Soldotna's Dani Donaldson spikes the ball in a game earlier this season. The Stars begin competition at the state championship tournament today.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
As its nickname “The Rock” would attest, Kodiak often makes for a tough road trip for high school teams.
But something funny happened to the Soldotna volleyball team when it traveled to Kodiak for the Northern Lights Conference Tournament last weekend.
“At regions, we had a feeling on the court we’ve never had before,” said Soldotna senior co-captain Lauren Senette. “I knew we were coming together at the right time.”
The Stars have seven seniors on their roster, and Soldotna coach Pako Whannell said the group has always been talented, but also up-and-down. The Stars were 2-8 in the conference and 6-10 overall entering the tournament.
Despite that record, both Whannell and assistant coach Tamra Wear found themselves talking about the good feeling they had about the team before the tournament’s opening match.
“We just said, ‘You know, we can win this match,’” Whannell said. “We didn’t know it would be in the fifth game by two points.
“They just stayed very calm the entire match.”
Soldotna was the No. 3 seed from the Southern Division, but defeated Kodiak, No. 2 from the north, in the first round, then topped previously undefeated Skyview in the semifinals to earn a berth to state the school’s fourth overall and first since 1997. The Stars then fell to Colony in the championship match.
Starting today, Soldotna will look to regain that pleasant feeling it found in Kodiak when the Class 4A state volleyball tournament opens up at West High in Anchorage. The Stars have a 7:15 p.m. match against East High of Anchorage, the Cook Inlet Conference champion.
The second-place finish in Kodiak was the result of a season of tinkering by Whannell. The coach said she knew there was a ton of talent on the team. The big question was how to fit it all together.
Senior Christa Kennedy, a second team all-conference selection, said a key to the season was that the experienced team kept the faith despite mounting losses.
The seniors on the team are Dani Donaldson, Megan Duwe, Laura Harro, Sara Heminger, Liz Rohloff, Kennedy and Senette.
“We definitely had our ups and downs,” Kennedy said. “We knew we’d have to come together at the end for there to be any chance of anything happening at regions.
“We kept our heads up and kept working hard.”
Kennedy said home matches against Palmer and Colony the weekend before the conference tournament gave the team confidence.
The Stars lost to the Knights in five games and the Moose in four.
“I felt we played quite well against those Valley teams,” Kennedy said. “I knew if we played like that, we had a shot at going to state.”
By that time, Soldotna had changed to a system of having one setter on the floor instead of two.
The system helped the setter establish more of an in-match rapport with the hitters. Whannell said setters Rohloff and Heminger each have specific strengths. Based on the competition, Whannell will select either Rohloff or Heminger to do all the setting for a match.
“I just think it’s more consistent,” Heminger said. “We don’t have to worry about as many substitutions. We can just play.”
The system also allowed sophomore Jessi Stenga to stay on the floor. Stenga is a good enough athlete to do a little bit of everything for the Stars.
“Jessi can pull stuff out of anywhere,” said Rohloff, a co-captain. “She can pull off plays on junk passes.”
Whannell said it was Stenga’s blocking that made a major difference against Skyview.
As the stats from the championship match against Colony show, the Stars now have plenty of ways to hurt the opposition.
Southern Division most valuable player and co-captain Paige Blackburn had 12 kills and three blocks.
Kennedy had 10 kills and five digs, while fellow second-teamer Donaldson had 11 kills and 18 digs. Harro had nine digs, Senette had 10 digs and four aces, and Heminger had 29 assists.
Whannell said the Stars will have to keep playing their best volleyball against East. Soldotna split a pair of games to 15 at a tournament earlier this season, but East showed it is on an upswing by upsetting South to win the conference tournament.
“It’s going to be like regions anything can happen,” Senette said. “Our main goal is to step on the court fighting, to step on the court and take it one ball at a time.
“We need to stay intense and not look too far ahead.”
Class 4A state volleyball tournament
at West High in Anchorage
Game 1 Colony vs. South, 5:30 p.m.
Game 2 Juneau vs. Chugiak, 3:45 p.m.
Game 3 West Valley vs. Palmer, 2 p.m.
Game 4 East vs. Soldotna, 7:15 p.m.
Game 5 Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 3:45 p.m.
Game 6 Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7:15 p.m.
Game 7 Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 9 a.m.
Game 8 Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 10:45 a.m.
Fourth-place match Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 10:45 a.m.
Third-place match Game 5 loser vs. Game 6 loser, 2:15 p.m.
Championship Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 8:15 p.m.
Jeff Helminiak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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