The Nikiski soccer teams seem to think they can run with the big dogs this year.
And so far, they’re showing it too.
The Nikiski boys took a 1-0 lead into halftime Tuesday night at Soldotna but the Stars came back with four second-half goals en route to a 4-1 win in Peninsula Conference play.
In the girls game, SoHi found the net twice in the first half to secure a 2-0 win over Nikiski.
For a smaller program accustomed to more lopsided scores against peninsula powerhouses like Kenai Central and Soldotna, the Bulldogs (0-2 in conference, 0-2 overall) have shown a remarkable ability to stay in games in this young season.
“For the first time in a long time, I’m predicting for the boys that we have an opportunity to make it to state,” said Nikiski head coach Harrison Deveer. “I see Soldotna as being the best team in our region, and we were able to compete with them. It’s huge improvement from last year. I talked about forfeiting games with Soldotna last year.”
Last Thursday, Nikiski lost 4-1 to Kenai but held a 1-1 tie at halftime against the defending Division II state champions.
“That’s exactly what I want to see,” Deveer said. “I’m happy, this is actually probably one of the worst losses we’ve had so far. I thought we had it, I was pretty sure we had this game. It could’ve easily been our way.”
For Soldotna (2-0 in conference, 3-2 overall), the second half saw the Stars come back rejuvenated and refocused to secure the win, but head coach David Holmes was still left scratching his head after another Jekyll-and-Hyde game.
“It’s like we have two different teams,” Holmes said. “A first-half team and a second-half team. If they get down early, it’s just an uphill battle.
“I’m hoping this is a trend we can break quickly.”
The Bulldogs broke through 15 minutes into the first half on a through ball to Brazilian transplant Pedro Souza, who broke away for a one-on-one with SoHi goalkeeper Hunter Woodward and won the battle to slot home the opening goal of the game.
With a stiff wind and a low sun at their backs, the Bulldogs thrived in the first 40 minutes, but Deveer knew they’d be facing an uphill battle in the second.
“We were playing really good on the defensive end and I thought our defense was going to be able to hold it,” Deveer said. “But Soldotna has some really good players that can shoot on goal and they took advantage of that.”
Soldotna’s breakthrough came 11 minutes into the second half when a Nikiski player was called for a handball in the goal box, setting up a penalty kick. Junior Alex Montague delivered the game-tying strike by Nikiski goalie Michael Eiter to knot things up.
Deveer said that was all that SoHi needed.
“I think the PK definitely got in the heads of our players,” Deveer said. “(SoHi) tying the game definitely affected us emotionally.”
Montague made it count in the 64th minute by intercepting a pass intended for the Nikiski defense and deftly dribbling back and launching a shot by Eiter for a 2-1 Stars lead.
Kaleb Swank put SoHi ahead 3-1 in the 72nd minute by cutting through the Bulldogs defense for a strike to the right corner of the net. Josh Heiber capped the four-goal second half with two minutes to go to seal the win.
Soldotna girls 2, Nikiski 0
Meijan Leaf scored both SoHi girls in the first half to send the Stars to a shutout victory.
After being shut out in the first two games of the year, Leaf has tallied five goals in her last two against North Pole and Nikiski.
“She’s on fire lately,” said Soldotna head coach Jimmy Love. “That’s something you’d like to see, and then everybody is like, feed her the ball, feed her the ball.
“When you’ve got a hot foot, take advantage of it.”
Soldotna moved to 1-0-1 in conference and 2-1-1 overall, while Nikiski dropped to 0-2 in conference and overall, but Nikiski head coach Linda Zimmerman said she left satisfied with how close the Bulldogs competed with the defending Peninsula Conference champions.
Zimmerman said she worked some of the Nikiski JV players up this week and was happy how the team responded after the early goals.
“I think the girls got a little tired, but I think they knew the wind was in our favor the second half,” Zimmerman said. “They tried to give our (midfielders) a breather. I just wish our forwards and midfielders could’ve made something happen. It just didn’t happen.”
SoHi built a quick lead with Leaf out front, starting with a corner kick in the 13th minute. Ryann Cannava delivered the kick and Leaf got her head on it to put it in net for a 1-0 SoHi lead.
It was just two minutes later that Leaf let her feet do the talking with another goal with help from Cannava and Sierra Kuntz.
From there, SoHi was shut out for over an hour of game time against the Bulldogs, with much of that coming against the wind and sun, but Love said there are still tweaks to be made.