The Kenai Central boys are back in a state championship final, and they intend to finish what they started two years ago.
The Kardinals punched their ticket to the Division II title game Friday morning with a 2-0 victory over their region rivals Homer at Service High School.
In 2016, Kenai upended Service in penalty kicks on the same field to advance to the school’s first soccer final, which the Kards lost 3-1 to South Anchorage. This time, Kenai faced Juneau for the crown.
“We’re thrilled,” said head coach Joel Reemtsma. “The state championship has been on our board for years.”
The two title contenders have met this year. The Kardinals prevailed 1-0 over the Crimson Bears in an April 19 meeting on Juneau’s home field, which has already giving Kenai some confidence.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” said senior midfielder Luke Beiser. “We’re feeling confident, and while it is (Division II), the ultimate goal is to win state.
“A state championship game is still a state championship game.”
Beiser snapped a scoreless contest 21 minutes into the first half with a powerful boot off a corner kick by Damien Redder. The ball initially deflected off the head of senior Zack Tuttle, then found its way to Beiser’s shoe. Beiser knocked a one-timer by Homer goalie Tucker Weston.
Tuttle then scored one himself just minutes later, collecting a cross from Kevin Ramos and sneaking through a crowd of dazed Homer defenders to bury a shot for a 2-0 lead at the 23rd minute.
The semifinal showdown was a rematch of the Peninsula Conference title game held just six days earlier, which Kenai won 3-0 against a tired Homer squad.
Friday, Homer was feeling a little fresher following a comfortable 5-1 win Thursday over Grace Christian, but still struggled to score against Kenai. The end of the game marked a full 195 minutes since the Mariners last scored against Kenai, in the second half of a 1-all draw in early May. That is three hours, 15 minutes, of shutout soccer by the Kenai defense.
“We’re disappointed, but we gave it our best shot,” said Homer head coach Warren Waldorf. “Last week, we played a 100-minute game the day before. We had no chance of winning that. It was probably less than 50-50.
“Today was 50-50. We had a chance today.”
The 2015 state tournament marked a watershed moment in Kenai soccer history, as the boys team captured their first state win in program history to announce their arrival on the big stage. The 2016 semifinal win proved they had what to took to contend for the top prize.
While the state has since been divided into two divisions, I and II, the Kardinals have proven that they can still run with the big dogs, as a 3-2 win at Colony early in the spring indicated.
To put it in perspective, the Knights advanced to the Division I championship Friday with a powerful 9-1 win over Lathrop.
“We beat Colony on their own field, but this is where we’re at now,” Beiser said. “We’ve just got to keep the momentum going. It’s been a phenomenal season.”
After the two quick first-half goals, the stunned Homer boys received another blow when Kenai was awarded a penalty kick in the 32nd minute.
The inevitable did not happen, however, as Redder was selected to take the kick but Weston put on a spectacular dive to save it, then save it again when Redder collected the rebound, preserving the two-goal lead.
Kenai goalkeeper Braedon Pitsch put on his own moves too, as the sophomore stopper notched a tough save off the right post in the final minute of the first half.