With time dwindling down and fresh legs becoming a premium on a hot, sunny day in Anchorage, Kenai freshman Zack Tuttle struck while the iron was hot to snap a long dry spell.
Tuttle’s breakthrough goal in the 64th minute of Thursday’s boys state soccer tournament matchup against Homer proved to be the difference in a 1-0 victory. It was enough to secure Kenai’s first-ever victory in its 15 years of trying at the state soccer tournament. In five previous seasons that Kenai qualified for state, the Kardinals had gone 0-10, with two losses in each tournament, including five overtime losses.
“It was just really intense,” Tuttle said about the late goal. “I was just trying to keep my composure.”
Kenai coach Joel Reemtsma is one of the few that truly understood the gravity of the moment. Reemtsma was part of the first Kardinals team to go to state in 2000, a year that saw the Kards lose in overtime to Chugiak in the first round, then lose again to East in the consolation bracket.
The loss to Chugiak came on May 26, 2000. Tuttle arrived in this world on May 18, 2000.
It was Reemtsma’s senior year, and 15 years later, as a coach on the sidelines, Reemtsma nearly broke down in tears after seeing the current Kenai crew emerge victorious.
“I’ve been waiting for this since I was a senior,” Reemtsma said. “These guys … it was a big deal for them too.”
Reemtsma said the seniors on the team — led by co-captain Austin McKee — stood up in a pregame meeting Thursday morning and sent a few words of wisdom to the younger players in an attempt to impress upon them the importance of the game. Reemtsma said McKee thanked the younger players and fellow seniors for helping get the Kards to the season-ending state tournament.
“He’s not a big vocal guy, so when he stands up in a team meeting and says something, people pay attention,” Reemtsma said.
The win was in question for most of the afternoon, however, as both sides saw scoring opportunities fall by the wayside. Right from the opening whistle, Kenai pressed forward with anticipation, and at times had its last line of defense past midfield.
Homer senior Kenneth Schneider lifted a shot by Kenai goalie Wren Norwood in the 34th minute of the first half, but luckily, defender Max Dye was in position to keep the ball out of the net.
After a scoreless first half, the physicality picked up in the second half, and before 13 minutes were up, Kenai freshman Braydon Goodman was given a yellow card for an aggressive play against a Homer attacker. Overall, Kenai held a 7-3 advantage over Homer on shots on goal in the second half.
With just over 15 minutes to play in regulation, Tuttle saw his opportunity. Tuttle caught the loose ball in the box and chipped it up in to the left corner of the net, past Homer goalie Eric Hill.
“It was one of the really good chances of the game, so I had to finish it,” Tuttle said. “I was just able to get a flick on it and put it away.”
With the win, Kenai advances to the state semifinals with a matchup against Dimond at 7 p.m. at Bartlett High, while Homer drops into the consolation bracket with a 7 p.m. game tonight with Bartlett. The best the Mariners can finish is fourth.
Reemtsma said the victory was icing on the cake of a season that has exceeded his own expectations as a first-year head coach.
“Especially in my first year, not knowing what I was gonna get, and what the attitude was going to be, the guys have bought right in,” Reemtsma said. “I’ve thrown a few pushups at them for a little mental wavering, but for the most part, I don’t have to tell them to work hard.”