Maturation as a team is a process that can take years, or it can take a matter of a few hours, as seemingly happened Tuesday evening with the Skyview volleyball team.
In a match that was equally compelling and mentally draining just to watch, the Panthers came back from two games down to score a marathon, five-game victory over rival Soldotna in Region III/4A volleyball action at Soldotna.
Skyview finished second in the state last season, but with seven seniors gone from that team, coach Sheila Kupferschmid said in the preseason that the Panthers would be chasing region foes Kenai, Homer and Soldotna all year.
"We did chase Soldotna," Kupferschmid said after the match, referring to her preseason quote. "We were behind them all night."
Meanwhile, the Stars are in an opposite position than the Panthers. Soldotna returns nine players from last year's team, including six seniors.
"With only two seniors and a lot of young players, we knew this would be tough," said Skyview senior Jenny Carpenter. "But we thought we could stay with them."
In the first two games of the match, Soldotna's experience showed. Both games were close, but the Stars pulled both of them out by scores of 18-16 and 15-12.
"The first two games were so different than the last three games," said Soldotna coach Pako Whannell after her team dropped to 1-2 in the region. "In the first two games, we were aggressive and communicating.
"I was able to sit back in my chair. I was thinking, 'OK, these are my girls.'"
But two games does not a varsity volleyball match make.
"Volleyball matches can be long," Kupferschmid said after the match that took over two hours. "Concentration is required throughout the whole match if kids are going to excel.
"It's very easy for a team to lose its focus."
When Soldotna lost just a little bit of focus after the second game, the Panthers pounced. Although Skyview has a lot of young players, the Panthers also have a couple seasoned players that make the team dangerous.
Both Carpenter and senior setter Christina Colvin were all-state players last year, and both were integral parts of all the tense matches that led to a second-place finish in state. Carpenter had 18 kills and scored 14 points Tuesday, while Colvin had 37 assists and numerous tips that left the Soldotna defense flailing.
Junior Laurel Creel also saw a lot of playing time last year, and against Soldotna she came through with eight kills and 15 points.
"In the end, I thought Christina Colvin, Laurel Creel and Jenny Carpenter took over," Kupferschmid said. "They're my experienced players. They've been in the tight matches before."
Skyview also has a nice addition in 6-foot-1 Nynka Salverda, a foreign exchange student from Holland. Salverda, who played club volleyball in Holland for eight years, had 13 kills, five blocks and 11 points Tuesday.
"It's a lot different here," Salverda said. "There are a lot more people watching. In Holland, only five people come to the game."
The Panthers took the third game 15-9, then grabbed a 12-2 lead in the fourth game. Soldotna managed to battle back to trail 14-13, but Skyview held on to take the game 15-13.
Whannell thought that fourth game affected her team in the fifth game.
"When we were behind in the fourth game, I told them they'd have to figure out what to do about it as a team," Whannell said. "They did figure it out and almost came all the way back to win that game.
"When they just missed winning that game after coming back, though, I think that was an emotional letdown."
In the fifth game, Skyview came back from a 10-8 deficit to post a 15-11 victory.
In the loss, the Stars still showed they have plenty of weapons that will make them dangerous in the region. Senior Rachel Besse dominated the middle at times, collecting 12 kills and five kill blocks. Senior Hillary Zobeck added 13 kills, while junior Heather Roach had three aces and sophomore setter Stacey Foster had 17 assists.
"I know they are very disappointed they lost this game," Whannell said. "But it's only the third game of the season, and I saw a lot of good things out there tonight."
Kupferschmid, meanwhile, is ecstatic to put such an important feather in her cap this early in the season.
"This is a thrill for the kids -- it's something that can make a season," Kupferschmid said. "Coming from two games down to beat Soldotna on Soldotna's floor."
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