Kenai’s Kylee Verkuilen battles Juneau-Douglas’ Cerys Hudson for the ball during the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai’s Kylee Verkuilen battles Juneau-Douglas’ Cerys Hudson for the ball during the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Central girls, Soldotna boys claim DII soccer titles

Both programs rise to top for 1st time

The Kenai Central girls and Soldotna boys soccer teams both dropped teams from Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé to claim state titles Saturday, closing the ASAA Division II Soccer State Championships in Wasilla.

The Kardinals girls and Stars boys both won state for the first time — Kenai after losing in the final last season, Soldotna after losing finals in 2021 and 2023.

Kenai Central girls 2, Juneau-Douglas 0

The Kenai Central girls topped Juneau-Douglas 2-0 to take the state title, coming back to take top honors after last year falling short to the Soldotna girls in a title match that went to penalty kicks.

Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said that last year’s loss was a valuable lesson. The Kardinals (17-2-1), he said, always knew they could do it — that they were going to do it.

“I’m a happy man,” he said. “They came on fire and took care of business.”

Verkuilen said it was a great season, special for the opportunity to see his athletes grow in and out of their sport; to win the championship; and to coach his daughter, Kylee, a senior who graduated earlier this month.

He said that after 25 years with the soccer program, he’s retiring this year — that the title match was his last game.

“Every year has been a gift, and I praise the Lord for them,” he said. “Having your daughter be a major player in your game and being able to be proud of her — all the girls — it’s been a wonderful road.”

Verkuilen said that in the title match, Kylee Verkuilen and Kate Wisnewski were able to shut down the fast middle players that Juneau-Douglas brought to the action. Sarah Baisden and Tait Cooper, too, were able to fend off the Crimson Bears and force them to shoot far from the goal.

A penalty kick awarded to Juneau-Douglas could have leveled the score early, but coach Verkuilen said Maddie Malone stopped the ball — and plenty of others. Malone had stopped all three penalty kicks in the shootout in a Friday semifinal victory over Soldotna. She also stopped a penalty kick in regulation in the Peninsula Conference final in which Kenai went on to beat SoHi in overtime.

Scoring opened early for Kenai when Kylee scored a goal off a corner kick — so narrowly crossing the plane of the goal that play continued for several moments before the point was added.

Kylee said curving the ball and scoring off the corner was a technique she only learned she was capable of this season. She said she was as surprised as anyone — and very excited — to land the goal.

It was around 50 minutes of play later that Kenai’s Katie Johnson widened the Kardinal lead by outpacing two Juneau-Douglas players and landing a shot with 20 minutes left in the game.

Johnson, a sophomore, said she was happy she got the opportunity to put a point on the board. She said the play was indicative of her growth.

“Our team worked really hard this year, to win, after losing last year,” Johnson said. “I’m proud of how I’ve improved over the season — last year, I wouldn’t be able to do that.”

It was great coaches and a community of players that made the win possible, she said.

Wisnewski, a junior, echoed that sentiment, saying that winning the title shows how they’ve grown, especially after taking the loss in 2023.

“This year, we came in with the mind-set that every game is a new game,” she said. “We can do anything as a team.”

Though a handful of seniors are departing the team, Wisnewski said she’s excited about the talented younger athletes already on the team — expecting Kenai to remain a great team.

“I’m ready for it,” she said.

Kylee, a graduated senior, is also stepping away from the team at the same time as her father, but she said that winning the title represents “an amazing feeling — to be able to complete our goal.”

“It’s a go out with a bang type of situation,” she said. “There’s nothing that can overshadow it.”

For the athletes who will carry the Kardinals banner next year, Kylee said she hopes they’ll continue to remember to push through hard things — maintain the same drive that brought them Saturday’s result.

Dan said that the win can be just as important a lesson as the loss was the year prior, that the younger athletes still playing for Kenai next year will play with confidence — an understanding of how to win.

“That’s big for a program,” he said. “Having that confidence — being winners.”

Soldotna boys 4, Juneau-Douglas 1

In a rematch of last year’s Division II State Championship, it was the Soldotna Stars who this year walked away with the title — establishing an early lead and securing a 4-1 victory over the team that topped them last year.

The victory closes a season where the Stars (18-0-1) went undefeated for the first time in program history and where they never once trailed in points.

Collin Peck, a senior, wasn’t sure he would be able to play in the title match after he was issued a red card on Friday and the Stars had to play a man down for much of the 4-3 victory over Palmer in the semifinal.

The ruling was reversed — which Peck said he was told was the first such reversal in ASAA history — but he only had around 30 minutes notice before he needed to be on the field.

Despite the theatrics surrounding the game, Peck said his teammates showed up — everyone knew that they had to contend with Juneau-Douglas after last year’s “hard loss.” They’ve been working all season to get back to the championship game.

“We knew we were gonna see them again,” he said. “We knew we were going to have to put the hammer down on them if we were going to be able to come out with a win.”

That’s what the Stars did — Daniel Heath put the ball in Juneau-Douglas’ net only two minutes into the game, creating an advantage that Soldotna would only widen.

Andrew Arthur scored for the Stars 15 minutes into the game, assisted by Lane Hillyer. Arthur scored again around 10 minutes later. He would score a third in the second half.

“I’m still shocked about it,” Arthur said of the three goals. He credited his teammates and coaches with creating those opportunities.

Juneau-Douglas put a point on the scoreboard with about a minute left in the first half, secured by Ryan Thibodeau, but otherwise were unable to respond to the Stars play.

This year, Soldotna coach Erik Dolphin said his squad played risky and aggressive — the only way to win is to score goals.

“This is an incredible team,” he said. “It’s been an incredible season.”

Contending with Juneau-Douglas carried weight with the team. Dolphin said last year’s championship hung heavy in the minds of many of the players. Earlier this season, the Crimson Bears were the only team the Stars were unable to beat. The squads played to a scoreless tie on a neutral field.

Soldotna players remember what happened in 2023, and Dolphin said some of them were freshmen playing in 2021 when they similarly fell short in the title match — then to Thunder Mountain High School.

Winning on Saturday, Dolphin said, meant “to get through and finish the job.”

Dolphin said after the game that Arthur has been a leading goal scorer all season — with Nuno Venturi consistently “setting the table for him.”

Peck controls the back, joined by Jace O’Reagen and Owen Buckbee, while Zac Buckbee directs traffic — “runs so much of what we do.”

Then there’s Johnathan Wardas, Gehret Medcoff, and Heath — he also pointed to Simon Willets who landed the penalty kick that put the Stars in the title match.

“We could just read the roster,” he said. “There’s no guys in the state that I would trade for the guys that I have. They’re top quality players — I love ‘em.”

At Soldotna, Dolphin said there’s pressure to sustain success — the question already becomes, “Can you do it again?” Though the team is saying goodbye to several key seniors, Dolphin says the future is bright for Soldotna soccer.

“That’s going to be our challenge moving forward,” he said. “Can we keep going?”

Soldotna girls 3, Homer 0

In the third-fifth-place game, the Stars finished off a 14-3-2 season by winning for a third time in four tries against the Mariners (9-6-3). The other game between the Peninsula Conference rivals was a tie.

Ryan Queen had the shutout for Soldotna, while the goals were Emily O’Reagan from Bay Bloom, Morgan Lemm from Sadie Lane and O’Reagan, and Lemm unassisted on a corner kick.

Kenai 5, North Pole 2

In the fourth-sixth-place game, the Kards finished off an 11-6-1 season by taking down the Patriots.

Sawyer Vann notched a hat trick for the Kardinals, while Miles Metteer and Peyton Kindred added tallies. William Wilson was named the player of the game.

The Kenai Central High School girls celebrate after a goal by Katie Johnson during the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

The Kenai Central High School girls celebrate after a goal by Katie Johnson during the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai’s Sarah Baisden controls the ball against defense from Juneau-Douglas’ Kenzie Simonson and Milina Mazon during the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai’s Sarah Baisden controls the ball against defense from Juneau-Douglas’ Kenzie Simonson and Milina Mazon during the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai’s Tait Cooper and Chloe Grimm race to control the ball during the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai’s Tait Cooper and Chloe Grimm race to control the ball during the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

The Kenai Central High School girls celebrate after winning the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

The Kenai Central High School girls celebrate after winning the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

The Soldotna High School boys are awarded the state title after winning the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

The Soldotna High School boys are awarded the state title after winning the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

The Kenai Central High School girls are awarded the state title after winning the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

The Kenai Central High School girls are awarded the state title after winning the ASAA Soccer Division II State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Zac Buckbee bounces a ball off his head during the ASAA Division II Soccer State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Zac Buckbee bounces a ball off his head during the ASAA Division II Soccer State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Andrew Arthur outpaces Juneau-Douglas’ Xavier Melancon and Jesper Bennetsen on the way to a Stars goal during the ASAA Division II Soccer State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Andrew Arthur outpaces Juneau-Douglas’ Xavier Melancon and Jesper Bennetsen on the way to a Stars goal during the ASAA Division II Soccer State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

The SoHi Stars celebrate a goal by Andrew Arthur during the ASAA Division II Soccer State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

The SoHi Stars celebrate a goal by Andrew Arthur during the ASAA Division II Soccer State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Johnathan Wardas and Juneau-Douglas’ Ryan Thibodeau battle for the ball during the ASAA Division II Soccer State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Johnathan Wardas and Juneau-Douglas’ Ryan Thibodeau battle for the ball during the ASAA Division II Soccer State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Gehret Medcoff celebrates winning the state title with his team during the ASAA Division II Soccer State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Gehret Medcoff celebrates winning the state title with his team during the ASAA Division II Soccer State Championships at Veterans Memorial Field in Wasilla, Alaska, on Saturday, May 25, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

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