Competing with one less player than the Palmer Moose for the final 30 minutes spelled doom for the Nikiski boys soccer team Friday afternoon at Nikiski High School.
The end result was a physical 3-0 Northern Lights Conference win for Palmer, improving the Moose’s season record to 5-9, snapping a three-game losing streak. The loss dropped the Bulldogs to 3-2 on the year.
The trouble started in the 51st minute in the second half, when Nikiski midfielder Nico Castro was yellow-carded for the second time in two days, resulting in an automatic red card. That meant Castro was to be sent to the sideline and Nikiski could not substitute in another player, and therefore had to play a game of 10 on 11.
“That was pretty normal from the games up north,” said Palmer coach Kevin Dearborn. “We play Colony and Wasilla and those are always pretty physical games. That was about right on for us.”
The Bulldogs were already down two goals at that point, so any hopes of a comeback were immediately dashed.
Nikiski coach Jim Coburn said he felt his team came out sluggish after playing an “emotional” Thursday game against Colony.
“We came out with a lot of emotion last night, expending a lot of energy,” Coburn said. “These guys are pretty dead today.”
With a school population of less than 300, Nikiski was facing quite a task Thursday against the Colony Knights, a school that many coaches are pointing to as the state championship favorites in 2014.
“The kids get up for that, they like to play a quality team like that,” Coburn said. “Even though it was a loss, they put a lot into that game.”
By the time Friday rolled around, the Bulldogs had trouble answering to Palmer’s attacks. Nikiski goalie Sullivan Jackson faced 13 shots on goal, while Palmer goalie Brandon Banks faced three shots. Palmer also had 12 corner kick opportunites to Nikiski’s two.
“I think we played a full 80 minutes,” Dearborn said. “Usually we play 20 minutes and then we get scored on, or we play a good 60 minutes and drop it in the last 20. I thought we played hard today.”
Dearborn lauded the play of senior captain Chandler Jones and Artur Kavaliov, both who determinedly pushed the ball up the sides throughout the game to create scoring chances.
Elliot Price scored first for Palmer in the 15th minute with an assist from Lucas Clark. Price’s kick was saved by Jackson, but the ball still managed to slip his grasp and find its way into the net.
Price himself was given a yellow card just before the first half ended, and with a slim lead, Dearborn said he knew better to let his team relax.
“I told the guys at halftime that it’s not over,” Dearborn said. “It was important that we scored another goal.”
And score another goal they did. Barely 60 seconds passed in the second half before Nathan Pempek sent a long shot careening past Jackson and into the left corner of the net from about 25 yards out.
After Castro was sent off ten minutes later, the Bulldogs surprisingly found their way into Palmer’s territory more and more.
“I felt like the guys put a little more into it and started playing better,” Coburn said. “But it’s hard to come back when you’re playing from behind and without an eleventh guy.”
After a couple of near misses on goal for Nikiski, Palmer finally played the ball out of their defensive zone and scored an insurance goal in the 62nd minute. It came moments after a throw-in that resulted in a scramble in front of the net that Kavaliov converted on.
From there, the blows kept coming for Nikiski. Jesse Eide received the game’s third yellow card in the 70th minute, and that was followed by an injury sustained by Nathan Carstens, who had to be carried by two teammates to the sideline.
Palmer girls 4, Nikiski 0
Freshman Tiana Lee scored twice and senior Katarina Godden got the shutout in goal for the Palmer girls teams, catapulting the Moose to the shutout win.
The win improves Palmer to a 4-7-1 season record, while Nikiski continues its winless season at 0-3-1.
Palmer coach Harmony Chadwick said a rearrangement of positions on the field helped her squad maintain effective possession of the ball, as Nikiski struggled to keep it out of their space.
“We actually switched up our formation the other day against Grace, and it worked really well,” Chadwick said. “They like it, it’s really working.”
Chadwick said she switched to a 4-4-2 formation, with two forwards up front. On Friday, the Moose dominated play on the field by outshooting the Bulldogs 22-1 on goal, with multiple shots coming from Lee, Carly Venzke and Kiana Till.
“We talked a lot about keeping our passing game,” Chadwick said. “We were doing a pretty good job of winning the 50-50 balls in the first half and we wanted to continue that.”
Palmer also had the advantage in corner kicks by 7-0. It sure made for a busy day for Nikiski goaltender Rachel Thompson.
“She’s always going to be very strong back there, we just need to give her some support and help from the backline,” said Nikiski coach Mandy Adair. “They’re doing a great job listening and being great teammates to each other.”
It wasn’t until the 28th minute that Palmer found a way past Thompson, but Elliot Perkins scored first with a jumbled play that saw the ball glance off the right goal post, past Thompson and into the waiting clutches of Perkins, who nimbly guided the ball into the net for a 1-0 lead.
Just two minutes later, Till took a chance from about 20 yards out with an assist from Ashley Murray and put the ball into the left corner for Palmer’s second goal.
At halftime, Palmer had a two-goal lead, a comfortable margin for the Moose, but certainly not one to sit on.
“My biggest thing at halftime was that we’ve got to start winning those 50-50 balls on goal kicks,” Adair said. “We were letting Palmer win those balls out of the air, and it’s hard to compete if you’re letting the other team win the ball every time.”
As unexpected as the hot, sunny conditions were for the teams, a lot of subbing was done throughout the second half. Luckily for Chadwick, she missed an opportunity to sub a player in for Tiana Lee, because Lee scored twice in a five-minute span.
Lee put the ball up high into the air in the 60th minute to score, then added a second goal in the 65th with an impressive sequence of dribbling down the center lane and launching the ball into the left corner to extend Palmer’s lead to 4-0.
After the game, Adair said she is hopeful that her team can climb out of the basement of the Northern Lights Conference standings and make up some ground in the coming weeks.
“It’s usually Nikiski style to start coming on strong before regions and start figuring out the game before regions,” Adair said.
Nikiski will play the Houston Hawks on Saturday, a team they lost to 2-0 earlier in the year. Palmer travels down to Seward for a match against the Seahawks on Saturday.