The Soldotna Stars found themselves with a 2-1 game advantage and leading 14-7 in the potentially deciding Game 4 against Juneau on Friday at the 2012 ASAA State Volleyball tournament in Wasilla. Yet, somehow, it all unraveled from there.
Juneau clawed its way back into contention and won the fourth game, then edged the Stars 15-12 in the winner-take-all Game 5. The loss left Soldotna out of chances in the tournament, and ends the season with a 14-2 regular season record, but 1-2 in the state tournament results. Game scores were 16-25, 25-22, 19-25, 25-21 and 15-12.
Soldotna coach Bruce King came to the conclusion that SoHi's defense was not playing up to the level that Juneau displayed.
"When playing a team at state, you can't miss two serves," King said, referring to a few crucial mistakes in the last game. "That's almost like a death sentence for the team, and we just didn't play very good defense. I give Juneau a whole lot of credit, they had an oustanding defensive match, and they put the ball where we weren't all game long."
Soldotna won the first and third sets rather handily, but as King mentioned, lack of defensive performance allowed Juneau to stick around, and the Crimson Bears pounced when it counted. SoHi closed Game 3 on a 7-1 run to easily take the win 25-19, but could not find the same magic in Game 4.
Sporting a 14-7 lead, Juneau scored seven unanswered points to knot the game up, with key kills coming from Kayla Balovich, and another kill from Balovich gave Juneau a lead the Crimson Bears wouldn't relinquish.
In the winner-take-all game, Kaycee Munn, Kaillee Skjold and Katelynn Kerkvliet all produced important kills and blocks that kept Soldotna level with Juneau, but, again, with a 9-8 lead, the Crimson Bears hit four straight points to separate themselves from the Stars, and it was Balovich who put the game away 15-12.
"These girls are very disappointed," King said. "For the seniors on the team, it's their last match, so it's just natural that they'd be emotional."
Senior Natalie Kress put an exclamation point on a phenomenal defensive performance with 52 digs and four aces. Teammates Skjold had 11 blocks (four stuff) and 18 kills, Heidi Westerman provided 39 assists, Makayla Wong had 16 kills, and Kerkvliet blocked seven balls and had 16 kills.
King did not speculate on what could have been, saying that the Stars simply did not get the points when it was needed.
"I don't really think in those terms," he said. "I'm proud these girls made it to state, but we didn't play good defense and we didn't match the intensity of Juneau."
SOLDOTNA 3, WEST VALLEY 0
Motivated by their first-round loss a day before, the Stars swept the Wolfpack to keep their state championship hopes alive, with game scores of 25-12, 25-15 and 27-25.
Soldotna executed two dominant games, then had to rally to win Game 3. At one point in the third game, the Stars were trailing West Valley 17-7, but score 10 unanswered points to tie the game up.
"We came out and played well those first two games," King said. "Our passing was working well for us, and we made a few mental errors on defense, but our passing kept them from scoring points consistently."
Senior Kress once again led the Stars' defensive effort with 22 digs and four aces. Skjold blocked six balls (three stuff), and had eight kills, Westerman provided 20 assists, Munn recorded 12 digs, and Taryn McCubbins had five aces.
Soldotna's 10-0 rally on West Valley, punctuated by effective blocking by Skjold and Julie Litchfield, got the Stars into game contention, but the Wolfpack continued to fight, eventually getting to a 24-21 match point.
"They just need to understand that in Game 3 on the second day of a state tournament, teams are going to play with a lot of desperation because they know that if they lose, they're going home," King commented about the intensity. "I don't think we matched their intensity level in Game 3 at the beginning. At the end, we picked it up and played well enough to win."
Soldotna rallied once more with four straight points to set up match point twice.
"I give the team credit for not folding when we were down," King said. "They came back and played strong, and then kept pressure on West Valley at the end. We can take something away from that."
The win set up Soldotna's match with Juneau.