over the top-seeded Colony Knights in the tourney semifinals.

Baumer said the lesson learned by the Stars is that nothing is a certainty in a sport like volleyball, where inches can decide who wins a point.

“You have to put everything you’ve got into every single match,” Baumer said. “Every set, you never know which team is going to click and which isn’t. You can see the best team crumble like Colony did, and you can see the lowest seed triumph.

“At this point, it’s anyone’s game. We have the firepower to be the best team in the state and at this point, it’s just how well can we get everything to go our way.”

Baumer said he studied how other teams have beaten Dimond this year, including a game that the Lynx lost to East Anchorage during the regular season. Baumer said he believes if Dimond’s top setter, senior Hahni Johnson, sets as little as possible then SoHi stands a shot.

“She’s a stud,” he said. “She’s a great opposite hitter as well, but if we hit to the right side with the setter in the back row, we’ll make her take digs instead of assists.”

SoHi has its own secret weapon, which really isn’t so secret anymore. Countering Dimond’s attack is the conference MVP Ituau Tuisaula, a senior outside hitter that is capable of stunning opposing defenses with a powerful kill shot. Baumer said if Tuisaula can get going, it will bring her teammates up with her.

“Ituau is more than just our leading points scorer, she’s the person the team rallies around,” Baumer explained. “Whenever she gives you that motivational, ‘Hey we’ve got the next point’, you believe it.”

Experience will also play a key role for SoHi, Baumer said. The majority of SoHi’s starting lineup consists of veteran players that have been to state before, including last year. That core includes Tuisaula, senior libero Holleigh Jaime, senior hitter Bailey Armstrong and senior middle hitter Serena Foglia.

If the Stars can capture lightning in a bottle, Baumer said he feels confident going against a juggernaut like Dimond.

“When we’re clicking on all cylinders, there’s no doubt in my mind we can take that,” he said.

Class 4A state tournament

At the Alaska Airlines Center

Thursday games

Game 1 — Juneau-Douglas vs. South, 10 a.m.

Game 2 — Palmer vs. Bartlett, 11:45 a.m.

Game 3 — North Pole vs. Wasilla, 1:30 p.m.

Game 4 — Dimond vs. Soldotna, 3:15 p.m.

Game 5 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 5:15 p.m.

Game 6 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m.

Friday games

Game 7 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 10 a.m.

Game 8 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 11:45 a.m.

Game 9 — Game 6 loser vs. Game 7 winner, 1:30 p.m.

Game 10 — Game 5 loser vs. Game 8 winner, 3:15 p.m.

Game 11 — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 5:15 p.m.

Game 12 — Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m.

Saturday games

Game 13 — Game 12 winner vs. Game 11 loser, 12 p.m.

Game 14 — Game 13 winner vs. Game 11 winner, 5 p.m. (championship)

Game 15 — Game 14 winner vs. Game 14 loser, 6:45 p.m. (if necessary)

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