Stars hope for another Cinderella run

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

In 1993, the last time the Soldotna girls basketball team made an appearance at the state tournament, the Stars were not ranked as the top team in the state heading into the tournament.

Soldotna came into the tournament ranked behind Chugiak and Lathrop. But in the semifinals, Soldotna topped Lathrop and Kenai Central bested Chugiak to set up an all-peninsula final. The Stars then beat the Kardinals to win their first and only state title.

Ten years later, Soldotna has earned the fifth seed in the tournament. Will the team be able to pull off the upsets for another state title?

"That's why they play the games," said Soldotna coach Mark Tuter, whose daughter, current UC Irvine assistant coach Molly Tuter-Koral, was the Star on that 1993 team. "I don't know that there's any team up there that really doesn't have a chance."

The Stars are seeded fifth in the tournament according to the Winning Percentage Index the Alaska Schools Activities Association uses. The index is a formula of three components based on wins and losses.

The state's media actually has thought much higher of the Stars, who enter the tournament with a 25-2 record. Soldotna was ranked fourth in the latest media poll.

But ASAA's ranking is used to seed the tournament, and this puts Soldotna up against Juneau-Douglas, the No. 4 seed -- fifth in the media poll -- in a 9:40 a.m. game today at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.

The Crimson Bears are 17-5 this year under Lesslie Knight, who is making her first appearance at the state tournament as a head coach.

Knight said the Bears are strong inside and out. Underneath, 5-foot-10 senior Danielle Larson pumps in about 17 points per game. Senior forward Amy Neussl provides Juneau with a perimeter threat, frequently canning 3-pointers en route to 15 points per game.

The Stars and Bears have performed similarly against like competition this year. Both creamed North Pole and West Valley and scored narrow comeback victories over Lathrop. Both defeated Colony and lost to Wasilla, with both of Soldotna's losses on the season coming to the Warriors.

Tuter said he knows very little about the Crimson Bears. But that lack of knowledge doesn't have the team worried.

"We usually play well against teams that we haven't seen," said Soldotna senior Lauren Christensen, pointing to Soldotna's championship in the Aztec Holiday Tournament in late December in California.

While Juneau made a trip to state last year, no players on Soldotna's team have any state experience. This also doesn't have SoHi players overly concerned.

"We've done really well in tournaments this year," Soldotna senior Amy Breakfield said. "We've won the tournament in California.

"We treated the three games in Fairbanks as a tournament, and we won all of those. We also won the Peninsula Challenge. We're treating this as just another tournament."

The Stars also played well at the Region III/4A tournament this past weekend in Homer. In the semifinals, the Stars floored Palmer 45-26. Earlier in the season, Soldotna needed overtime to dispose of the Moose.

In the championship game, Soldotna led Wasilla, the No. 1-ranked team in the state, after three quarters before losing. The game gave the Stars a lot of confidence.

"We're a very confident team," Soldotna senior Erin Wolfe said. "We have a lot of skills, and we believe in what we can do.

"There are not a lot of teams that can match up with our skill."

Soldotna was able to play well at the region tournament despite health problems. Wolfe, a starting guard, was sick and didn't practice the week before the tournament. She missed one tournament game and appeared in the other two in a limited capacity. SoHi starting point guard Jennifer Senette also wasn't 100 percent due to illness.

But indications from Soldotna's practice Tuesday were that the two are feeling much better.

One reason Soldotna is not concerned about facing Juneau, a team it knows little about, is that the Stars can create so many matchup problems for other teams.

This starts with long-armed, 6-foot-1 starting center Rachel Besse. Besse had 18 points and 10 rebounds against Wasilla and 17 points and 10 rebounds against Palmer.

Tuter said that when Besse is playing assertively, he hasn't seen any player in the state that can match up with her.

Complicating things for other teams wanting to commit defenders to Besse is the competent post play of 5-11 senior Hillary Zobeck.

"They've won all those games this year for a reason," Wasilla coach Jeannie Hebert-Truax said after Saturday's championship. "We had a lot of trouble trying to stop their two post players."

When players like Senette, Wolfe, Christensen, Breakfield and Jenna Syverson -- all seniors -- are hitting from the perimeter, the Stars can overwhelm teams offensively.

With seven seniors on the roster that have been playing together since at least seventh grade, the team also knows there is no tomorrow.

"I'd like to think we're the closest group going up to state," Zobeck said.

And with that close group come ardent supporters.

"I'd like to thank our fans," Zobeck said. "The moms and dads have been putting in a ton of work supporting us. It's almost like a full-time job for them."

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