PALMER — Sariah Tuisaula and the Wasilla Warriors have some unfinished business to attend to.
Last year, the Warriors carried a perfect regular-season conference mark into the Northern Lights Conference tourney, but watched rival Palmer snatch away the region title.
During the offseason, Tuisaula — arguably the top hitter in the conference — suffered a torn knee ligament, and the Wasilla outside hitter feared her senior season was finished before it ever started.
But Tuisaula’s back, ready to help Wasilla try to grab that elusive crown.
“It feels really good. I just love being around my teammates,” said Tuisaula, who smacked 12 kills to lead the Warriors to a 3-0 (25-19, 25-23, 25-23) win over Soldotna during the opening round of the conference tournament at Colony on Thursday.
Tuisaula, who played in just her third match of her senior season, helped the Warriors move into a semifinal match with rival Palmer today at 5 p.m. Colony meets Kodiak tonight at 7 p.m. in the other semifinal.
In the third-place bracket, Soldotna at Kenai play at 1 p.m., while Skyview and Homer meet at 3 p.m.
“I tried to push myself as hard as I could to make it back in time,” Tuisaula said. “It just feels really amazing.”
Tuisaula tore the knee ligament during a summer volleyball camp at Brigham Young University. The Wasilla senior admitted, after the injury, she doubted she’d be able to play volleyball at all as a senior.
“I kind of took the worse end of the situation,” Tuisaula said. “But with the support from my teammates and my parents, I just knew I had to work hard and this was something that was going to make me better. Now being on the court is kind of like the reward for that.”
Tuisaula was cleared to play not much more than a week ago. She saw action during wins over Homer and Skyview at the tail end of the regular season.
“It’s great to have her back,” Wasilla head coach Claudia Farias Pinard said. “She has technique you can’t find in every single player. She can put the ball anywhere we ask her.”
Farias Pinard said she has tried to ease Tuisaula into the lineup.
“We’re making the adjustment,” Farias Pinard said.
Tuisaula said the transition has been more difficult mentally than physically.
“The knee, I’m surprised it healed pretty quickly,” Tuisaula said. “But mentally, it took a long time for me to come back.”
Farias Pinard rotated Tuisaula in and out of the lineup, and the senior was able to contribute at key times. Of the hitter’s 12 kills, nearly half either tied the score or broke a tie to give Wasilla the one-point lead.
The contributions were key in a match more competitive than a 3-0 final would indicate. In the first game, neither squad led by more than two points until Wasilla capped the set with an 8-4 run.
In the second game, Soldotna held a four-point lead, pushing its advantage to 9-5 on a Kaycee Munn kill. But Wasilla clawed back.
In the third game, the Warriors had to erase big deficits to score the sweep. Soldotna opened the set with a 9-1 run and led 14-7 later in the match, but the Warriors managed to stick around long enough to outlast the Stars.
“We came together and said this is our game,” Tuisaula said. “We want to make it to state. We want to win regions this year.”
Farias Pinard said its typical to see teams relax after playing to a two-game lead.
“That’s a normal thing about high school kids,” Farias Pinard said. “You win two games and you kind of relax. That happens to everybody, not just my girls.”
But the head coach is happy the way her team responded.
“That was the good thing, they came back,” Farias Pinard said.
The attack of middle hitters Katelynn Kerkvleit and Kaillee Skjold, and an early ace from Sydney Goggia, helped Soldotna cruise to the early lead.
Skjold and Munn combined for a block to give Soldotna a 9-2 advantage.
Heidi Westerman scored another Soldotna kill midway through the match to give the Stars the 14-7 lead. The kill gave the Stars their second lead of seven or more points in the match, but Wasilla crept back.
Jolee Fife collected a kill and a service ace during a four-point run to narrow Soldotna’s lead to 14-11.
Later in the match, Wasilla used a five-point run to take its first lead of the game.
Fife sliced a hit through the Soldotna defense to cut the Stars’ lead to 17-16 and Leah Taylor tied the score with an ace.
The Warriors took an 18-17 lead after simply lifting the ball across the court during a long rally. A hitter from the back row got a fist on the ball, before it bounced out of bounds.
Following that point, neither team led by more than a point until the Warriors were able to clinch the game and match.
Tuisaula used kills to tie the score at 20 and 22. Leah Taylor and Kayla Binggeli combined for a block to give the Warriors a 23-22 lead.
Haley Taylor also had a late kill in the match.
Tuisaula and Haley Taylor each led the Warriors with a team-high 12 kills. Fife added 10 kills in the match, and Leah Taylor chipped in six. Haley Taylor also had a team-high 30 digs. Leah Taylor finished with 20 and Fife had 17.
Colony 3, Skyview 1
PALMER — Amy Carter has been waiting for this match all season long. But after seeing her Knights battle through their fair share of struggles during the regular season, the Colony head coach watched her squad put together the upset of the first round of the NLC tourney.
Colony came back to win the final three games to upset top-seeded Skyview 3-1 (23-25, 25-21, 25-20, 25-22) Thursday evening at Colony.
“We were on tonight and they struggled a little,” Carter said. “It’s nice to be on this end, instead of the other end.”
Colony’s tandem of 6-foot middle hitters, Allison Leigh and Mary Klapperich, combined for 42 kills to help the Knights move forward in the semifinal round and ensure an all-North Division semifinals.
Colony faced adversity during the regular season, but Klapperich said the Knights have been working for the final two weeks of the year.
“We have been working so hard. We knew what we worked for in practice mattered at regions and state,” Klapperich said. “We knew no matter what our win-loss record was, we were going to bring it.”
And the Knights brought it.
After losing by a slim margin in Game 1, Colony jumped to a 5-0 lead in the second set and continued to gain momentum throughout.
Carter said she saw something different in her team Thursday. The spirited Knights played with fire in front a home-court crowd that featured a raucous student section.
“We’ve played a lot of games with no emotion,” Carter said. “It was nice to have the emotion today.”
The Knights were also armed with the 6-foot-2 Leigh, who spread shots across the court as if she had a cannon attached to her right arm. Leigh finished the match with a match-high 26 kills, often placing the ball in the heart of the Panthers defense.
“We’ve been working on getting her to be more powerful,” Carter said.
Leigh started the match on fire, finishing with 10 kills in the first game alone. She continued in the second, using kills to score half of her team’s six points. She recorded one of her three blocks to give the Knights a 7-4 lead in the second.
Klapperich added 16 kills and four blocks in the win.
The Knights were also able to prevent Skyview’s share of formidable hitters from getting on track. Senior Amanda McDowell led the Panthers with 14 kills. Marlee Cunningham added eight, and Holly Ramsell chipped in six.
Colony had to erase a significant deficit during the fourth set to prevent the match from going to a fifth game.
Sophomore Chayanne Laber posted a solo block to tie the score at 5 during Game 4, and helped spark an 8-1 Panthers run. McDowell and Cunningham each scored kills during the run, and Skyview forced five Colony errors.
But the Knights came back and took a 17-16 lead on consecutive Klapperich kills. The junior split the defense to tie the score at 16, and gave the Knights the advantage when she found a spot in the back corner of the Skyview end. Skyview would lead only once more in the match, at 22-21.
Colony is now a win away from the championship match and an automatic bid to the state tourney
Skyview is still in the hunt for one of the NLC’s three bids, but must play through the consolation round.
Palmer 3, Kenai Central 0
The defending NLC champion Palmer Moose quickly advanced to the semifinals with a decisive 3-0 (25-6, 25-13, 25-11) win over Kenai on Thursday.
The Moose, the NLC North’s top seed, face rival Wasilla today at 5 p.m.
Kodiak 3, Homer 1
The Kodiak Bears advanced to the semifinals with a 3-1 (25-17, 25-13, 20-25, 25-14) win over the Homer Mariners on Thursday.
Kodiak will face host Colony tonight at 7 p.m.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman sports editor Jeremiah Bartz at email@example.com.