On the brink of losing to a crosstown rival, Skyview volleyball coach Sheila Kupferschmid pulled her squad aside and shared a message.
“Look guys, it is one set. Don’t look at the big picture. It’s one set at a time. If you can get into the fifth set, anything goes,” Kupferschmid said between Games 3 and 4 of a Northern Lights Conference match Tuesday against Soldotna.
The Panthers came back from a 2-1 deficit to defeat the host Stars 22-25, 25-20, 21-25, 25-22 and 15-7, clinching the NLC Southern Division’s No. 1 seed to the conference tournament and earning a regular-season sweep of the team that ended their season a year ago.
Skyview is now 7-2 in conference play heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale against Wasilla.
SoHi, meanwhile, is 5-4 in the NLC and will be a No. 2 seed entering the playoffs regardless of the outcome of a 12:30 p.m. Saturday match at Kenai Central.
Stars coach Bruce King said the difference Tuesday was his unit’s inability to handle the Panthers’ serves, which SoHi also failed to do in a 3-0 loss to Skyview early this season.
“Nothing really changed and nothing was different from the last time we played them. We could not pass their serves,” King said. “That was the primary problem we had tonight.”
Naomi McMullen keyed Skyview on the serve, earning a team-best 24 service points.
Yet the Stars won two of the first three games, building a 19-11 lead in the opener before holding off a rally by the Panthers, who inched within 23-22 before losing the final two points.
The momentum shifted midway through Game 2, after SoHi built an 11-4 lead. Skyview used a 17-4 run to erase the deficit behind the attack of Amanda McDowell, who finished with 22 kills.
Skyview then built a 20-14 lead in Game 3, but fell apart when SoHi’s Heidi Westerman stepped to the service line. Westerman, who finished with seven kills and 28 assists, sparked a 10-1 run with eight straight service points.
That’s when Kupferschmid pulled her unit off the court, out of sight behind the bleachers, and urged the players to respond.
The result was a 25-22 win in a Game 4 in which there were nine ties and five lead changes.
Skyview then slammed the door on-serve in Game 5, building a 6-1 lead and riding it to a 15-7 margin.
Many of the Panthers’ points in the fifth game — and the entire match — came off poor returns from SoHi’s service-receive.
“In this game, if you can’t pass serves, then you end up shoveling free balls over the net,” King said. “If you shovel free balls over the net to Skyview, they are going to make you pay.”
Marlee Cunningham finished with 17 kills for Skyview, while Holly Ramsell added 13.
That pair, along with McDowell, were active at the net all evening as the Panthers set up kill opportunities off SoHi’s serve returns.
McDowell said the Panthers’ simply needed to relax after losing the third game.
“We were all jumbled up and ahead of ourselves, and we just settled down and got focused, concentrated and figured it out,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Stars open the postseason against the NLC Northern Division No. 3 squad.
SoHi defeated Skyview in the 2010 conference tournament after getting swept during the regular season, but must find a way to pass with more efficiency off the serve if it hopes to repeat that effort.
Kaillee Skjold had 14 kills and 10 blocks for SoHi, while Kylee Woodford posted 30 digs.
What held more value to King, however, was the style in which the Stars played. The team did not match the strong play that led it to second place in the prestigious Dimond Service Volleyball Tournament on Saturday. SoHi defeated Skyview in a best-of-three match in the quarterfinals of the tournament.
“What’s frustrating is when we don’t play our game. That was the difference tonight. Last weekend we passed so well and then we come into this match and we don’t pass very well, and that’s the difference,” he said.