The race to win the Northern Lights Conference tournament, or especially to finish at the top three at the event and earn a berth to state, is looking more and more like a race for ball control.
That was the message as Colony defeated host Soldotna 25-12, 22-25, 25-18 and 25-18 on Friday in NLC action. The Stars then lost to Palmer 23-25, 25-18, 25-13 and 25-21 on Saturday. SoHi fell to 4-4 overall and 2-4 in the league while Colony improved to 4-2 and 2-3 after a victory over Kenai on Saturday.
"There are five teams, maybe six, in the conference that all have a shot at winning it all if they pass and play defense," Soldotna coach Bruce King said of the tournament, which starts Nov. 4.
Both Colony and Soldotna made the Class 4A state tournament last season, with the Knights taking second and the Stars taking third.
Both King and Colony coach Amy Carter lost experience from those squads, but the coaches aren't as concerned with their attack -- Colony still features all-state hitter Shellina Irwin -- as they are with the passing that leads to that attack.
Last year, the Knights and Stars had more experienced passers, and even when those passers were a bit off, state all-tournament setters Siobhan Johansen of Colony and Emily Rohloff of Soldotna were there to still set up an prime attacking opportunity.
This year, the passers are not as experienced for both teams, and Colony has two sophomores as setters while Soldotna has sophomore Heidi Westerman.
"A good setter can take a bad ball and get a good set out of it," King said.
The plight of the Stars and Knights is not unique. Kenai Central, in Mariah Huhndorf, and Skyview, in Casee Penrod, also lost experienced setters that glued together an attack.
The result is games like Friday, where whoever passes the most consistent wins.
"It was a big win for us," Carter said of her squad's first conference victory. "We've been struggling with consistency. They played much more consistent tonight than they have been."
Colony got cooking in the first game thanks to a pancake dig by Laura Maresh. A pancake dig is when a player stretches out flat on the ground and uses the back of the hand to pop the ball up in the air.
Pancakes often look like the ball merely bounced off the floor, and King said his squad showed its inexperience by assuming Maresh had not made the dig. Irwin ushered the ball over the net for an easy kill to give Colony an 18-11 lead.
The Knights had three stuff blocks in closing out the match after that.
"When we have good ball control, we're able to run our offense," King said. "When we don't have good ball control, we become predictable."
King said that the reason Colony was able to get so many blocks was that poor passes to the setter means the left-side hitter is almost always set. Blockers see the poor pass and don't have to worry about the middle or right side.
Carter was happy to see the defensive burst to close out the first game.
"We had times where we actually talked and moved our feet," she said. "Our play was much more steady on the court."
In the second game, it was the Soldotna defense that dug in for a 25-22 win. If the pancake typified the first game, game point typified the second game. The ball crossed the at least eight times, with SoHi consistently passing and attacking until Kaycee Munn put the ball away.
The third game also was close, as Soldotna was behind 20-18 after an Irwin hitting error. She came back for a kill to get the ball to server Olivia Martin, who finished with 21 assists and seven aces. SoHi's serve-receive faltered as Martin was able to serve out the last four points of the match. SoHi never got two of those serves back over the net.
The Stars continued to struggle to pass Martin's serve in the fourth game, as she served out six straight points for a 7-1 lead. Westerman came back with five service points to cut the lead to 15-12. The game stayed close until Maryann Zmuda served out the final four points of the match for a 25-18 victory.
Irwin had 16 kills and 12 digs for the Knights, while Tess Forstner had six kills and four blocks, Maresh had eight digs, Brittney Anderson had seven digs, Kathryn Mayer had six kills and Mary Klapperich had 11 kills.
Becca Satathite led the Stars with 14 digs, while Julie Litchfield had nine and Westerman had eight. Munn and Litchfield had three aces.
Kaillee Skjold had nine blocks (six stuff) while Sydney Goggia had seven blocks (four stuff). Westerman had 15 assists, while Satathite had 12 kills, Munn had six kills and Jessie Duke had four kills.
On Saturday, Kylee Woodford had 20 digs while Alicia Hamilton, Julie Litchfield and Munn each had 12. Goggia had 12 blocks (eight stuff) while Skjold had six blocks (three stuff). Munn had four aces.
Westerman had 15 assists, while Jessie Duke had 12 assists. Satathite led with 15 kills, while Skjold had nine and Goggia had seven.
Kenai loses to Palmer, Colony
The Kardinals dropped a 25-20, 25-15 and 25-15 decision to Palmer on Friday at Kenai Central High School.
John Kennedy said inconsistency hurt his team in the Northern Lights Conference match. He said his team was up 12-5 in the first game before the Moose ran off 11 straight points to take control of the game and match.
"Tonight, we actually played well in spots in games," Kennedy said. "We're still trying to find six girls that want to lay it on the line and win. There were times we played right with them, and times we didn't."
Jodi Cook had five kills, two blocks and an ace for Kenai, while Allie McGahan had three kills, Alisha Peterson had three kills, Morgan Wensley had three kills, Sierra Glonek had two kills and two blocks, and Sammantha Kelly had 12 digs.
On Saturday, Kenai lost to Colony 25-21, 25-17 and 25-16. The Kards are now 0-5 in the league and 2-6 overall.
Skyview splits in Anchorage
The Skyview volleyball team defeated Service in three games on Friday before falling to Dimond in five games on Saturday.
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