All they wanted was a chance.
It looks like they'll have more than that.
The Skyview Panthers' four-game win over Wasilla in the opening round of the Northern Lights Conference volleyball tournament at Kenai Central High School on Thursday night earned them a date with the top-seeded Colony Knights, who placed second at state last year and romped through the conference with a 10-0 mark this season.
"To me, it's like a David versus Goliath story in that Colony is one of the best three in the state with a bunch of seniors, experience and a 10-0 or 11-0 record now," Skyview coach Sheila Kupferschmid said following her team's 25-18, 25-14, 17-25, 25-17 win over the third-seeded Warriors. "They're going up against a giant this year in volleyball in Colony High School. Our little school of 400-some against a big-size school like that.
"We just want an opportunity."
Thanks to solid net play from Missy Massey, Brittany Meyer, Maddie Abbott and Jaxon Hill, the Panthers earned that shot by becoming the lone squad from the Southern Division to emerge from the first-round after top-seeded Soldotna, third-seeded Homer and No. 4 Kenai all fell in straight sets.
Nothing comes easy against Colony, though, as Skyview knows all too well following a sweep at the home of the Knights earlier this season. But the way the Panthers closed that match, falling 32-30 in the third and final game, provides a glimmer of hope for a team seeking its first trip to the state tournament since they placed fourth in the 2002-03 season.
"Any team's beatable," Kupferschmid said of the Knights, who will take on Skyview at 7 p.m. today. "They're very good. They're in the top three ... in the state. But any team is beatable. Anything can happen."
Wasilla nearly proved that Thursday.
Never leading in the first two games, the Warriors owned the third as senior Jenna Johnson drove home one of her team-high 17 kills for a 5-1 lead and Wasilla extended it to 10-2 on back-to-back kills from Sammy Becker (nine kills) and Rebecca Stella.
The Panthers crept within two behind five solid serves from Massey, but the Warriors answered with a 10-3 run and Johnson's immediate kill off a block helped finish off the Panthers, who committed 15 unforced errors in the frame.
"The unforced errors will kill you," Kupferschmid said. "It's the team who controls the ball is the one that will one that will come on top. And we controlled it more tonight."
The fourth game was all Skyview, as three of Massey's game-high 19 kills and two of Hill's nine staked the Panthers to a 10-2 cushion. Five straight Skyview points from Meyer, who recorded 12 kills, and two from Abbott (nine kills) extended the lead to 19-11.
But Wasilla wouldn't quit, running off five straight points in trimming the deficit to four, although two points were then deducted from the Warriors' score and one added to the Panthers because Wasilla was out of rotation for two turns before the officials noticed it. A kill by Hill and a bad return on a shot by Hill finished off Skyview's win over a team it defeated in five games earlier in the season.
"That was a big break for us then the momentum just swung," Kupferschmid said. "I'm thankful for the win."
The Warriors now have to fight their way back through the loser's bracket, something they're accustomed to as they lost in the first round last year and still wound up earning the third state tournament berth on the line.
"The first two (games) we were just in some kind of passing ruts. We weren't able to attack as much like we did the last two," said Wasilla coach Anna Simmons. "Then they turned it around. We just weren't as consistent with our defense.
"We have to take the harder road but we know."
Skyview captured Game 1 with impenetrable net play and took the second game with solid serving. Jessie Bilderback ran off five straight strong serves, including a pair of aces, in giving her team a 5-0 lead to begin Game 2. Leading 11-9, Meyer unleashed nine straight, the final three put home by Abbott, and the Panthers owned a 19-9 edge before two kills from Hill put Skyview one game from victory.
"I thought Wasilla broke down a little bit. I think they helped us," Kupferschmid explained. "I thought, again, their serve-receive broke for us and we ran some points on them and I think that just gave our kids confidence and they kept fighting on defense. The connection was there from the pass, set and hit."
Kara Larson finished what Allie Grazulis started.
Grazulis owned the Kardinals by driving home 18 kills in leading the top-seeded Knights to 25-10 and 25-16 wins in the first two games and Larson picked up eight of her own in a 25-8 victory that finished off fourth-seeded Kenai.
One of the top hitters in the state, Grazulis, who soars high above the net and uncorks a powerful blast nearly every time, picked up seven of her 22 kills and one ace in a dominating opening game which lasted just 15 minutes.
"Every time she goes up to hit," Colony coach Amy Carter said of her senior surprising her still. "She's fun to watch. It's fun to have her on our team."
Gradually adapting to the exceptional hitter, the Kardinals defense occasionally took away Grazulis' angles, forcing her to place the ball into open space, something she did to perfection in recording seven of the Knights' final 11 points of Game 2.
"She is a dominant player and she will continue to be dominant. I felt in the first game and the second game we actually did a very nice job of making them kind of change up their game plan a little bit," Kenai coach Stacia Rustad said of the senior. "They didn't get as many kills on us. ... Certainly we were able to get our hands on a lot of her hits and then she had to start going to the tips. I would like to think that was because they were having to adjust.
"When you take away her hit, she's intelligent enough to know to go to the tip and she's so athletic that she can see the holes and tip it down to the holes," she added. "It's not a tip like 85 percent of the rest of this region tips. It's a tip where she's up in the air, she sees that her kill angle has been taken, but now I can adjust being so athletic, see the hole and get the ball down."
The third game belonged to Larson.
Leading 7-4, the senior scored seven of Colony's ensuing 10 points and later added two more as the Knights cruised to a 21-7 edge. Fittingly, though, Grazulis (five blocks) picked up two more points down the stretch in helping her team advance to the semifinals.
Also crucial in Colony's run was the play of setter Siobhan Johansen, who had 31 assists.
"She's very good and she does what Allie and Kara want her to do," Carter said.
Despite the loss, Rustad was pleased with her team's performance and is looking forward to today's 3 p.m. date with Wasilla, who was the Kardinals' lone NLC victim this season.
"I'm proud of my kids. We made some errors that we shouldn't have. We missed some serves in that second game. I think we scored 16 points, which for me, its quality points for us to be putting up against a team like Colony," she said. "I think Colony has a very good chance of winning it all (at state) and from a region team perspective, I hope they do."
Palmer coach Steve Reynolds wasn't sure Soldotna knew what kind of team would show up Thursday night.
Would it be the Moose team that went 4-6 in conference play this season and earned the fourth and final seed from the Northern Division or the squad that captured the NLC tourney crown last season in advancing to state for the 10th consecutive year?
In the end, even Reynolds was surprised.
After falling to the Stars in four games earlier in the season, Palmer dominated the top seed from the Southern Division when it counted, running away with a 25-14, 25-21, 25-23 sweep in advancing to today's NLC semifinals.
"I don't know if they expected us to come out that hard. I don't know if I expected us to come out that hard. I was surprised by it, too," he said with a broad smile. "Every year I'm surprised by my team at some point. At regionals sometimes, too. Regionals is a big thing. Somebody always comes and has some performance that they haven't had yet.
"We talk about it. We hope for it. So then when you get it, it's like, 'Yeah!'"
It was even more of a shock for the Stars, who went 7-3 in the conference this season before losing in the first round for the second straight year.
"I don't have an explanation as to why we can't get past the first round," said SoHi coach Bruce King.
He did, however, provide an explicit reason as to why they lost Thursday.
"Their ball control was better than ours today," he said. "I think we've struggled with consistency in our ball control all season and we just didn't have it today."
The Stars also committed 37 unforced errors, a stat not many teams would be able to overcome.
"When we needed the ball control, we didn't have it and we made quite a few unforced errors and that hurt us at critical moments, too," King explained.
The Stars, who have overcome their fair share of deficits this season, weren't able to dig themselves out of a hole this time.
Leading 6-4 early behind kills from Kaitlyn Wehrli (eight kills) and Chelsea Wilbanks (10 blocks), SoHi quickly found itself behind 10-6 as southpaw Zoe Rozzi uncorked five straight successful serves, the final three driven home by Jordan Venzke, who recorded seven kills.
"I don't know why we had trouble passing her serves," King said of Rozzi.
Four long hits by Wilbanks extended Palmer's cushion to 16-8 before Soldotna's Shana Powell (16 digs) picked up the first of her team-high 10 kills in trimming the deficit to 18-10. But more unforced errors helped finished Palmer's Game 1 win.
They then owned a 6-2 edge to open the second before the Stars ran off six straight points behind the strong serving of Wehrli in snatching an 8-6 lead. Three straight errors by the Stars handed the Moose a 12-10 lead, one they would never relinquish the rest of the way.
Palmer again jumped out to a big lead in the third game before the Stars stormed back to take a 12-11 edge on the heels of three kills from Powell.
"SoHi really stepped up in that third game," Reynolds said. "They were really fighting for it."
So were the Moose, though.
Knotted at 22-all, Palmer's Chelsea Riley picked up her first point of the game, a crucial block-kill that all but finished Soldotna off.
The Stars now face Homer, a team they defeated twice this season.
"They looked pretty impressive in that first match against Kodiak," King said. "You can't come to this tournament expecting that you're going to get an easy match against anybody."
The second-seeded Bears earned a 25-23, 25-18, 25-22 win over the third-seeded Mariners.
© 2017. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us