Sometimes, taking a step back for a deep breath can make all the difference in the world.
"Today, we're a new team," said Soldotna High School volleyball player Haley Smith after the Stars defeated Kenai Central in five games in a Region III/4A match Friday in Kenai.
Instead of starting with the usual warmups, the Stars got out what they needed to get out during a team heart-to-heart -- then left everything else on the playing floor.
"When one person on the team was down, the rest would follow," Smith said. "The whole team would be down instead of picking each other up. We really have to stay positive for each other."
Friday's match certainly was a step in the right direction for the Stars. After dropping the first game 17-15, the Stars tied the match with a 15-3 win in the second game. Kenai won the third game 15-6, but Soldotna came back to win the fourth game 15-9 to force game five, which the Stars took 15-6.
While the win was cathartic for the Stars, the loss added to the Kardinals' frustration. Kenai has lost five of its last six matches in five games.
"It has been a tough start to the season," said Kenai's Erin Smith. "We really want it bad. We know we have the talent and the skill. We shouldn't be losing in the fifth game.
"I think it's mental. We start tough, but then we start thinking back to last year, when we had trouble with fifth games. Mentally, it's holding us back."
The Kardinals came out swinging, jumping out to an 11-2 lead in the first game before the Stars were able to rally to force extra points. An ace from Heather McIntyre secured the game one win for the Kardinals, though.
The Stars took the early lead in the second game, and Hillary Zobeck served for 10 straight points, giving Soldotna a 14-2 lead, before the Kardinals could win a side-out on a tip by Crystal Morris.
Angelica Carreon served for one more Kenai point, but Ashley Duwe won a side-out with a hit off the Kenai block, and Stacey Foster served up game point.
Ally deMello opened the third game with an ace for the Kardinals, and Lenora John finished it off from the service line for the Kardinals, making a pair of phenomenal digs on the final three rallies to give Kenai a 2-1 edge.
The fourth game was a back-and-forth affair. Lauren Christensen stepped to the service line with score tied at 9 and hit four straight serves to give Soldotna a 13-9 lead. Britt Howard hit a big serve to make it 14-9, and Zobeck hit a blast off the Kenai block after a serve by Heather Roach to tie the match at 2.
Kenai and Soldotna traded points early in the final game before the Stars began to pull away. Zobeck served the final six points of the match, aided by some impressive play at the net by Rachel Besse.
Soldotna setter Stacey Foster, playing with a foot injury, said she was happy to have a variety of weapons at her disposal.
"They did extremely well," Foster said. "At Seward (Thursday), when I had to sit, we weren't making our hits. Today, we talked about it. We wanted to start hitting -- that's the way we can win games."
For their part, the Kardinals did plenty of things right, but the pressure of playing a fifth game magnified every mistake, no matter how slight.
Still, Kenai has reason to be optimistic.
"We might get a little nervous and not play like we did in the first game," Smith said. "We play really hard together. We gave it our all. We're going to break through our mental block -- there's plenty more games to play."
HOMER 3, SKYVIEW 2
The Mariners upended the Panthers in a Region III/4A match Friday in Homer.
The Panthers rolled to a 15-2 win in game one, then took the second game 15-7 before the Mariners rallied to win three straight games, 15-8, 15-9 and 15-12.
Homer's comeback victory came after Skyview had swept the Mariners just one week earlier.
"I think what happened was we woke Homer up," Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid said. "We had plenty of opportunities to win the match. Skyview had more talent, but volleyball is a game where you need to win as a team.
"Homer was really disciplined at that. They excelled at defense and wouldn't let the balls drop. I credit Homer for staying with it and competing."
It was Skyview's first loss in the region. Jenny Carpenter had 18 kills and 13 points, Nynke Salverda had 13 kills, 10 points and nine blocks, Christina Colvin had 13 points, Lindsay Gephardt had 10 points and Amanda Fay had five points.
The Panthers will look to get back on track when they face Seward, which is undefeated, Tuesday. The game will be at 5 p.m. at Skyview.
SEWARD 3, HERITAGE 0
The Seahawks swept the Eagles in a District 3/3A match Friday in Seward. Seward won 15-3, 15-11, 15-9.
HERITAGE 3, NIKISKI 0
The Bulldogs dropped a District 3/3A match to the visiting Heritage Eagles Saturday.
Heritage took the first game 15-3, the second game 15-6, then held off a late Nikiski rally to take the third game 15-8.
Nikiski played well on defense, and when the Bulldogs were able to pass effectively and get the Eagles blockers shifting, Nikiski hitters were able to find some open spots in which to place the ball.
Heritage, however, proved to be tough to beat for long at the net with several strong net players rotating through its lineup.
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