The Soldotna girls finished third and the Kenai girls nabbed fourth this weekend at the Division II state soccer tournament in Anchorage.
The No. 2 seed Stars toppled No. 5 Palmer 1-0 in the third-place game Saturday to match third-place finishes in 2012 and 2013, though those were in state tournaments including the whole state and not only small schools. The No. 6 Kardinals topped No. 4 North Pole 2-0 in the fourth-place game for the best finish in program history.
Also Friday, Soldotna had lost 3-2 to No. 3 Grace Christian in the semifinals. No. 1 Juneau-Douglas would defeat the Grizzlies 3-0 Saturday for the state title.
Palmer 1, Soldotna 0
On April 14, the Stars had defeated the Moose 3-0 in the regular season, but this one was much more dramatic as SoHi finished 12-3-2 overall.
With just five minutes to play, Katie Delker forayed into the box and was taken down, earning a penalty kick. Journey Miller stepped forward and scored the winning goal.
“Today was not at all like normal,” said Soldotna coach Jimmy Love, whose team won the academic award with a 3.65 grade-point average. “Yesterday zapped a lot of energy out of us.
“We played a short bench yesterday and today we opened it up a bit more.”
Love said his squad had its fair share of chances, but the Moose also forced SoHi goalie Maddie Kindred to make a few game-changing saves in preserving the shutout.
“Most girls met their goals by going to state,” Love said. “For me, it’s got to be a little bit more than that now. I don’t just want to go to state, I want to win state.”
The Stars lose seniors Whitney Wortham, Hannah Wells, Kindred and Ella Stenga. Love said there is plenty of young talent ready to lift the team next season.
“Kudos to the girls for coming out and fighting all year long,” Love said. “It’s a long and short season all in one breath, and at this point when school is out it can be hard to stay motivated. I look forward to next season.”
Kenai 2, North Pole 0
After putting pressure on North Pole throughout the game, the Kardinals made good on chances when Olivia Brewer scored in the 72nd minute and Liz Hanson scored in the second minute of stoppage time.
“We dominated play but struggled to put the ball in the net,” Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said after finishing 8-6-1. “We had 80 percent of the possession.”
With no overtime, Verkuilen admitted he started to get a little nervous even though his team was controlling the game.
“As it was getting into the 70th minute, I was like, ‘Geez, I don’t want to tie this game,’” he said.
As the team’s lone senior on the field, Verkuilen said Brenna Eubank did a great job of leadership and controlling the midfield even though she was battling abdomen and rib injuries. Verkuilen added Alissa Maw was a rock on defense and Brewer did a good job up front. Kailey Hamilton had the shutout in net.
“We just had one senior playing,” Verkuilen said. “We’re in a good spot for next year if everybody comes back healthy.”
Grace 3, Soldotna 2
Seeded second of six teams and arriving with fresh legs thanks to a bye day, the Soldotna girls had every reason to believe they would be headed to the Division II state soccer championship final. Just as long as they could take care of Grace Christian.
Things turned ugly pretty fast.
The third-seeded Grizzlies jumped out to a three-goal lead in the first 20 minutes of Friday’s semifinal match at Eagle River High School and held on to defeat the second-seeded Stars 3-2 to punch their way into Saturday’s championship game, the program’s first state soccer title game appearance.
The Stars were left wondering what happened after a late rally fell short.
“You had one team ready to play and one team that wasn’t,” explained SoHi head coach Jimmy Love. “If I could figure that out, I’d have it every game.”
Sophomore midfielder Journey Miller, who received player of the game honors and scored on a spectacular shot in the first half, said she felt the team wasn’t communicating as effectively as they could have, and it led to breakdowns on defense.
“We’ve worked hard all year, and we really wanted this,” Miller said. “We just came out flat.”
SoHi and Grace played to a 1-all draw in the regular season, and a lot has happened since that late April matchup, but both Love and Grizzlies head coach Jeff Schaezlein didn’t feel like either team was able to make major strides over their opponent.
“I think we played worse than last time, and I don’t think we played well the first time,” Love admitted.
Schaezlein praised his team for believing in each other. Grace doubled its all-time state tournament win total, a day after securing the program’s first state victory with a win over Kenai Central.
“I knew the group I had was dedicated and had the capability of making it (to the state final),” Schaezlein said. “But we knew SoHi would be a tough battle.”
The game was less than five minutes old when Grace took the first lead on a shot from Maddy Morgan.
While SoHi spent the next several minutes pressuring Grace’s net, the Grizzlies countered in the 12th minute with a quick attack that resulted in a penalty shot after a Grace player went down in the box. Amy Hatter converted with a laser shot into the bottom left corner for a 2-0 lead.
Kim Schaezlein made it 3-0 in the 19th minute on a long strike that dinged off the left post and past SoHi goalkeeper Maddie Kindred into the right corner.
SoHi finally answered just four minutes later with a goal from Miller that began with help from Faith Glassmaker. Miller launched a long ball from about 30 yards out that soared over the outstretched fingers of Grace goalkeeper Colleen Gamez, cutting the lead to 3-1.
From there, the game went scoreless for 54 minutes before Cameron Blackwell made things interesting. A free kick in Grace’s zone ended up bouncing around the goal box before Blackwell got a boot on it, scoring with just three minutes left in regulation.
Love said once the Stars got to within a goal, the pace picked up considerably, but there simply wasn’t enough time in the frantic final few minutes to find the equalizer.