Saturday was just Paige Blackburn's day.
Knowing she had a crucial showdown at Skyview at 12:30 p.m., the Soldotna senior took her SAT exam in the morning, the thought of being late for her volleyball game constantly running through her head.
"Oh yeah. It was definitely in the back of the mind the whole time," she said.
Luckily for Blackburn, though, the game started late, around 1 p.m. to be exact, and she arrived just in time to make the final rotation of the first game.
Oh, and she even drove home the last point for an early SoHi lead.
Now, she can only hope to do as well on the test as she did in the rest of this heated matchup.
Shifting between electric slams and well-placed tap-overs, Blackburn recorded 19 kills, 19 digs and 11 blocks in leading the visiting Stars to a come-from-behind victory over the Panthers.
"This is huge for us. This is the best win we could ask for," Blackburn said after helping the Stars overcome a 2-1 deficit in claiming a hard-fought 25-15, 19-25, 21-25, 25-22, 15-9 win. "Out of anybody in our conference, we'd want to beat Skyview, just because they're a good team and it's a rivalry. It is. It was all about revenge."
And while she couldn't wait to finish her exam to arrive at the game, getting dressed into her uniform on the car ride over to Skyview, Blackburn isn't too worried about how those results will look either.
"I feel pretty good about the SATs," she said. "It's been a great day today."
It sure was.
After squandering an early one-game lead even with Blackburn on the court, Soldotna (10-1 overall, 6-1 Northern Lights Conference) clawed its way to a tight victory in Game 4.
With the score knotted at 8, Blackburn spurred a 6-0 run with a pair of block-kills and sophomore Emily Rohloff added a tap-over for a 14-8 advantage. After the Panthers (6-5 overall, 3-4 NLC) cut it to 14-12, Blackburn took over again.
Her arms outstretched at least three feet above the net, the 5-foot-11 middle hitter spiked the ball into space for a three-point edge and then scored three of SoHi's next four points for a 19-14 lead.
"A player that can touch 10 feet, which is basically the basket, is considered good even at the college level, and Paige can touch 10 feet," said Stars' coach Bruce King. "That's a college-level swing. Oh yeah. There's no question about it."
But Skyview immediately answered, with junior Brittany Meyer running off three of her 14 kills to even the score at 19-19.
Battling back and forth down the stretch, sophomore Mariah Hamilton (eight blocks) recorded two kills, including the final point, in sending the contest to a fifth and decisive game.
"We had them down 2-1. I'm disappointed in that where we didn't close," said Panthers' coach Sheila Kupferschmid. "The fourth set was real close. The match could have went either way."
But the Stars had Blackburn on their side, and she made sure it went their way.
Soldotna's lone senior scored four of her team's first eight points of the fifth game in guiding her team to an 8-2 lead. Three consecutive unforced errors on Skyview stretched it to 11-2 and Blackburn then made it an 11-point game with back-to-back points, the first a deceiving kill to the right as she was moving left and the second a light tap past a pair of Skyview blockers.
"(Saturday), the difference was Paige Blackburn. She was the difference-maker," Kupferschmid said. "It was Paige Blackburn's day. Next time we meet it might be different."
Meyer kept it close, though, scoring four of the Panthers' next five points with Blackburn on the bench in trimming the deficit to 14-9. But sophomore Chelsea Wilbanks who added seven kills erased any thought of a comeback by completing the game with a solid kill.
"This team really pulled together and proved to themselves they can play without (Blackburn)," King said.
Especially in the opening game.
SoHi jumped out to an early 11-3 lead, the seventh point occurring off a diving dig by junior Jessi Stenga and culminated on a block-kill by Wilbanks, and eventually led 18-10 after Hamilton added a pair of kills.
"She is just starting to really learn how to anticipate and read and know where to go," King said of Stenga, who had 32 digs. "She covers that corner and gets a one-handed digger once in a while. That's a huge boost for a team."
Wilbanks later added another kill and an ace before Blackburn arrived on the scene to score the final point.
"I wasn't warmed up or anything, but it was all right," she said.
Game 2 was the direct opposite, as Skyview cruised to a 20-6 lead and eventually staved off a late SoHi rally to tie the match at one game apiece.
The Panthers then led 16-12 in the third game and again withstood another SoHi comeback, junior Melissa Massey (14 kills, four block-kills) recording four of Skyview's final nine points, in capturing a 2-1 advantage.
But they couldn't hold onto the lead, which was all too familiar for the Panthers.
They led visiting Anchorage Christian Schools 2-1 on Friday night before eventually falling in five games, 21-25, 25-23, 21-25, 25-21, 15-11. Massey and Meyer had 15 and 13 kills, respectively, in that match while Jaci Lamborn picked up 10 kills.
"We just have to prepare for each match mentally and be ready for our opponent," Kuperschmid said.
Soldotna was certainly ready for Skyview, having lost in three games to the Panthers at SoHi on Sept. 11 before defeating them in a best-of-three series in the semifinals of the Peninsula Challenge last weekend.
"We've been getting closer to this team every time we play them and we got a real big confidence boost last weekend down in Homer," King explained. "It just showed us that we could stay with this team."
The Stars were also fresh off a four-game win over visiting Kodiak on Friday, beating the Bears 25-17, 25-19, 21-25, 25-20, behind 18 kills and seven blocks from Blackburn, 11 digs and three aces from Stenga, 25 assists from Rohloff and eight blocks from Hamilton.
"It's big for us because we go to the Valley next week and play Colony and Palmer," he said. "So it takes a bit of the pressure off us although we're going up there to try to do some damage on those Valley teams."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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