The Soldotna girls basketball team has every reason to be confident and no reason to be overconfident as it heads into the Class 4A state tournament Thursday.
The No. 4 seed Stars enter their 1:15 p.m. tilt with No. 5 Colony with a 21-4 record, which included a 14-game winning streak at the end of the year.
Soldotna, making a second consecutive trip to state for the first time, defeated the Knights 50-41 in mid-February.
The championship game of the Northern Lights Conference tourney assures the Stars won’t take the Sullivan Arena floor feeling invincible, though. Soldotna had its 14-game winning streak snapped in a 55-30 loss to Wasilla.
The Stars also have a poor taste in their mouths from last year’s state tourney due to a two-and-out performance, which included a 53-33 loss to Colony in the first round.
“I think we still have our heads up,” junior guard Julie Westerman said. “Fourteen straight wins — it’s hard not to get a loss in there.
“We’re looking forward to state.”
In this year’s game against Colony, the game was tied at 19 at the end of the first half.
“We put the pressure on in the second half,” said Kaillee Skjold, a junior and the NLC co-MVP. “We put the pressure on and let our defense get turnovers.”
The Stars thrived on pressuring other teams into submission all season. Head coach Doug Blossom said his team’s strategy will not change.
“We’ve just got to play the game we’ve played all year,” said Blossom, the NLC coach of the year. “That’s gotten us where we are.
“We are not going to change everything due to one loss.”
The Stars are preparing for state like they’ve prepared for games all year — with a heavy dose of shooting drills and conditioning dialed up by SoHi grad Jenni Stenga.
After defeating Kodiak earlier in the season despite shooting only 16 percent from the floor, Blossom realized that if his team made more shots, it would be hard to stop.
In the NLC semis, the result of those shooting drills was obvious. The Stars blew out the Bears 44-24, shooting 44 percent from the field.
SoHi had three players in double figures in that game. Blossom said his team’s ability to get scoring from multiple players gives it an advantage.
“We know that when we play certain teams, we can beat them by stopping certain players,” Blossom said. “We have enough other players that can score that teams can’t beat us by stopping Kaillee.”
Blossom said the focus against the Knights will be on stopping Mary Klapperich. In the win over Colony, sophomores Julie Litchfield and Makayla Wong held Klapperich to three points. Litchfield completed an impressive game by scoring 20 points herself.
The Stars are a young team, starting juniors Skjold, Westerman and Natalie Kress, and sophomores Kelci Benson and Litchfield. Sophomores Katelynn Kerkvliet and Wong are the main players off the bench.
The team’s lone senior is Savannah Smith, who Blossom credited with being one of the players that has pushed the starters in practice all year.
SoHi’s trip to state last year was a surprise to then-coach Mark Tuter and the players, but that experience will be invaluable this year.
“It’s a whole new game,” Benson said of the state experience. “Playing under those lights and in front of thousands of eyes, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Benson split open her chin in the first-round game against Colony and could not play in the next game. That is just one of the many things the Stars hope not to repeat this year.
“I think we’ve built up a lot of confidence,” Skjold said. “We’ve been playing together since middle school. This is the result of all of our hard work.”
Neither Blossom nor the players were dwelling on the loss to Wasilla. Blossom said he is not worried that the Warriors gave the Knights a game plan to beat Soldotna, because Wasilla has three or four players about 6-feet-0, while the Knights have only one in Klapperich.
“The last time we lost to Wasilla, we went on to win 14 straight games,” Blossom said of the No. 1 seed Warriors, who lurk as a potential semifinal opponent.
Just as the team used the two-and-out experience at state last year to propel it to success this year, the NLC championship loss to Wasilla is a possible springboard to further success.
Blossom and the players said the team’s next goal is to play on Saturday at state. A win against Colony would guarantee the Stars a spot in Saturday’s third-place or championship game.
“At the region tournament, we just wanted to get back to state and build momentum for next year,” Westerman said. “It’s going to help us that we played in the region championships.”