Coming into this volleyball season, Soldotna senior Paige Blackburn was the only Stars player with a lot of varsity experience and the only senior on the roster.
Blackburn was the most valuable player in the Northern Lights Conference Southern Division last year, but SoHi coach Bruce King knew the success of this year's squad would depend on how quickly the rest of the team acclimated to regular time at the varsity level.
Soldotna showed again on Friday against Grace Christian and Saturday against Wasilla just how quick the acclimation has been. The Stars topped the Grizzlies and Warriors in five games to improve to 8-1 overall and 4-1 in the Northern Lights Conference. Friday's scores were 25-21, 12-25, 25-16, 12-25 and 15-12. Saturday's scores were 21-25, 25-16, 25-15, 17-25 and 15-10.
King said has seen a maturity in the team since a Tuesday victory in Homer.
"It was a tough, tight match even though it was only three games," King said. "I started to see the confidence level grow in the team. There's no sense of panic anymore.
"I keep forgetting a lot of these players don't have a lot of experience."
The latest moment that made King forget came in the fifth game against the Warriors, when Blackburn rotated out with the Stars holding a 9-7 lead. Would SoHi's sophomores and juniors crack?
Wasilla's Ashlen Welch slammed a kill, but sophomore Megan Hardy answered with a kill for a 10-8 lead. A hitting error by Wasilla and a tough serve by sophomore Chelsea Wilbanks pushed the lead to 12-8. Welch then had a kill and block kill sandwiched around a Wasilla hitting error for a 13-10 game.
Then came a long rally, with the tension increasing as every attack over the net was dug up. SoHi's juniors and seniors won the battle when the rally ended after a bad bump by Wasilla. Blackburn then returned and finished off Wasilla with a block kill.
King and Wasilla coach Anna Simmons, whose team is now 2-4 in the league and 3-6 overall, said the match came down to passing.
"We have a lot of strong hitters," Simmons said. "The difference is passing. When we are able to pass, we are able to dominate in stretches with our strong middle and outside hitters.
"We need more consistent passing and serve-receive."
In the first game, Wasilla's passing was on. The Warriors also continued a trend of strong, aggressive serving. Wasilla didn't miss a serve in the first game. The Warriors also had 14 aces in the match, a season high.
In the second game, Wasilla's passing, particularly on serve-receive, became shaky.
"We did a great job of serving and taking advantage of them on serve-receive," King said. "They took it to us a little bit on their serve, too."
The combination of the serve of junior April Heffner and Blackburn in the front row often gave Soldotna a big advantage. In the second game, Heffner had 10 straight service points, with Blackburn mixing in three kills, to give the Stars an 11-3 edge. In the third game, Heffner had five straight points, with Blackburn mixing in two kills, as the Stars took a 7-1 lead.
King said his first three servers of each game understand the importance of taking advantage of Blackburn's time in the front row.
"We've been talking to the first three servers," King said. "They understand tough, accurate serving is important. We want Paige in the front row for as long as possible."
In the fourth game, it was the Stars who hit a rough stretch in serve-receive, courtesy of Jenna Johnson. Johnson had five straight service points, including two aces, to give Wasilla a 20-13 lead.
"The games we lost were because of ball control," King said. "It all starts in the back row."
For Wasilla, Johnson had nine kills and Alana Wright had eight kills. Stephanie Bair had 17 assists, and Simmons said backup setter Alex Firestack also had a solid match.
Blackburn had 22 kills and seven blocks. King said two young players that have been coming on strong are Heffner and sophomore Mariah Hamilton. Heffner had 10 digs, five kills and three aces, while Hamilton had six kills and five blocks. Sophomore Emily Rohloff had 28 assists and eight digs, while junior Jessi Stenga had eight digs.
On Friday, Soldotna had 59 digs as a team, as Stenga had 20, Heffner had 11 and Shana Powell had six. Blackburn had 17 kills and eight blocks, Hamilton had eight kills and five blocks, Heffner had 10 kills and Wilbanks had five kills. Rohloff had 16 assists.
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