The Soldotna Stars will be the sole Kenai Peninsula representative at the Class 4A level at this weekend’s state volleyball tournament championship at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla.
Fresh off a Northern Lights Conference championship, the Stars are seeded number one No. 1 in the NLC, and have refocused and are preparing for their first game of the tournament, a matchup against the Cook Inlet Conference’s second seed, the South Anchorage Wolverines, Thursday at 11:45 a.m.
“We’ve played them in a couple tournaments this year, and I think we split with them once and they beat us at the Spiketacular,” Soldotna head coach Bruce King said. “We’ve played even with them, basically, this season.
“I think that’s the whole benefit of going up to those tournaments (during the season), you get a chance to play those teams that you think will go to the state tournament. You don’t walk in all aflutter when you’re playing South or Dimond because you’ve seen them four or five times this season.”
Soldotna has played at a level this year competitive enough to swing with the big dogs in the state, and the numbers prove it.
In the NLC Championship game last Saturday, SoHi senior Heidi Westerman had 40 assists, 21 digs and four aces, and senior Natalie Kress had 35 digs, which, when combined with the 57 digs in Friday’s semifinal match, totaled 92 digs in the last two games of the tourney.
“The high competitiveness of it is really exciting,” Westerman said. “The teams that are as good or better than us and getting to challenge ourselves is definitely one of the things we’re looking forward to. We’re trying to keep a cool head because they’re a really good team and we’re focusing on everyone doing their own jobs, and trying to keep the intensity up on the court.”
The five seniors on the team — Westerman, Kress, Kaillee Skjold, Kaycee Munn and Emily Schneider — have all put up impressive numbers this year, and, again, put on a display at last weekend’s region tournament. Skjold was named conference MVP, and Westerman, Munn and Kress were named to the Northern Lights Conference First Team.
“Our defense is huge, because we get so intense and as we dive and are throwing everything out, we get pumped up,” Munn said. “It definitely shows in tight games, because we’ve won a lot of close games.”
Coach King said he expects SoHi’s starting lineup will shake out nearly the same as what he went with in Kodiak.
“I think this group is peaking at the right moment so we’ll go with our starting lineup from the weekend,” King said. “Maybe we’ll make a few adjustments based on what we’ve seen from South in the past, and hope that we can do it again.”
Just like the 3A volleyball state tournament, the 4A bracket will feature a double-elimination style system. If a team loses its first game of the weekend today, it will still have a chance to earn its way back into the championship picture. The only catch is that the team that does so will face a tougher challenge of having to play two extra games Saturday before facing up against the “favorite” in the title match.
“It’s very important,” Bruce King said. “If you win the first night, you have the luxury of only playing once the next day, and that’s a big thing. On the final day (of the region tournament), we felt that Palmer looked a little more tired at the beginning of our match than we’re usually used to seeing from them.”
Soldotna defeated Palmer for the region crown by a 3-1 margin (25-22, 25-17, 19-25, 25-19). The loss set Palmer as the second seed from the Northern Lights Conference, and Kodiak is the third seed from the NLC.
“It would change the tournament but we could go through it either way,” Munn said. “Winning would make it easier, of course, so we’re going to try as hard as we can to win that first game.”
“It’s big, mentally, coming out and winning the first game of the tournament,” Skjold said about the first game. “We’re better at communicating and we’ve played with each other for a long time, so we trust that one of us will get the ball.”
That long-term trust is something the older players have gained and will look to use when competing in the tournament. Westerman said the confidence she and her teammates possess also has played a big role in the team’s success this year.
“As seniors, we have more games and we’re all very confident in where we’re playing, and we’re much better at talking out on the court,” Westerman said. “We’re all feeling really pumped and just ready to go and show who we are.”
As far as Soldotna’s opening day match with South is concerned, King said it’s mostly about the effectiveness of the passing game.
“I would say that our offense is spread out a little more than what it’s been even up to a month ago,” he said. “Our setters are really starting to use our outside hitters as well as our middles, which are really the staple of our game. We think that if we pass well, other teams will have a tough time understanding what we will do.”
If Soldotna beats South, the Stars will face the winner of the West Valley-East game, which will be played at 5:15 p.m. Thursday. The championship match is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday.