The Nikiski girls’ wait to make it to the postseason was rewarded Thursday with a 2-0 quarterfinal victory over Seward at the Peninsula Conference soccer tournament, held at Soldotna High School.
The game essentially served as a play-in contest, with the winner moving on to face the top seed Soldotna today at 5 p.m., with the winner of that game punching their ticket to state. Friday’s other semifinal features the second-seeded Homer girls against third-seeded Kenai at 1 p.m.
Sophomore striker America Jeffreys scored both goals for Nikiski, starting with a top-shelf strike on a penalty kick late in the first half and finishing with an insurance goal with six minutes left in the game.
“We’re just glad to be in,” Jeffreys said. “It’s really cool that we’re here and get to compete with the top teams.”
The Bulldogs have historically struggled to make it to the conference tournament in past years, which previously required that every team qualify due to regular season records.
But, a population realignment before the school year mixed things up for soccer teams, and the Peninsula Conference replaced the Northern Lights Conference, allowing for all region schools to participate in the tournament.
Nikiski missed out on last year’s conference tourney, but made good on this appearance by beating a Seward team that the Bulldogs split with in the regular season. Nikiski lost 2-0 to Seward at home April 28, then prevailed 2-1 over the Seahawks on the road May 8.
“This is a confidence booster,” said Nikiski head coach Linda Zimmerman. “I just think they really wanted it today. All their teachers were saying this week that this is all they wanted.”
After a seesaw battle in the midfield dominated the early minutes of the game, Nikiski began turning up the pressure in the final 10 minutes of the first half, and was eventually rewarded with a PK in the final two minutes. Jeffreys was selected to take it, and planted it top shelf.
“I made sure not to look at the goalkeeper,” Jeffreys said. “I just wanted to hit one of the four corners.”
Jeffreys tallied her second goal in the 74th minute with help from Jordyn Stock and Angela Druesedow, the ball rattling between the three of them before Jeffreys’ foot caught it for a scoring strike that provided the dagger.
Seward goalie, freshman Makaira Williams, was kept busy all game. Although she finished with two goals against her, Williams dazzled the crowd with several show-stopping saves.
Nikiski goalie Abby Bystedt finished with a shutout, and Zimmerman said she received some words of encouragement during Wednesday’s practice when 2015 Nikiski graduate Rachel Thompson stopped by to provide assistance. Thompson currently is a goalkeeper at Washington State University.
Zimmerman said she expects Nikiski to have its hands full today with a stout SoHi squad that swept Nikiski twice this year with a combined score of 15-0, but in tournament play, she said it is anyone’s game.
“We just have to crank that intensity up,” she said.
Seward boys 3, Nikiski 1
A sizzling start fueled the Seward boys to a rare conference tournament victory Thursday evening at Soldotna High School.
The Seahawks took a 2-0 lead in the first six minutes with goals from Sam Koster and Case Estes that advanced them into a Friday semifinal matchup with top-seeded Kenai at 7 p.m. The Kardinals beat Seward 4-0 last Thursday in a regular-season meeting.
Nikiski sophomore Michael Mysing provided the lone goal for the Bulldogs with a penalty kick two minutes into the second half.
In a revamped conference tournament that invites all six teams, the Seahawks were finally given a chance to see what the postseason is like, and capitalized with stellar play. Seward head coach Dustin Phillips said in his dozen years coaching the team, he has never won a region tournament game.
That is changed now.
“It’s huge,” Phillips said. “Technically, this is just our second time ever at regions, so it’s big.”
Seward was unable to even field a varsity program last year due to low numbers, but Phillips said this year has been a big comeback.
“We needed a quick start,” he said. “It helps you in a game like this, it keeps you relaxed.”
The win also served as the difference in the season series between the two schools, which split this year. Seward beat Nikiski 3-0 on the road and lost 3-0 at home in the regular season.
Nikiski head coach Harrison Deveer pinned the slow start by the Bulldogs to “horrible” passing.
“We had some silly defensive mistakes,” Deveer said. “I say we have the ‘curse of the turf,’ because we just can’t play well on turf.”
Koster, a freshman, got Seward going in the fourth minute of the game with a run on the goal that resulted in a blocked shot and a rebound that he put away for a swift 1-0 lead. Estes, a senior, then took the opportunity on a penalty kick just two minutes later to push the lead to 2-0.
Nikiski halved the lead with Mysing’s penalty kick, but was unable to capitalize on the momentum from there. Seward continued to pressure the Bulldogs on offense and Nikiski struggled getting the ball on Seward’s net.
Eventually, senior Brandon Lynch provided the insurance goal for Seward in the 61st minute with a left cross from Estes.
Brendan McMurray earned the win in goal for Seward, while Michael Eiter took the loss for Nikiski.
Against a daunting Kenai boys team in today’s semifinals, Phillips said the key for Seward is to relish the underdog role.
“There’s no pressure on us,” he said. “I told the boys to go out and enjoy the fact that you’re there.”
All-Conference awards were announced Thursday evening, and Kenai Central picked up both MVP awards, with senior Zack Tuttle receiving the boys accolade and senior Brenna Eubank the girls.
Homer swept the Coach of the Year awards, with Mike Tozzo picking up the girls and Warren Waldorf the boys.
MVP — Brenna Eubank, Kenai.
Coach of Year — Mike Tozzo, Homer.
1st-team — Jordyn Stock, Nikiski; Brenna McCarron, Homer; Raisa Basargin, Homer; Whitney Wortham, Soldotna; Andie Sonnen, Homer; Journey Miller, Soldotna; Alissa Maw, Kenai; Maddie Kindred, Soldotna.
2nd-team — Rose Terry, Seward; Sophie Dow, Seward; Lucia Lombardia, Seward; Hannah Wells, Soldotna; Ryann Cannava, Soldotna; Daisy Kettle, Homer; Abby Bystedt, Nikiski.
Good sport — Andie Sonnen, Homer; Damaris Severson, Kenai; Hannah Young, Nikiski; Emilia Whitcome, Seward; Sierra Kuntz, Soldotna.
MVP — Zack Tuttle, Kenai.
Coach of Year — Warren Waldorf, Homer.
1st-team — Luke Beiser, Kenai; Oliver Beck, Homer; Josh Hieber, Soldotna; Simon Dye, Homer; Gavin Goggia, Soldotna; Braydon Goodman, Kenai; Kevin Ramos, Kenai; Charles Rohr, Homer.
2nd-team — Daniel Reutov, Homer; Charlie Menke, Homer; Michael Mysing, Nikiski; George Napoka, Nikiski; Eli Sheridan, Soldotna; Case Estes, Seward; Luke Trammell, Soldotna; Sam McElroy, Soldotna.