Now that the Soldotna girls have clinched a spot at the Class 4A state basketball tournament in Anchorage, they can breathe easier.
But they won’t be relaxing for too long, because their pursuit of a state championship will take every bit of preparation, determination and focus as they can muster.
Coming into the tournament, which SoHi begins Thursday with a 7 p.m. matchup with the West Eagles at the Sullivan Arena, the Stars’ season is statistically on a decline, as evidenced by two losses in two games at the Northern Lights Conference tournament last weekend. The second of those two losses was a 69-27 blowout at the hands of the defending state champs Wasilla Warriors, a team that didn’t even make the cut this year due to their Winning Percentage Index.
SoHi arrives at the state tournament with a 17-7 overall record, including games from the NLC tournament. Since starting the year on a 13-game win streak, the Stars have gone 4-7.
Of course, Soldotna coach Doug Blossom doesn’t see it as a decline, but rather an opportunity to learn where the team’s weaknesses lie.
“I really haven’t talked about that Wasilla game since then,” Blossom said. “We can’t do anything about yesterday, but we can do something about tomorrow. I still believe in this team and these kids.”
The early success was eventually halted by an overtime loss to Chugiak at the Dimond Lady Lynx Prep Shootout tournament in early February, which Blossom attributes to poor shooting affecting the overall game play.
“We’ve had one game where we’ve shot 18 percent in the last three years,” Blossom said. “So we can win games, but you got to play defense. You can’t let it affect the rest of your game.
“I thought our game against Colony was very sound. They’re a good team, they always peak around this time of year, and I still think our conference has some of the best teams around the state in it.”
The late-season numbers may not be the biggest issue for the Stars. The team they are facing in the opening round came up just a field goal shy of winning a region championship.
West completed a magnificent undefeated regular season and then had a 35-34 loss in the Cook Inlet Conference championship game against crosstown rival East, leaving the Eagles with a 26-1 overall record for the year.
“They’re a very good, sound team,” Blossom said. “I’m excited about the matchup, it’s a good challenge for us. They’ve struggled a little bit in their region tournament, I mean, they barely beat Eagle River and South, which are teams they beat by 20 or 30 points earlier. And that doesn’t mean anything, it’s all about matchups now.”
Blossom noted that he emphasizes defense to his players, and believes a fundamental defense is what has sustained his team all season and will continue to hold the Stars up throughout the state tournament.
“Our defense is what’s gotten us where we are, and just relaxing and focusing on offense,” he said. “Those are two main things.”
The senior class on the team has been to state three out of four years, so when Katelynn Kerkvliet, Julie Litchfield, Kelci Benson, Makayla Wong and Kiana Hendricks enter the Sullivan Arena on Thursday, they won’t be expecting any nerves or anxious moments.
“I’m really excited about it, I love playing under the lights at the Sullivan Arena,” Kerkvliet said. “It’s a fun environment to be in, and I’m really glad to be going.”
Having played in the Sullivan Arena twice before, Kerkvliet and her senior teammates are no stranger to the bright lights, and that familiarity should bode well for the team.
“I know in the first round, it’s not bad because it feels so empty in there,” Litchfield added. “I like playing there, it’s a good experience.
“I don’t think there’s too much pressure. Being ranked number seven, it’s not like we have huge expectations, and the field is so wide open. Anything could happen at the tournament.”
West Anchorage features one of the top scoring threats of the CIC, Chanel Bookert. If the Stars can shut her down, it leaves West with less opportunities to score.
At the Lady Lynx tournament earlier in the season, Soldotna watched West beat Dimond, a team that SoHi had beaten just a week earlier.
“It just seemed like we could be out there playing,” Litchfield said. “We were all upset that we weren’t in that game, so I think we can definitely compete with them.
“I think it’s an advantage that we haven’t played them before, that they don’t know us and they don’t know our strengths and our weaknesses. It’s good to just come out and play, and not have a common rival that we’ve played five times already during the season.”
If defense is the deciding factor, then perhaps SoHi can pull off the win and clear a much more visible path to the state championship game.
“If our shooters are open, they can shoot the shot and get others open, as long as we set good screens,” Kerkvliet said. “I don’t want to make it out to be all on me, we have other shooters.”
Depending on what happens Thursday, SoHi will face either Colony or East Anchorage on Friday.
After dropping a 50-42 semifinal game matchup with Colony in the NLC tournament, it can be a sure bet that the Stars will attempt to dish out a mean plate of revenge if it’s the Knights.
“I’m so ready to play them again,” Litchfield said.
Kerkvliet added, “I know we hit a rough patch but I’m ready to come out and show everyone what we’re made of.”
Since SoHi was essentially guaranteed a state tournament bid based on their superb WPI that the Stars built up over the season, Blossom said he and his team can now enjoy an action-packed three days.
“I don’t think there is any pressure on us,” Blossom said. “Earlier in the year I think they were putting pressure on themselves, and maybe that’s why we hit a little bit of a roadblock, but I don’t think right now they are. I think they’re all focused on going up and playing the best they can.
“The one nice thing about this team is they all get along really well. Even in the struggling times, they’re not getting on each other.”
Additionally, the team has also been scrimmaging with some experienced players, namely SoHi assistant coach Lindsey Keener and Sarah Herrin.
Herrin played basketball for both UAA and UAF, as well as helping Nikiski High School to the 2006 3A state championship. Keener is a Kenai Central alum and was a part of the 2009 George Fox University hoops squad that captured the Division III national championship.
“We’re just trying to have someone here to help push them,” Blossom explained.
Litchfield will be playing at George Fox next year, and Blossom said Kerkvliet is getting offers from junior colleges and may be playing ball after high school as well.
But for now, the seniors are focused on trying to bring the SoHi Stars a state basketball title.
“The rest is about relaxing and having fun,” Blossom said. “There’s no more WPI, no more worrying about our record and getting a good place in conference and seedings. It is what it is, now everybody is 0-0 and you just go play three games and have some fun. Make some noise.
“Our goal is to play three games and be playing on Saturday.”