The top two seeds from the Northern Lights Conference Southern and Northern Divisions advanced on the first day of the NLC tournament in the Valley.
At Colony, Kenai, the No. 2 seed from the south, notched a 2-1 victory over Grace Christian in overtime. Colony, the top seed from the north, defeated Nikiski 9-2 earlier in the day.
At Wasilla, Homer, the top seed from the South, bested Palmer 3-0. Wasilla, the north’s No. 2, toppled Soldotna 7-1.
In today’s semifinals at Wasilla, Homer plays Wasilla at 6 p.m. and Kenai plays Colony at 1 p.m. The winners earn state berths and move to Saturday’s 4 p.m. championship. The losers play at noon on Saturday for third place and a berth at state.
Kenai 2, Grace 1, OT
A penalty kick in the dying minutes of the second overtime period against Grace Christian sent the Kenai boys team on to the semifinals.
All that stands between the Kardinals and a state tournament bid is 80 minutes of hard work.
“Ever since day one of the season, this is our goal,” said Kenai coach John Morton. “We don’t have a plan or anything at that point, but it’s just to get to regions and win the first game, and go from there.”
In a match that featured spectacular goaltending from both sides, and two goals in the first ten minutes that weren’t enough to decide a thriller, two 10-minute overtime periods were needed. In the fourth minute of the second period, T.J. Wagoner was fouled in the goalie box and Kenai was awarded a penalty kick.
“I had a few guys coming at me in the box, and one came a little harder than I was expecting so it kind of tripped my legs up there,” Wagoner said. “I got back up and almost had the ball again.”
Once Wagoner was put head-to-head against Grace Christian goalkeeper Ryan Merriner, the fate of Kenai came down to him. His shot ripped past Merriner’s right side and hit netting.
The win leaves Kenai with a 1 p.m. Friday matchup with one of the strongest teams in the state, Colony.
“We had a great game with them last time, and they’re a tough team,” Morton said.
Morton said even before Thursday’s match started, there was some concern about how fierce his squad would come out against the Grizzlies, as the seniors on the team had just traveled up from Kenai after a night of graduation festivities.
“They were sleeping on the bus, and it made me nervous,” Morton said. “I think mentally they were prepared, but physically there was some deficit there because of the lack of sleep.”
Kenai didn’t look sleepy out on the field. The Kards took the first lead with an arcing shot from Wagoner in the fourth minute to score his first goal.
It didn’t last long, though. Grace’s Dylan Sanders equalized for the Grizzlies in the ninth minute, getting to a corner kick first and knocking in a header past Kenai goalkeeper Wren Norwood, who mistimed his jump.
As the first half wound down, Kenai saw a couple of scoring chances slip away. Wagoner directed a free kick that Merriner blocked in the 33rd minute, and Trevor Shirnberg missed just wide to the left on a shot that he was able to beat Merriner on.
After halftime, the second half minutes wore on and the desperation began to kick in.
“The intensity definitely picked up when it was getting later in the game,” Wagoner said. “It was the realization that we might end up going to PKs, which it’s anybody’s game at that point. Taking control when you have control is good.”
A big moment with five minutes left nearly ended the game on time. Bill Ashwell got his head on an airborne pass and headed in what looked to be the game-winner, but the referee called it offsides.
In the two overtime periods, Kenai continued to press hard and found more chances than Grace, but none were successful until the penalty kick.
Colony boys 9, Nikiski 2
The Bulldogs saw their season end after one day at the NLC tournament in a blowout to state powerhouse Colony.
Nikiski was able to sustain the Knights’ attacks in the early minutes, but once Colony started scoring, they came often.
Kyle Bolam scored with an assist from Ben Atkinson in the eighth minute, which was followed by a goal from Arty Fonov just one minute later, with help from Bolam.
By the 12th minute, Colony had a third goal, this one from Atkinson, and when 15 minutes were up, a fourth goal was on the board from Ben Sande.
Unofficially, Colony had a 23-3 shots on goal advantage, and had eight corner kick opportunities to Nikiski’s zero.
Colony held a 5-0 lead at halftime, and extended it to six early in the second half with a goal from Arty Fonov, but the Bulldogs soon broke through for a rare goal on the Knights.
“There was only three (goals) scored on them all season, so to get two goals on them, that’s a big deal for our kids,” said Nikiski coach Jim Coburn. “I had a good time this season, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t coach.
“I told them to do what they usually do and play a better second half than they did in the first half. They’re not going to stop scoring if you stop playing, so I think we did that.”
Junior Christian Riddall broke through the Colony defense and timed his shot just well enough to beat goalkeeper Sean Haley in the 56th minute. Michael Stangel added Nikiski’s second goal in the 79th minute.
Colony coach Jeremy Johnson was given a yellow card with three minutes left in regulation after arguing with the referree. Johnson said he wanted senior Trevor Murray to score a penalty kick that Colony was awarded, but the referree wouldn’t allow it, since Murray had just been subbed into the game.
“He’s played defense his whole life and I wanted him to score a goal,” Johnson said.
Instead of Murray, Jimmy Goyette took the penalty kick and missed. Ultimately, Murray ended up getting his goal that he wanted just three minutes later, converting on a corner kick by Jake Forstner.
“They amended the rules this weekend, because of the smoke, that we could sub in anytime in case there were asthma problems and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “And then the referee came over and yelled at me.”
Wasilla 7, Soldotna 1
The Wasilla Warriors weren’t only interested in getting off to a good start in their first-round match. They wanted to get their weekend off to a good start.
What’s a good way to do that?
How about scoring a goal less than a minute into the game.
Ethan Keenan sent a cross from the right side of the field, and Oleg Lozko crashed the far post and knocked a shot into the net during the first minute of play.
“That was huge for us to come out and score a goal in the first minute. I think it really set the tone for us,” Wasilla head coach Blake Livingston said.
Lozko, Keenan and Alex Fonov each recorded a pair of goals for Wasilla. Kyle Broach also scored for the Warriors.
Livingston said he hopes the momentum created by the win will help power the Warriors through the weekend.
“You always want to peak at the right time. Our goal is to be in the championship game,” Livingston said.
Wasilla scored three times during the first 22 minutes, and held a 4-1 lead at halftime.
“We were opportunistic. We scored some nice goals,” Livingston said.
Livingston said he also felt Soldotna played better than the score indicated.
“I thought Soldotna also played hard, though,” Livingston said. “Even though the score might not have shown it, especially in the first half, they were right there. We definitely didn’t want to loose the momentum.”
Soldotna netted its lone goal in the 27th minute. Charalambos Asimakopoulo scored to cut Wasilla’s lead to 3-1.
Homer 3, Palmer 0
WASILLA — After spending time indoors earlier this week, forced inside by the smoke that continues to fill the Southcentral Alaska sky, the Homer Mariners were happy to be outside Thursday afternoon.
The Mariners are also thrilled to be moving forward in the Northern Lights Conference tourney.
“It’s always nice to get through the first game,” Homer head coach Warren Waldorf said. “(Palmer) had a pretty good season, but now they go home and that’s hard. Their kids fought well today, and now they’re going home.”
Drew Brown, Filip Reutov and Max Mangue each scored to help Homer’s season stay alive, and move the Mariners within a win of the state tournament.
Homer’s first two goals were set up by corner kicks. After a Homer corner kick in the 12th minute, Brown knocked in a loose ball in front of the Palmer net to give Homer the 1-0 lead. In the 42nd minute, Reutov bounced in a header of a corner kick from the right side of the field to give Homer the 2-0 lead.
“That’s been working pretty well for us this year. We’ve got a few goals like that. It’s nice to see it happen today,” Waldorf said.