PALMER — With his team locked in a 1-1 tie, Kenai head coach Joel Reemtsma suddenly found the need to correct himself during his halftime speech to his team.
“What’s funny, when we went in to talk to the guys at halftime, I said,’Hey it’s even. They scored a fluky goal. We scored a fluky goal,’” Reemtsma said.
The Kenai goal in question was a rocket off the foot of Kardinals senior Maxwell Dye. A laser of a free kick lifted from at least 45 yards out on the right side of the turf and tucked right underneath the far corner of the net during the 23rd minute.
“Max gets upset. The fact is, he’s done that probably five times this season,” Reemtsma said. “I said, ‘You know you’re right. I’ll do my pushups. It’s not a fluky goal.’”
As it turned out the Dye goal helped Kenai, the No. 1 seed from the Southern Division, push its way another Northern Lights Conference crown.
Dye’s goal was the first of three unanswered scores that helped the Kards earn their second straight region title with a 3-1 win over Colony, No. 1 from the north, in the boys title game Saturday afternoon at Colony High School.
Zack Tuttle added a pair of second-half goals, including a pivotal goal off a header in the 74th minute. On another free kick, the Kards put the ball in the box. Tuttle was there and knocked a header off the crossbar. The junior managed to hold position on the right side, and tap the rebound header into the net. Reemtsma said he had never seen a play like that.
“Big moments. He’s a clutch player,” Reemtsma said. “He’s been doing it for three years.”
Tuttle also broke the tie with a goal in the 50th minute. The junior followed a ball into the box off a Chase Gillies flick. Colony goalkeeper Quinn Larson tried to slide to make the save, but Tuttle was there to knock it in.
Reemtsma said even after Tuttle gave Kenai the 2-1 lead, the Kards knew the last thing they should do is slow down. That effort was led by Kevin Ramos, who Reemtsma said was a tornado in the midfield.
“We’re definitely not ready to pack it in after the second goal,” Reemtsma said. “We were definitely worried about the counterattack, the potential Colony had. They’re very intelligent moving the ball. The way we were playing, they knew how to hit us back as soon as we were out of position.”
Colony sophomore Noah Krozel gave the Knights the early lead, popping in a header during the fifth minute. Reemtsma said he felt his team settled in once Dye was able to tie the score 18 minutes later.
“It definitely calmed some nerves,” Reemtsma said. “We knew coming into this game, we knew we were going to score. We knew we were going to get on the board. But it was nice to calm us down a little bit.”
But with the score tied at 1 coming out of half, Reemtsma said Tristan Landry made a full stretch save on a header that served as a big turning point in the game. The coach said he had joked with his keeper about getting first-team NLC despite not getting a lot of work this season.
“That about made up for a whole season’s worth of work,” Reemtsma said.
Colony’s keeper also had spectacular saves, including on a Damien Redder blast off a Karl Danielson cross and on a high shot from Braydon Goodman.
Saturday marked Kenai’s third straight meeting against Colony in the NLC final and second straight victory.
“It’s a rivalry,” Reemtsma said. “They are well-coached. They’ve got some great players. It’s always a challenge. It was a battle. We knew they’d be tough.”
In the girls championship, the Colony girls scored on their lone shot of the game for a 1-0 victory.
Kenai girls 3, Soldotna 2, PKs
The Kardinals, No. 2 from the south, edged the Stars, No. 1 from the south, by the slimmest of margins to take a fourth straight state berth.
After two 40-minutes halves and two 10-minute overtime sessions, the game was tied at 2. A five-shot round of penalty kicks didn’t decide things, leading to sudden-death rounds of PKs. In the first round, Kenai’s Lara Creighton and SoHi’s Whitney Wortham both connected, forcing another round. In the next round, Samantha Morse found the back of the net for Kenai before Kenai goalie Kailey Hamilton came up with the save on Talon Hagen to send the Kards to state.
Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said the victory was special because it means his seniors won boroughs as seventh- and eighth-graders and now have earned state berths in each of their four years.
“Four times in a row from our small school is pretty amazing,” Verkuilen said.
It didn’t happen easily thanks to the Stars, who had split with Kenai in the regular season.
About 12 minutes in, Abi Tuttle scored on a free kick for the Stars. But minutes later, Kenai equalized when Mikaela Pitsch converted a penalty kick after a hand ball.
After that, things settled in for the rest of regulation.
“It was a very even game of momentum,” Verkuilen said. “We’d have swings and put pressure on, and they’d have swings where you could tell everything was going their way.”
Soldotna coach Jimmy Love said his side may have had a bit more of the possession, but he agreed there were momentum swings to both sides.
Both coaches agreed Hamilton and Soldotna goalie Ella Stenga made some great saves to keep the game tied. In particular, Love said Stenga had a few great punch saves and Hamilton robbed Tuttle in the second half on a ball where Hamilton appeared to be screened.
After regulation, two 10-minute overtime periods are played which are not sudden death. In the first period, Meijan Leaf scored for Soldotna, but Liz Hanson came right back to score for Kenai.
After the second 10-minute period was scoreless, the penalty kicks ensued.
Coming into the tournament, Verkuilen said the key was for his whole team, and not just six players, to have great games. He thought that happened and gave credit to captains Rebecca Miller, Cassi Holmes and Creighton for leadership.
“You could see fatigue on both sides going into overtime,” Verkuilen said. “It seemed like the seniors stepped up because they’d already been to state three times.”
In general, Love said his squad played exactly how he wanted. But he also said the game showed how thin the margin of error is for getting to state.
“You can’t play your style for 65 or 70 minutes,” he said. “You have to do it the whole 80 minutes. Other than that one period of time, they did exactly what I wanted them to do.”
But Love still sees a bright future.
“The freshmen and sophomores got great exposure and I certainly think it will build them up for the years to come,” he said. “I told them today I always hate the end of the season but as soon as the final whistle blows I’m already gearing up for next season.”
Homer 2, Soldotna 1
A pair of long-range shots in the second half by Charles Rohr sent the Mariners to their fourth state berth in six years.
Soldotna took the lead in the 33rd minute when Alex Montague scored on an assist from Eli Sheridan.
But in the second half, Rohr scored from 50 yards out in the 57th minute and 40 yards out in the 79th minute to send the Mariners through.
“We pretty much held possession, but soccer is one of those games where time of possession and shots on goal don’t show up on the board,” Soldotna coach Darryl Byerley said after coming up short of a second straight state berth. “When you have more time of possession and shots, those are especially tough losses.”
Homer coach Warren Waldorf agreed that Soldotna has more possession and chances. He said senior goalie Kenzington Cortez came up huge.
“Our goalkeeper played his best game of the season today,” Waldorf said. “It could have easily gone Soldotna’s way today.”
With a solid class of juniors, Waldorf said state experience is just what his team needs.
“It’s going to be a great experience and preparation for what we hope could happen next year,” Waldorf said. “It’ll be good to get a few games under our belt and see what they’re like. Maybe that will light a fire under them to work hard for next year.”
With a roster that was down to 14 by the end of the season, Byerley had to rely on freshmen heavily. Like Waldorf, he said that will only help for the future. With Kenai’s stellar class of juniors, things are heating up quickly in the Southern Division.
“Given the average age of the team, I’m happy with where we got to,” Byerley said. “We were down to 14 players by the end. To play three games in a row with very little subbing is going to be tough on any young man or lady.”