Less than 24 hours after pulling off an upset victory over top-seeded Palmer and stamping their ticket to state, the Soldotna Stars hockey team returned to the ice at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex to face a hungry Colony squad.
It took 45 minutes Saturday for the Knights to cast off the weary Stars and clinch back-to-back North Star Conference titles, winning a 3-0 tilt on the back of Knights goaltender Joey Diltz.
Diltz recorded the shutout with 21 saves, a blank sheet that felt redemptive after the Colony junior had to miss the most recent clash between the two teams in the regular season, a game Soldotna won 6-2 against Colony’s backup goalie Alex Gamez.
“I was sick with strep throat, and I had to sit out,” Diltz said. “It’s a great feeling, I give a lot of credit to my team for playing good today.”
The Knights got goals from Otto Thiele, Jake Hessinger and Cade Havel to seal the win. Colony had outshot SoHi 19-11 in the first two periods, but the Stars mustered up everything they had in the final frame with a 10-7 shots advantage, only to come up short.
Still, Soldotna will be playing in the state tournament for the first time in two years, but the first for Derek Urban as a head coach. The Stars last went to state in 2014 after winning the NSC title with Aaron Swanson as head coach.
“We’re going to state, and I’m pretty certain no one in the conference thought we were going,” Urban said.
Urban said Friday’s big win over Palmer — a 3-1 triumph — was a massive confidence builder, but after three days of playing hockey, the Stars simply felt the wear and tear more than Colony, which played only two games over the weekend.
“Yesterday was an emotional roller coaster,” Urban said. “At the end of the day, the physicality of playing three days caught up to us.”
For Colony head coach Jamie Smith, it was his ninth region crown in 23 years as a head coach at Colony, Houston and Wasilla high schools. Smith said part of what made the last two titles feel different was that his son Cooper was involved as a varsity player.
“He’s now been a part of two championships, so that’s special,” Smith said. “But what made this team different is that there is no big star.
“We have a lot of meat-and-potato-type players on this team.”
Soldotna goalie Billy Yoder stopped 23 of 26 shots and once again managed to clear several good scoring opportunities by Colony, which helped keep the Stars in the game.
However, Soldotna wasn’t able to break down Diltz on the offensive side of things. Urban attributed SoHi’s lack of scoring to its inability to get multiple shots off on any single attack on goal.
“We didn’t have a lot of net puck presence,” Urban said. “We were getting pucks on net, but we didn’t have anyone there to catch the rebound or anything.”
Thiele scored the opening goal of the game on a wraparound attack on Yoder just past the three-minute mark of the first period.
Hessinger scored with five minutes to play in the second period, taking advantage of a brief five-on-three Colony power play to tip in a puck that popped out of a scrum of players in front of the SoHi goal, giving the Knights a 2-0 lead.
Exactly halfway through the third period, Havel added a third goal, receiving the puck immediately off a faceoff on the left circle and getting off a clean shot on goal to put Colony up by three.
Diltz said as the minutes clicked away in the third period, he was making sure to keep his mind on the action in front of him, as the prospect of a shutout game did nothing to calm him.
“I try not to think about it, I don’t want to jinx myself,” Diltz said.
However, Diltz held strong against numerous scoring opportunities by SoHi, which eventually had to relinquish victory.
North Star Conference awards
MVP — Darren Fish, Palmer.
Co-Coaches of Year — Trent Schachle, Wasilla, and Jeff Varvil, Palmer.
First team — Darren Fish, Palmer; Porter Schachle, Wasilla; Cooper Smith, Colony; Cy Eller, Colony; Chris Dojka, Palmer; Garrett Conroy, Wasilla; Josh Meyers, Palmer; Noah Richards, Palmer; Jake Branch, Colony; Cody Butcher, Wasilla; Billy Yoder, Soldotna.
Second team — Russell Harren, Wasilla; Otto Thiele, Colony; Dawson Roberts, Homer; Larsen Tubbs, Wasilla; Bowen Webb, Palmer; Taylor Foster, Palmer; Dayne Cole, Wasilla; Greyson Holohan, Colony; Valary Dietz, Palmer; Hunter Tillion, Homer; Joey Diltz, Colony.
Honorable mention — Cameron Knowlton, Soldotna; Tristan Bulot, Kenai; Ethan Brown, Soldotna; Cooper McLaughlin, Colony; Cole Crandall, Soldotna; Jacob O’Brien, Kenai; Cody Grogan, Palmer; Riley Swanson, Homer.
Good sport — Darren Fish, Palmer; Wyatt Vrana, Colony; Cheyenne Matson, Wasilla; Emily Warner, Soldotna; Danny Wiest, Homer; JT Lott, Kenai.
Knights 3, Stars 0
Colony 1 1 1 —3
Soldotna 0 0 0 —0
1st period — 1. Colony, Thiele (Smith), 3:09. Penalties — Soldotna 2 for 4:00; Colony 2 for 4:00.
2nd period — 2. Colony, Hessinger (Kirsch, Crosta), 10:05. Penalties — Soldotna 3 for 6:00; Colony 3 for 6:00.
3rd period — 3. Colony, Havel (Smith), 7:30. Penalties — Soldotna 3 for 9:00; Colony 3 for 6:00.
Shots — Soldotna 4-7-10—21; Colony 8-11-7—26.
Goalies — Soldotna, Yoder (26 shots, 23 saves); Colony, Diltz (21 shots, 21 saves).