This weekend is certainly shaping up to be a big one for the Soldotna High School girls basketball team.
After a wild swing through the Valley last week, the Stars have an impressive 18-0 record. But following a Friday tangle with Houston, Soldotna will face the team many have picked as the best in the state in the Wasilla Warriors Saturday at 5 p.m., following the Soldotna boys game.
The game has been marked on many a high school basketball fan's calendar since the Stars got off to such a hot start, but the Soldotna players are trying to keep it all in perspective.
"If we lose, it will just make us work even harder," said Soldotna senior Jennifer Senette. "We'll see them again at regions, and maybe at state."
Still, with an 18-0 record and a big target on their backs as the team to beat, the Stars have to be feeling a little bit of pressure, right?
"We all say we don't think about (our record), but somewhere, subconsciously, it has to be there," Senette said. "You're always thinking, 'Better not let today be the day,' but you try not to think about it too much, and focus on the task at hand.
"Our coaches are always saying that the prize is ahead of us. We can't look back, because we haven't done anything yet."
"(The Wasilla game) hasn't been one of our goals. We haven't been playing toward this game," said Soldotna coach Mark Tuter. "It may matter more if we play Wasilla in regions, but this game is more of a measuring stick for us."
Perhaps the thing that's kept the Stars so focused this year is that they've had the same attitude even when they weren't anywhere close to 18-0 -- take one game at a time, learn from it and try to improve for the next one. That attitude kept the team from crumbling when things weren't going so well, just as it's kept it from cracking under the pressure of high expectations this year.
Senette said it comes down to the tight bond shared by the team's senior class.
"The more you care about the people you play with, the harder you're going to play for them," Senette said. "I really think that's a big deal as far as our team chemistry. Our friendship has held through the years. Seriously, we've taken some lumps. There's times when we've been down on ourselves, but through our coaches, our friends and our family, we've been able to stay positive."
Senette counted her parents, Brent and Lynn, among her biggest supporters.
"My parents were both athletes. They've been supportive of anything we do. It turns out, (my three sisters and I) are all athletically inclined," Senette said.
Soldotna's team bond started forming early as many of her current teammates broke into basketball with her on elementary school Boys and Girls Club teams.
"We still have pictures and videos," Senette said of her Boys and Girls Club days. "Most of us played Boys and Girls Cub when were we still in the stage of wearing jeans to games."
Senette's basketball has come a long way since then, and many observers have commented on a dramatic improvement in her game since last season.
"I think she's become a lot more aggressive," Tuter said. "She's always had the skills, and she's put it all together this year."
Senette said she's noticed the improvement herself, and it's been no accident.
"It has to do with the fact that I worked out every day. Through soccer season and into the summer, I had a weight program going. That helped my game, helped me feel stronger," Senette said. "I also played soccer all summer. I usually play basketball, and maybe some time off got my game rejuvenated."
Whatever she did has worked as Senette has been among the team leaders in scoring this season and has done a masterful job distributing the ball from her point guard position.
"We have weapons everywhere. I just get everybody involved," Senette said. "Everyone can score from everywhere. I'm just trying to get them the ball, and if the shot's open, take it myself."
Tuter said her understanding of the game has been an important part of the team's success.
"I treat her almost as a coach. I ask her opinion about a lot of stuff," Tuter said. "I have great confidence in Jennifer."
Soccer also has been a passion for Senette. Ask her which is her favorite sport, and she'll answer with whatever's in season.
"I thought soccer was my main sport, but then basketball season rolls around again," Senette said. "It just depends whether it's winter or summer."
In addition to playing with her high school team and with the Boys and Girls Club summer program, Senette has traveled Outside for competitions with a squad from Anchorage, something she said has helped her game immensely.
Senette said she's excited for the spring soccer season, and enjoys the challenge of starting a tradition for the Stars on the pitch.
"I enjoy playing, even though the program isn't as established as basketball on the peninsula," Senette said. "We missed out on regions last year. This year, we want to make regions for sure. We realize we don't have Anchorage talent, but we're going to be competitive."
Of course, Senette understands that there's a reason "student" comes first "in student-athlete."
"I know the reason we go to school is not sports, it's academics, and you've got to take care of business first," said Senette, who maintains a 3.9 grade point average and counts biology as well as language arts among her favorite subjects.
Senette said she applied to seven colleges for next year, but has yet to narrow the field, and she anticipates studying political science and international relations in college, though she said that could be subject to change.
In the immediate future, Senette and her teammates have a big date with Wasilla this weekend. Win or lose, the game promises to be another exciting moment in what already has been an exciting season.
"This year has been the most fun," Senette said. "Winning helps, but so does our team chemistry. It's been a real fun year so far."
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