The Kenai Central girls wasted no time in delivering the drama Thursday morning at the Division II state soccer championships.
The Kardinals survived and advanced in the first game of the tournament at Eagle River High School, pulling out a 3-2 overtime win over North Pole. The win advanced the Kardinals to the semifinals with a 9 a.m. date at Service High School against top-seeded Juneau-Douglas.
Kenai twice came back from a goal deficit to force the overtime period, where Alyssa Bucho scored the game-winning goal halfway through the first 10-minute frame. The sequence started with senior Olivia Brewer delivering a cross to the goal box, where the North Pole goalkeeper got a hand on it but ended up knocking it back out, and Bucho was there to boot it in.
“We’ve been working hard this whole season, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out in our favor,” Bucho said. “But we just worked hard, and it just feels so good to win and keep moving on.”
Bucho’s clutch goal in overtime was followed by one of the biggest moments of the game in the final minute of the first overtime period. North Pole received a golden opportunity to tie it back up with a penalty kick, when a Kenai defender was charged with a foul in the box, but North Pole senior Chalayna Culler’s shot missed the mark and sailed wide left of the post, maintaining Kenai’s lead.
Kenai head coach Dan Verkuilen said a 9 a.m. start time didn’t do any favors for the team, which he said came out flat. The Patriots pounced on a sluggish Kenai defense 12 minutes into the game, getting a goal off the foot of Breeauna O’Rear to take the early 1-0 edge.
“The girls knew it and there just wasn’t that hustle to the ball,” Verkuilen said. “I think at halftime we all agreed that we needed to pick up our pace and start playing our game, and it was a much better second half.”
Bethany Morris answered for Kenai in the 24th minute with a goal to tie it before halftime. Morris won a battle to the ball against a North Pole defender and delivered a strike that glanced off the glove of the North Pole goalie and bounced into the net.
Verkuilen praised Brewer’s renewed effort in generating offensive chances and getting crosses to her teammates, particularly the deadly Morris, in the second half.
“It was a team effort and the girls all decided together to do it,” Verkuilen said. “They gave all they had, no doubt.”
North Pole took the lead again in the 67th minute on a PK following a Kenai hand ball in the box. Culler converted on that strike to put North Pole up 2-1 with just 12 minutes remaining in regulation, but Kenai had one last opportunity.
A North Pole hand ball gave the Kards a PK shot with two minutes left in regulation, and Brewer stepped up and delivered the game-tying strike to force OT.
Brewer said communication helped get Kenai back in the game, and said it will be vitally important to keep the Kards moving on in search of a state championship.
“Sometimes we talk but don’t listen,” she said. “We’ve just got to work together and stay positive and build each other up.”
Soldotna girls 4, Palmer 0
The Stars got two goals from Meijan Leaf and a combined shutout from goalkeepers Hannah Delker and Margarida Mendoca Thursday at Eagle River High School to advance into the Division II state semifinals.
Second-seeded SoHi will play sixth-seeded Thunder Mountain today at 11 a.m. at Service High School, with the winner moving on to Saturday’s championship game at 2 p.m. The Stars are 2-0 against Thunder Mountain this year with scores of 3-0 and 2-1.
SoHi head coach Jimmy Love was pleased with Thursday’s quarterfinal win, but said the time to reach a state final is now.
“We’ve got to that state semifinal a couple of times, and we’ve come up short every time,” Love said. “It’s that pivotal game, now, it’s a hurdle that we need to make. It’s no longer, ‘OK we made it to state, we’re happy with that.’ We no longer can be happy with that. It’s time to look past that. I’m sick of just making it here, let’s make something out of making it here.”
Thursday, SoHi staked out a 3-0 lead by halftime and did not allow Palmer too many scoring opportunities. Leaf said the Stars were adamant in holding the Moose down on defense and scoring first on offense.
“Before the game, we were trying to make sure not to think too over our heads,” Leaf said. “Just didn’t want to underestimate them. Just keep playing our game how we play and focus on winning and going to the next game.”
With SoHi graduation on Wednesday night, a hectic schedule made for some tired legs in the opening minutes. Most of the team drove up Wednesday night, with the seniors joining them early Thursday morning.
Leaf said the weariness from the late-night travel schedule was noticeable early on.
“I felt like mentally, we were not ready for the game,” Leaf said.
“We’ve had a tough last 48 hours,” Love added. “Trying to get that stuff dealt with, and trying to get together with the girls that traveled up. It’s just this time of year is such a mess.”
Love said the target was to score quickly and take an early lead, which didn’t happen until the 20th minute when Faith Glassmaker poked in a goal.
“It didn’t happen that way, but we didn’t stop trying to do that and we kept working for that first goal,” Love said. “When we did that, we stopped working for a bit and Palmer got two decent scoring opportunities. It was like a shock to the system, and they kind of woke up and got that second goal soon after.”
After Glassmaker was able to get the Stars on the board, Leaf followed suit in the 24th minute, then Journey Miller got in on the action with a long range snipe that sailed high over the Palmer goalie in the 37th minute.
Leaf tallied her second goal of the game in the 58th minute of the second half with a long strike into the corner of the net.
Thunder Mountain girls 1, Homer 0
Back at state for the first time in 12 years, the Mariners girls fell to the Falcons in a tightly contested first-round game Thursday afternoon at Eagle River High School.
Thunder Mountain broke a scoreless game early in the second half with a 47th-minute goal from Isabella Hanna, then held on from there to record the shutout with tough defense.
Homer meets Palmer today at 11 a.m. at West in the fourth-place bracket.
“The team just overall had a lot of hustle,” said Thunder Mountain head coach John Newell. “From start to finish, they never quit. Even when they’re worn out, they never quit.”
The final score reflected the trend that the two opponents have set out this year — close, low-scoring games. In three contests this season, Homer and Thunder Mountain have scored a total of two goals combined, with a scoreless draw and a 1-0 Homer win preceding Thursday’s state contest.
The Homer girls program had not competed in a state tournament since 2007, but after 12 wins in 20 games this year, Homer seemed destined to shed its “also-ran” status by making it to the region title game and finishing second to Soldotna.
But head coach Mike Tozzo said the Mariners came out flat and never recovered over 80 minutes of game time.
“We didn’t play well enough to win,” Tozzo said. “We weren’t making passes, our first touches weren’t good … nothing was crisp, nothing was clean. We just played really flat for 80 minutes.”
Tozzo added that he didn’t believe the immensity of playing at the state tournament had that much of an effect on the team, which played a first-round game on a cold day in front of mostly empty grandstands.
“There’s like 15 people in the stands,” he said. “It’s not like it’s a big stage, it’s just a game in Anchorage. We just didn’t show up ready to play, and at this stage of the season, there’s not a lot that coaches can do.”
The opening 40 minutes of action revealed a titanic midfield battle between the two sides, which belied the two teams’ seedings on paper — Homer entered as the No. 3 seed while Thunder Mountain was the No. 6 seed.
In the second half, Hanna caught a through ball and raced up the left flank of the field with a Homer defender and delivered a strong shot on Homer goalkeeper Ali McCarron, who was unable to absorb the impact enough to avoid a rebound chance, which Hanna capitalized on.
Over the final 30 minutes, Homer struggled to mount any serious challenge, although the Mariners had a few runs on Thunder Mountain’s net, but nothing went in.
Tozzo said the positives to take away from the experience is he believes the Mariners will be returning enough talent for a state run in 2020.
“I think this program is on the upswing and I told the girls I think we’ll be back here next year and be playing in the first round,” Tozzo said.