The Soldotna girls hoops team got its senior night celebration off to a shaky start — with all five seniors on the team singing the national anthem — but by the end of Saturday night, the Stars were celebrating another victory.
Soldotna capped its regular season with a 44-25 Northern Lights Conference win over crosstown opponent Kenai Central on Saturday at Soldotna High School, led by the senior duo of Katelynn Kerkvliet and Julie Litchfield. Both scored 12 points, and Kerkvliet added eight rebounds as well.
“It’s definitely nice to win your final home game, although the singing was a little rough,” Litchfield said with a laugh. “We’re never doing that again.”
SoHi ended its regular season with a 17-5 record and will take a 7-3 conference mark into the Northern Lights Conference tournament next weekend at Colony High School. Kenai will bring a 7-12 record (0-10 conference) into the tournament, which begins on Thursday. The win also gives SoHi a bye on the first day.
“I thought the kids played pretty solid all through the night,” said Soldotna coach Doug Blossom. “There were no letdowns, it was just a solid game.”
On Saturday, the team seniors donned celebratory warmup shirts that had a nickname on the back of each one, and after introductions were made, Kerkvliet, Litchfield, Kelci Benson, Makayla Wong and Kiana Hendricks all grouped around the microphone and performed their rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, which included a few giggles.
Once the tip went up and the game started, however, SoHi was all business.
Right off the bat, Kerkvliet began finding space near the basket and dropping in jumpshots and layups, scoring Soldotna’s first eight points in the opening four minutes.
“We run some different things to get her good looks,” Blossom said. “But we do good when she gets off to a good start. It helps for sure. It’s nice when it’s a post player because the ball is getting inside, and it opens up other spots for us.”
On the other end of the floor, the Stars stepped up the defensive press, which gave Kenai fits.
The Kards suffered with 12 turnovers in the first half, while SoHi only lost four turnovers.
After leading 15-6 at the end of the first quarter, SoHi held Kenai to only two points in the second quarter — both on free throws — for a 21-8 lead at halftime.
“I told them don’t get sloppy,” Blossom said. “I just wanted to really emphasize defense and just staying relaxed.”
Soldotna looked relaxed enough in the third quarter, scoring 12 points and running its lead up to 33-15 at the end of the quarter.
Alexis Baker, usually a bench player, posted eight points — all in the fourth quarter — to lead the Kenai offense, while senior Justice English contributed seven.
Heading into the conference tournament, Soldotna will be seeded second — behind Kodiak — and therefore receive a bye Thursday.
Litchfield, who is already committed to playing basketball at Division III George Fox University next year, said she believes the Stars are in great position to challenge the top teams and punch a ticket to the state tournament.
“It’s in the back of your head, always,” Litchfield said. “I’m excited for the next four years, of course, but we’re focused on these next two weeks for now.”
Soldotna boys 56, Kenai 41
The Stars got the job done on their home court on senior night to end the regular season with a victory, although they had to withstand a deluge of 3-pointers from the Kardinals.
Daniel McElroy scored 13 points to lead the Stars, but the biggest highlight from the 6-foot-5 senior was a dunk attempt midway through the third quarter that had the crowd on its feet.
“I’ve gotten so much pressure to dunk this year, so if I didn’t try they would’ve been on my back,” McElroy said.
Unfortunately for McElroy, his slam proved to be too powerful, as the ball shot upward and out of the rim and therefore did not count for a true dunk. The play was set up when the Kenai defense left McElroy alone under the basket with plenty of room.
“It’s a little emotional, but it’s fun,” McElroy said about senior night overall. “We were all fired up and we were throwing it down.”
Colton Young and Brooks Furlong added 10 points of their own for Soldotna.
Kenai was paced by Jonah Theisen and Austin McKee with 13 points each. Theisen and McKee each had a trio of 3s to contribute to the long-range attack, which the Kards found successful Saturday, hitting eight treys overall (half of their total field goal count).
“It’s obviously pretty emotional tonight for the coaches and the seniors, because it’s five kids who have put a lot into our program,” said Soldotna coach Matt Johnson. “When you have a senior class like that, you really want to go out with a bang on their home court.”
The game was also the final regular season appearance by Johnson, who will be relinquishing the reigns of the boys team after the season is done.
“I have a great deal of respect for coach Johnson,” said Kenai coach Ken Felchle. “Over the course of his time here and my time at Kenai, we’ve had a coaching relationship that is extremely positive, and I just thank him for what he represents, and I appreciate what he’s done for this school. Most of all, I’m thankful because he’s a dear friend of mine.
“He’s truly going to be missed by this community, and he’s going to be missed by at least one Kenai Kardinal, and that’s me.”
Felchle’s Kards got off to a hot start Saturday, hitting four of their first five 3-point attempts to forge a 12-12 tie by the 3:48 mark of the first quarter. At the end of the first quarter, Kenai led 16-13.
“We got blown out the first time we played them and their size was frustrating us,” Felchle said. “I thought we did a much better job of not letting that get to us this time, and as a result, we stayed in the game the majority of the night.”
However, Soldotna came roaring back with a trio of treys from Furlong and Nathan Spence to take a 24-16 lead halfway through the second quarter. On the defensive end of the court, the Stars managed to slow Kenai’s roll by holding the Kards to only four points to take a 32-20 lead into halftime.
“I thought we played with our hands down a lot,” Johnson said about the early 3s from Kenai. “You got to be a little more active and try to give them a tough shot. At first, we weren’t doing a great job of that, with guys in the area giving them ball pressure.”
The Kards managed to stay with the pace of the Stars in the third quarter, and with 5:16 left in the fourth frame, Trevor Shirnberg put up a layup to close Kenai’s deficit to 45-35.
That would be as close as Kenai got the rest of the way, as SoHi sealed the win with buckets from Young, Conradi and McElroy in the final minutes. When Johnson subbed his starters in for his bench players in the last minutes of the game, the group was treated to an appreciative applause from the crowd.
“I thought our kids responded well, the energy was good, and we played very solid tonight,” Johnson said. “I’m proud of them.”
Soldotna’s regular season ended with an 11-10 overall record (5-5 conference), while Kenai ended up with a 2-20 overall mark (0-10 conference).
“Whatever team you have, you want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the year, heading into the region tournament,” Felchle said. “For what it’s worth, we are doing that.”
Stars 44, Kardinals 25
Soldotna 15 6 12 11 —44
Kenai 6 2 7 10 —25
SOLDOTNA (44) — Nelson 0 0-0 0, Benson 2 0-0 5, Shaw 0 0-0 0, Litchfield 4 3-4 12, M. Wong 3 0-1 6, L. Wong 0 2-2 2, Hendricks 2 1-2 5, Kerkvliet 6 0-0 12, Miller 0 0-0 0, Jackson 0 2-2 2. Totals 17 8-11 44.
KENAI (25) — Ostrander 1 0-2 2, English 2 2-4 7, Drury 0 1-2 1, A. Steinbeck 0 0-0 0, Creighton 0 2-4 2, Baker 4 0-2 8, C. Steinbeck 0 0-0 0, Barcus 0 2-2 2, Beck 1 1-4 3, Every 0 0-0 0. Totals 8 8-20 25.
3-point field goals — Soldotna 2 (Benson 1, Litchfield 1); Kenai 1 (English 1).
Team fouls — Soldotna 20; Kenai 12.
Stars 56, Kardinals 41
Soldotna 13 19 8 16 —56
Kenai 16 4 9 12 —41
SOLDOTNA (56) — Calloway 0 0-0 0, Kuntz 0 1-2 1, Young 5 0-0 10, Conradi 2 3-3 7, Phillips 0 0-0 0, Furlong 4 0-0 10, Spence 2 2-2 8, Kruse 1 2-2 5, Gibbs 1 0-0 2, Fowler 0 0-2 0, McElroy 5 3-5 13, Trammell 0 0-0 0. Totals 20 11-16 56.
KENAI (41) — Theisen 5 0-0 13, Glushkov 0 0-0 0, Shirnberg 4 1-3 10, McKee 5 0-0 13, Brazell 0 0-0 0, Ivy 1 0-0 2, Sepulveda 0 0-0 0, Beeson 0 0-0 0, Foree 0 0-0 0, Jones 1 0-0 3, Wortham 0 0-0 0. Totals 16 1-3 41.
3-point field goals — Soldotna 5 (Furlong 2, Spence 2, Kruse 1); Kenai 8 (Theisen 3, McKee 3, Shirnberg 1, Jones 1).
Team fouls — Soldotna 9; Kenai 14.