On a day that featured a titanic midfield struggle for possession and 100 minutes of scoreless soccer, the Northern Lights Conference girls soccer championship came down to the dreaded penalty kicks.
The defending region champs Kenai Central eventually fell in a 5-4 loss in sudden death penalty kicks to Wasilla, which won its first ever NLC crown.
“You can call that one a classic,” said Wasilla coach Patrick O’Neill. “It came down to heart for us, and I asked them what they wanted.”
O’Neill pulled an interesting ploy in the penalty shots. After playing the entire regulation and overtime periods in goal, Warriors goalkeeper Olivia Matson stepped aside and let freshman Aleks Kvalheim take the challenge.
“She’s physically more imposing than Olivia, and I thought she could do it,” O’Neill said.
In the first round of penalty kicks, Cori Holmes scored for Kenai, but Alia Donley answered for Wasilla. In the second round, Kenai’s Hannah Drury missed wide and Wasilla’s Abby Crawford had her shot blocked by Kenai goalie Alli Steinbeck.
Both Jacey Ross and Phoebe Christiansen struck netting in the third round, and Sarah Every and Alexis Friesen scored each in the fourth round.
Kylie Morse scored in the fifth round for Kenai, but Jodie Richey forced a sudden death round with her made shot.
In the winner-take-all round, Rebecca Miller missed for Kenai, and when Lindsey Cisek converted her shot, the Wasilla bench broke out in pandemonium.
Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said he keeps his players sharp for such situations, and the Kards hold regular practices to determined which players are best suited to take the high-pressure shots.
“The girls are chosen over 25-kick series,” Verkuilen said. “It’s one of those things, you can’t predict how the tired legs and mental state will be.
“The bottom line is someone is going to lose and someone is going to win.”
Steinbeck calmly walked off the turf after letting in the game-winning shot, and said as a goalkeeper, she is trained to anticipate the moments that can decide a championship.
“Nothing can truly prepare you for PKs,” she said. “I just had to keep my mind in the game, and not get caught up in the moment.”
Both squads battled through an epic tussle in regulation, but each side came up short on numerous attempts. Kenai freshman Hayley Maw provided the most chances for the Kards, as the speedy midfielder cobbled together several runs up the middle that ended prematurely.
When 80 minutes of soccer wasn’t enough to decide a champion, the game went to two 10-minute overtime periods. When the extra periods came up empty, the game went to penalty kicks.
“This would’ve been the cherry on the top for our season,” Steinbeck said. “But we still have state next week.”
Colony girls 2, Soldotna 1
The Stars will be missing their first state tournament in seven years after dropping Saturday morning’s girls third-place game.
Sahara Iverson and Rina Inagaki scored in the 21st and 38th minutes of the first half, respectively, to put the Knights ahead 2-0 at halftime, which was enough to hold on.
“We were determined, and this is a dynamic group that has been playing for quite awhile,” said Colony coach Lorie Miner. “I told them, I didn’t want this to be a loss in our last game.”
Soldotna senior Abi Tuttle scored on a free kick 17 minutes into the second half to close the gap, but it was not enough. SoHi coach Jimmy Love, who had guided his Stars to the state tournament every season since 2010, could not come up with an answer to why SoHi came up short.
“This whole tournament, we just weren’t here,” Love said. “We didn’t come ready to play, and if you don’t start getting better possession, you can’t win.”
The win put the Knights into the state tournament for the first time since 2013, when they made the trip as region champs.
Girls First team All-Tournament
MVP — Peyton Johnstone, Colony.
Kylie Morse, Kenai; Alia Donley, Wasilla; Abi Tuttle, Soldotna; Gabby Wakaliuk, Colony; Alli Steinbeck, Kenai; Maddie Kindred, Soldotna; Hayley Hagen, Grace; Sam Draves, Homer; Dory Schneider, Palmer; Cori Holmes, Kenai; Ally Hull, Wasilla; Kiley Fish, Palmer; Maddy Morgan, Grace.
Second team All-Tournament
Alexis Friesen, Wasilla; Desi Molina, Palmer; Abby Crawford, Wasilla; Kim Schaezloin, Grace; Brianna Vollertsen, Nikiski; Mikic McMullen, Colony; Uliana Reutov, Homer; Sahara Iverson, Colony; Anna Wrobel, Soldotna; Brenna McCarron, Homer; Megan Pitzman, Homer; Hannah Drury, Kenai; Lara Creighton, Kenai; Kaylee Mahler, Colony; Curpreet Singh, Palmer; Victoria Malak, Wasilla; Alyssa Wolfe, Soldotna; Hannah Love, Nikiski.