The Kenai Kardinals got off to a fast start and received plenty of offense from their top defender en rout to a 4-1 victory over the Soldotna Stars to clinch their second consecutive conference title Saturday at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai.
Kenai Central sophomore forward Zack Tuttle scored in the first minute and junior defender Max Dye netted a hat trick, with all three goals coming on set pieces.
With the win the Kards (12-2-1) clinched the No. 1 seed in the Northern Lights Conference Southern Division. The Stars (12-4) will go into the regional tournament as the No. 2 seed.
The game’s opening goal brought the crowd into the game immediately thanks to the individual effort by Tuttle to beat a defender with a stepover move. Tuttle ran free down the left side of the field and fired a shot into the right corner of the net. Kenai Central midfielder Kevin Ramos assisted on the goal.
Kenai coach Joel Reemtsma said while he was pleased with the fast start, the key to victory was his squad’s defensive discipline.
“We’ve tried to maintain a consistent level of intensity,” Reemtsma said. “Our guys started fast and it set the tone. (SoHi) brought a lot of pressure but our defensive discipline was critical today.”
A mid-air collision between Stars sophomore goalkeeper Blake Jones and Kards senior midfielder Draiden McMinn in the 30th minute resulted in a penalty kick goal for Kenai. Jones was called for a yellow card, which required him to come off the field for a play.
Stars senior Drew Kant replaced Jones in goal and Dye scored the PK.
Soldotna coach Jeff Siemers, who filled in for head coach Darryl Byerley in the finale, said it was hard to justify the yellow card to Jones on a 50/50 ball.
“I can’t fault our keeper for going for the ball,” he said. “Their set play chances ultimately hurt us.”
Kenai made it 3-0 a few minutes later after Dye scored on a free kick taken from 20 yards out. Stars junior defender Benjamin Godfrey was called for a foul on Tuttle outside of the 18-yard box to set up the free kick. Dye caught Jones off guard when he lofted his shot into the top left corner while the keeper was still setting up his wall.
Soldotna responded two minutes later on a set piece of their own. Stars senior midfielder Dylan Kuntz set up on the left side of the net and send a cross toward in front that senior midfielder Timmy Smithwick headed in for a goal past Kards keeper Tristan Landry to bring the score to 3-1 in the 35th minute.
Siemers said his team started to feel the drain of playing two games in two days. The warm sunny day also played a factor in fatigue in the second half, he said.
“We dug ourselves a hole early and had to climb out,” Siemers said.
Dye struck again in the 61st minute with his second PK goal of the day after a foul in the box was committed by Stars defender Luke Trammell.
“We capitalized on a few set pieces in the box and near the box and that was the difference,” Dye said.
Reemtsma said he felt the penalties called were legit.
“When you have the ball in dangerous areas you have to stay on your feet,” he said. “(SoHi) put the pressure on us but our defenders didn’t get beat or give up cheap fouls.”
With the top seed in the southern division locked up, Reemtsma said his Kenai team is focused on regions and a chance to return to the state tournament. He said having the top seed is huge because it makes the road back to state easier.
“Our team has focused their effort level and knows what it takes to get back to state,” Reemtsma said.
Kenai and Soldotna return to action Thursday and will each host an opponent yet to be determined at home.
In Friday’s match, Soldotna beat Grace Christian 4-1.
Timmy Smithwick scored three goals in the first 20 minutes.