A penalty kick goal not even five minutes into Thursday’s Division II state tournament quarterfinal set the tone for what turned out to be a disastrous outing for the Kenai Central girls.
The third-seeded Grace Christian girls used that fast start to secure a 4-1 victory over sixth-seeded Kenai at Service High School, sending the Grizzlies into the state semifinals and the school’s first girls state win.
Making a fifth straight state appearance, the Kardinals will again come up short of a state title, which would be a first in school history. Instead, Kenai will take on North Pole for fourth-place honors today at 7 p.m. at Eagle River High School.
Grace Christian will face second-seeded Soldotna today at 3 p.m. at Eagle River High School in a state semifinal clash, with the winner headed to its first state soccer final in school history.
Kenai head coach Dan Verkuilen didn’t mince words after the loss.
“We started slow, and got a bad call on the PK,” he said. “We had our legs tangled … there was no push, it was a terrible call.”
Working with a young, inexperienced group of players also contributed to the loss, Verkuilen said. The Kardinals have competed with 16 underclassmen out of 20 total on the roster this year, including a freshman class of nine. Verkuilen said the team is young and talented, but the experience just didn’t match up.
“That was a big part of it,” he said. “(senior) Brenna (Eubank) has done a lot of leading this year.”
Grace had a lot on the line Thursday, not only looking to avenge a 1-0 regular season loss to Kenai, but also looking to break the girls varsity string of futility at state, where the Grizzlies had never won before.
Grace head coach Jeff Schaezlein said the difference between the first game and Thursday’s state matchup was Grace finishing opportunities.
“Today, we capitalized on our chances,” Schaezlein said. “This feels wonderful, this is what we’ve been working toward all year.
“The girls are finally rewarded for their hard work.”
Freshman Bethany Morris notched Kenai’s lone goal, a poke into the bottom corner of the net in the 58th minute that cut Grace’s lead to 3-1 with just over 20 minutes to play, breathing new life into the Kardinals hopes.
However, the Kards couldn’t overcome the suffocating style of play by Grace’s midfield, which controlled possession for major chunks of the game. Eventually, Kiah Widener buried the dagger shot with five minutes to play in the game to put Grace back up by three goals.
Widener had two goals for the Grizzlies, including the first genuine scoring strike in the 12th minute, booting in a corner kick from Amy Hatter to put Grace up 2-0. Hatter had taken the PK in the fourth minute for the first goal of the game.