Soldotna repelled Kenai Central's bid to spoil its top seed and did a little spoiling of its own Saturday evening.
The Stars clinched the top seed from the Northern Lights Conference Southern Division by turning back host Kenai in four games. The Kardinals were celebrating Senior Night in each team's regular season finale.
Soldotna prevailed 20-25, 25-17, 25-22, 25-11 in a match that head coach Bruce King hopes has righted a team in a tailspin.
"We've been off course the last couple of weeks and not able to hold it together," King said. "I think this has got us back on track again."
The Stars (12-5, 7-3 league) captured a pivotal third game that included 13 ties and eight lead changes. Neither team sustained momentum throughout the game, despite solid work at the net by Soldotna senior Paige Blackburn and Kenai's Hannah Delaney.
Stars sophomore Chelsea Wilbanks provided a key block to lift the guests ahead 22-21. A Kenai serve into the net, and a Kardinals' return of service wide of the sideline, secured the final two points for the Stars.
Despite the heartbreaking shift, Kenai surged in front 4-1 to open the fourth game. But the Stars began to roll with sophomore Emily Rohloff serving. Soldotna pounded out 11 straight points and 17 of the next 18 in taking command 18-6.
Kenai closed within 20-11 before sophomore Shana Powell served out the final four points.
"We've talked about finishing matches, especially coming off winning games," King said.
Kenai Central head coach Jason Diorec felt his team had added another positive at the end of a long season with their performance. The Kardinals (2-14) were coming off a five-set defeat 24 hours earlier against Skyview.
"We were coming off a great match with energy," Diorec said. "This is momentum from the last match. And this is what we need going to regions."
The Kardinals coped well with the Senior Night festivities. After saluting seniors Ronni Sounart and Kyla Steward, the Kards promptly commanded the latter half of the opening game.
The Kardinals played with more emotion, sense of urgency and were more accurate with their hits at the net. Kenai never trailed the game by more than a point, was tied seven times and got the third and final lead change at 11-10.
Kenai built a 20-15 lead, its largest of the night at any point. Sophomore Mariah Huhndorf served out the final three points, with her first two serves not returned and an unforced Soldotna error clinching the game.
"It was Senior Night and they should have been energized," King said of the Kardinals. "Sometimes it takes the visiting team a while to adjust. Kenai is an improving team."
Wilbanks was steady at the net for Soldotna in the second game, sparking her team through three ties and never allowing the hosts to hold a lead. Powell was solid on sets and Kenai never found a consistent pattern of play at the net.
Blackburn finished the evening with 21 kills and six blocks. Junior Jessi Stenga came up with 24 digs and Rohloff 17, providing outstanding defense.
Wilbanks chipped in seven kills, sophomore Mariah Hamilton had four blocks and Rohloff finished with 22 assists.
"Chelsea's net play has started to improve as a blocker and a hitter," King said. "She did a good job today of getting off the net and keeping the ball alive for us."
"We've been working on, basically, filling in," Diorec said. "We lost a big player, and a backup setter. But, the ones who are out there are doing a good job."
Each team will open region play at Palmer on Thursday, with opponents yet to be determined.
On Friday, Soldotna lost to Bethel 19-25, 25-23, 12-25, 25-22, 15-11. Blackburn had 20 kills and seven blocks, Stenga had 17 digs, Wilbanks had nine kills, April Hefner had six kills and Emily Rohloff had 18 assists.
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