The Kenai girls and boys soccer teams clinched state berths in dramatic fashion Friday at the Northern Lights Conference soccer tournament at Palmer High School.
The Soldotna girls opted for dominant fashion.
The Kenai girls earned a third trip to state in four years with a 2-1, overtime victory over Wasilla, while the Kardinals boys are going to state for the first time since 2008 thanks to a 2-1, overtime victory over Homer.
Meanwhile, the Soldotna girls kept rolling with a 3-0 victory over Palmer to earn a sixth-straight trip to state, and a seventh trip in eight years. Miranda Wolfe led the way with a hat trick.
Kenai girls 2, Wasilla 1
When the Kardinals met the Warriors during the regular season, 80 minutes of regulation failed to produce a winner. The Northern Lights Conference rivals walked off the turf with a 1-1 tie.
Fast forward to Friday.
After 80 minutes of regulation, the Kardinals and Warriors were once again locked in a 1-1 tie.
But there are no ties in the NLC tournament.
In the rematch, Kenai needed extra time and an unbelievable effort courtesy of forward Heidi Perkins to earn a 2-1 victory over the Warriors.
In the 96th minute, Perkins, blanketed by a Wasilla defender, moved just inside the right end of the penalty box, and blasted a hard strike just inside the far, left-side post to help push the Kards into the NLC title match for the second-straight year.
“We were kind of waiting for that, get one on net that was a little bit away from the goalie,” Kenai head coach Dan Verkuilen said of the Perkins strike. “She hits it so hard. It’s hard to reel them in if it’s not right in your hands.”
Wasilla head coach Patrick O’Neill said it’s hard to deny the quality of the goal. O’Neill said he felt his Wasilla defender played Perkins nearly perfectly on the play, and Perkins placement of the shot made it incredibly difficult for just about any goalkeeper to stop.
“If you’ve got to lose, you want to lose on a goal like that,” O’Neill said.
Perkins scored both goals in the Kenai win. With the Kards trailing 1-0 at the break, Perkins needed only about 30 seconds of the second half to tie the score. During the first minute of the second half, Kenai’s Cori Holmes sent a diagonal cross from the left side to Perkins, who ripped a shot into the Warriors net.
“We had a 30-second breakdown, but otherwise played a great game,” O’Neill said.
The rivals have built a competitive NLC rivalry in recent seasons. The 2015 regular season meeting ended in a 1-1 tie. Last season, the Kards and Warriors saw each other three times. Kenai posted a 3-0 mark against Wasilla last year, but the greatest margin of victory was two goals. Kenai beat Wasilla 1-0 in the regular season, 2-1 in the NLC semifinals and 2-0 at the state tournament.
“Knowing (the Wasilla coach), an old Minnesota player just like myself, similar philosophies, trying to accelerate the kids, does a great job with them. They gave us all we could handle. It’s like a volleyball game with all the momentum swings,” said Verkuilen, who was named the NLC Girls Coach of the Year during a conference awards ceremony Friday.
Verkuilen said he felt both sides had their moments of control.
“There were times today we had good possession, moved the ball really good. There were times we got a little nervous, a little too touchy,” Verkuilen said.
O’Neill echoed Verkuilen’s sentiments.
“Obviously we’re disappointed. But it’s hard to feel bad when you played that well in that even of a matchup,” O’Neill said.
Ally Hull gave Wasilla the 1-0 lead late in the first half. During the 38th minute, Alexa Starr, the 2015 NLC Girls Player of the Year, fed Hull a pass from the left side of the field. Hull moved into the right side of the penalty box, beat a 1-on-1 play with the defender and fired a shot, low into the left side of the net.
“Wasilla’s a strong team. They’re a run away from scoring,” Verkuilen said. “When they put that first one in, we definitely knew we were capable of putting one in, but we knew it would be no easy road.”
With the win, Kenai now focuses on Soldotna. It marks the second straight year Kenai and Soldotna have met in the Valley with a region title at stake. Last year, Wasilla High hosted the NLC championships.
The teams have met twice this season. SoHi scored a 5-0 win over the Kards early, but Verkuilen said Kenai was missing multiple starters during that match. Soldotna and Kenai’s regular season region match ended in a scoreless tie.
“Both teams had chances in that game,” Verkuilen said of the tie against the Kards.
Kenai and Soldotna have taken different paths to the NLC title game. SoHi beat Palmer 10-1 on Thursday and Colony 3-0 in the NLC semifinals Friday morning. Thursday, Kenai netted the game-winner with about three minutes left in regulation to edge Grace Christian 2-1. Friday, the Kards played 100 minutes of soccer against Wasilla.
“They’re tough girls, they’re intelligent,” Verkuilen said of his players. “I always say the intelligent teams are usually the teams that move on. They’ll do the best to give what they got.”
Kenai boys 2, Homer 1, OT
With four minutes left in the second, 10-minute overtime period, senior captain Austin McKee shook loose a couple of defenders in the midfield and laced a scorcher to the bottom left corner from 25 yards out to send the Kards to state.
“He demonstrated why he’s a captain, a team MVP, a first-team all-region player,” Kenai boys coach Joel Reemtsma said.
McKee played the hero’s role that Perkins had played in the previous game.
“Our senior stars stepped up today,” Reemtsma said. “Heidi sent a goal off the bar and in from about 20 yards out at least, and Austin McKee had a similar shot.”
Reemtsma said Homer controlled the first 20 minutes of the game and senior goalie Wren Norwood had a huge save five minutes into the game to keep things level.
The game was scoreless at the half, but Reemtsma said Homer had the better of the chances.
In the second half, Reemtsma said Kenai took over possession, but Homer remained extremely dangerous on quick counterattacks.
Thirteen minutes into the second half, McKee sent a ball just over the Homer defense. The ball kissed off the back of the head of Homer’s star central defender, Drew Brown, and the bounce caught goalie Eric Hill off-guard. Kenai freshman Zack Tuttle was there to put the ball in the net.
With just two minutes left in regulation, Kenai was possessing the ball when Homer again went on a quick break. Charlie Rohr looked up from 45 yards and saw Norwood off his line and made him pay with a beauty into the top shelf from deep.
“Wren was maybe just a little too far off his line,” Homer coach Warren Waldorf said. “Rohr hit it and it floated over Wren’s hand.”
Reemtsma didn’t have a problem with Norwood’s positioning. He just said Rohr hit a great shot at a clutch time.
“Our hearts were broken,” Reemtsma said.
But the Kards recovered thanks to McKee’s goal.
“These kids play with so much heart,” Reemtsma said. “They knew the stakes, and they knew the opportunity was there to go to state that previous teams hadn’t taken advantage of. We’re so excited.”
The Kards did it by blending youth and experience. Five freshmen — Tuttle, Kevin Ramos, Luke Beiser, Braydon Goodman and Riley McKee — started in the semifinal.
“All the guys get along great,” Reemtsma said. “They treat each other well and respect each other.”
Reemtsma said the freshmen realized what varsity soccer is all about after a loss to Nikiski early in the season, and the group has been coming on strong ever since.
The coach said center backs Max Dye and Goodman, as well as outside defenders Riley McKee and Jake Eubank, were huge in not only stopping attacks, but helping Kenai keep possession.
“They built more possession in the second half and overtime,” Waldorf said of Kenai. “I think the result was the right one.”
Homer beat Wasilla 2-0 in overtime on Thursday. The concern now is the Mariners have to come back less than 24 hours later and play Grace.
“We were in this position last year,” Waldorf said. “We lost the second game to Wasilla and came back to beat Kenai 3-0. We have to get a score early and hang on.”
Soldotna girls 3, Colony 0
Wolfe, who missed last season due to injury, led the Stars back to state.
“She’s done nothing but shine in this tournament so far,” Soldotna coach Jimmy Love said. “After a year where she couldn’t play last year, she’s been a stronger player this year.”
In the 31st minute, goalie Maddie Kindred, who had the shutout, booted the ball down the field and Wolfe ran through it and scored.
About one minute into the second half, Wolfe gave the Stars some breathing room when she scored on an assist from Skylar Shaw.
Then in the 54th minute, Wolfe took advantage of a shallow clear from the Knights and banged home the hat trick.
“I think possessionwise, conservatively, we had a 70-30 split,” Love said. “We were moving the ball well and had some good looks on net. Their goalie made three or four good saves.”
Love said the defense was particularly strong, but chalked the win up to everybody.
“This is a total team effort and that’s what we’ve been trying to push from day one,” Love said. “We can’t win with just one person.
“We played much better today, but we’re always looking for stuff to tweak.”
Colony boys 5, Grace Christian 0
The Colony Knights boys soccer squad moved into the NLC title match with a 5-0 semifinal win over Grace Christian on Friday after at Palmer High.
Ben Sande, who was named the NLC Boys Player of the Year Friday afternoon, scored twice in the victory. Jake Forstner, Austin Richardson and Cameron Shaw also scored. Harrison Menard led the Knights with two assists. Zach Zmuda earned the shutout in the Knights net.