Homer boys coach Warren Waldorf was nervous the night before Friday’s Peninsula Conference tournament semifinals clash with Soldotna on the Stars home field.
At 62 years old and with 11 years of coaching the Mariners under his belt, Waldorf never gets nervous before games. This was different.
“I just knew it was going to be a close battle,” he said.
He was right. The No.2 seed Mariners advanced to state for the fifth time in seven years with a 2-1 victory on penalty kicks over the No. 3 Stars. Homer plays in Saturday’s championship against Kenai Central, 6-0 winners against Seward, at 4 p.m.
The Stars failed to earn a state berth in Darryl Byerley’s final tournament as coach. Byerley has been a coach at the high school level for 14 years, coached at middle school for 15 years, and was the SoHi head coach for four years and one state berth. The coach and seniors cap their careers at noon in the third-place game against Seward.
“Like I told you before the tournament, one team that deserved to go to state won’t go to state, and that happened to be us,” Byerley said. “It was 100 minutes of great soccer. Both teams had the opportunity to win in regulation and overtime.”
After 100 minutes of taut soccer, the penalty shootout was tied after the round of five at 5-all. The affair was finally decided in the first round of sudden-death penalty kicks when Homer’s Timothy Blakely drilled his shot past Soldotna goalie Cody Quelland, and Homer goalie Tucker Weston was able to step in front of Cameron Johnson’s attempt.
“It was pretty crazy,” said Weston, whose two saves on Josh Hieber breakaways easily made him the hero of the day despite it being just his second year playing goalie. “Those were the first PKs I had taken on me in an actual game.
“I just tried to focus on every one and was able to stop the last one.”
Waldorf, whose team also snatched a state berth from the Stars in last season’s third-place game at the old Northern Lights Conference tournament, said he had a feeling Friday’s match would be a classic because all the pieces were in place.
Both teams have a lot of experience and skill, with Homer playing six seniors and the Stars playing seven to eight. And those players have a lengthy history, even producing a similar penalty-kick drama when the seniors were eighth-graders, with the Stars winning that contest. The game was a must-win for a state tournament berth.
The turf surface was perfect. The temperature was ideal for what seemed like the first time all season, with no wind. Waldorf said the referees did an excellent job.
The tilt did not start well for the Stars. In the third minute, Josh Hieber broke in alone on Weston and was denied with a scrambling kick save.
Then in the sixth minute, Charles Rohr, whose two long-range strikes were the difference in last season’s 2-1 third-place game, hit a free kick from 46 yards out that went just over the hand of Quelland, hit the top bar and bounced in.
“As soon as he hit it, I knew it was going in,” Waldorf said. “The trajectory was perfect. It was a beautiful shot.”
Homer controlled the next portion of the game before Hieber made amends by beating a couple players at midfield, sending the ball to Sean McMullin in the corner, then hustling to the mouth of the goal to head in McMullin’s cross.
From there, the experience of the players showed as both sides had a tough time earning chances. Waldorf gave credit to his midfield engine of Timothy Blakely, Austin Shafford and Dexter Lowe, plus the defense of Rohr. Byerley said Gavin Goggia and Ethan Bott were great on defense, Sam McElroy shined at defensive midfield, and Luke Trammell and Eli Sheridan were strong on the attack.
With the game knotted after 80 minutes of regulation, the sides embarked on two 10-minute overtime periods. In the second minute of the first overtime, Homer’s Oliver Beck had an open shot at the top of the box but fired over the bar.
With less than two minutes left in the second overtime, Sheridan sent Hieber on another breakaway. Weston made one more incredible kick save, nearly identical to the first. He said Waldorf has had him practice placing his feet properly on dives so the side opposite his hands also is covered.
“I made an untimely mistake and he made a timely save,” said Rohr, who plays central defense. “I still can’t get over it.”
Late in the game, Homer’s Simon Dye returned to the game despite a thigh bruise. That loomed large when Dye, Rohr, Beck, Isaiah Nevak and Austin Shafford made penalties. Scoring for Soldotna were Goggia, Sheridan, Hieber, Eli Wackler and Trammell.
When Weston finally ended the game with his save on Johnson, he ran to get mobbed by his teammates.
“It feels good. Some of these seniors and juniors — everybody — has been giving everything to go to state,” Weston said. “They’re also my close friends.”
Rohr said he feels for Soldotna but is happy to go to state for a third time in four years.
“It’s amazing to have the program we have all the way down in Homer,” he said. “It means a lot to go to state my senior year.”
Kenai Central 6, Seward 0
The top-seeded Kardinals advanced to a conference final and a state berth for the fourth straight season by blanking the No. 4 Seahawks.
Freshman Leif Lofquist got the Kardinals off and running with the fastest hat trick Kenai coach Joel Reemtsma has seen, finishing the job in just five minutes. Two came on assists by Zack Tuttle.
“We wanted to come out and get off to a fast start and kind of take away the hope of the other team,” Reemtsma said. “We were able to move some guys around and rest for tomorrow.”
By 20 minutes into the game, the Kardinals led 5-0 as Tuttle scored on an assist from Riley McKee and Travis McKinley buried a shot after a run to the corner by Nate Beiser.
In the second half, Nate Beiser finished the scoring on an assist from Lofquist.
Braedon Pitsch had the shutout for the Kards. Reemtsma gave credit to Seward for not sitting back. He said Pitsch had to turn away a strong shot from 8 yards out, and also tip a free kick over the bar.
“Seward was doing good things, moving the ball around and taking shots,” Reemtsma said.