A surprise visit to the Class 4A state hockey tournament for Soldotna ended Friday with a 7-1 loss to the West Valley Wolfpack at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla.
For West Valley, the story of the game was playing motivated after suffering a 2-1 upset loss against Eagle River on the first day of the tournament. The Wolfpack were the No. 1 seed from the Mid-Alaska conference, but Thursday’s loss to the No. 4 seeded Wolves from the Cook Inlet Conference surely stung, so the Fairbanks team made good on its bid to stay alive by outshooting SoHi 43-7 on net.
For SoHi, the story of the game was going out the way they came in — relaxed and having fun.
“We were just having some fun out there,” said sophomore forward Cameron Knowlton, who scored SoHi’s lone goal in the third period. “There came a point when it looked like we weren’t going to win, so we decided to have a little fun.”
As the remaining few minutes of the contest slipped away, and a comeback from a six-goal deficit looked quite unlikely, the Stars decided to have a bit of fun on the ice, dancing and playing air guitar with their sticks during the brief musical interludes in stoppages of play. The dancing caught the attention of tournament organizers, who praised the Stars for their sportsmanship.
One week prior, in the North Star Conference tournament semifinal against Palmer, Stars goaltender Billy Yoder busted out a few dance moves during stoppages in the game, which helped his team stay loose and relaxed. SoHi ultimately toppled the Moose 3-1 in that game to punch their ticket to state.
Friday in Wasilla, SoHi was repeating the feat.
“It’s all Billy,” Knowlton said. “That’s how he does good. If he’s dancing out there, he’s having fun.”
Yoder stopped 36 of 43 shots Friday.
Soldotna coach Derek Urban said several of his players looked tense heading into Friday’s matchup, which he partly attributed to Thursday’s loss, but the team’s ability to stay relaxed once they were down made him proud.
“It was good to see,” Urban said. “It was a good experience for most, so why hang your head about it?”
Urban said Soldotna’s appearance at the state tournament was one not expected by most opponents, so getting there was a huge bonus for the Stars.
“We’ve had some glitches along the way, but they persevered and wanted to get to state, and they did it,” he said. “Hats off to the boys for sticking together and proving the naysayers wrong.”
Knowlton also got the chance to end his sophomore season with SoHi on the ice after missing Thursday’s quarterfinal due to a one-game suspension he received due to an ejection late in the North Star Conference championship game Feb. 6 against Colony. Knowlton said sitting in the stands and watching his team play Thursday was less than ideal.
“Having to see them go through it and not able to do anything, it was tough,” Knowlton said.
West Valley’s passing and puck movement had SoHi scrambling all game long, and just like Thursday’s 9-2 quarterfinal loss to Chugiak, the Stars found themselves in an early hole.
Caleb Moretz opened the scoring with a goal 3 minutes, 20 seconds, into the contest, getting the assist from Gabe Rankin and crashing the net to score the goal. Rankin scored next at the five-minute mark of the period, catching a rebound from the left corner off the pads of Yoder and slotting home the shot from the right faceoff circle to put West Valley up 2-0.
Moretz and Gabe Rankin had two goals apiece to lead West Valley, and Moretz also notched three assists.
“When they get the puck, it’s hard to know where it’s going,” Knowlton said. “But Billy stopped quite a bit, for the number of shots he took.”
Stoshie Skorulski made SoHi pay on a power play goal midway through the period, then Dustin Sadler scored on a rush down the ice in the waning minutes of the frame to give the Wolfpack a 4-0 lead heading into the first intermission. West Valley also outshot Soldotna 19-0 in the period.
“They were quick and moving the puck better than us,” Urban said. “We were just chasing the puck the whole time.”
It took only 12 seconds for the Wolfpack to score in the second period. After winning the opening drop from center ice, Rankin rushed down the ice and scored for a 5-0 lead for West Valley.
After Skorulski tallied his second power play goal of the game midway through the second frame to push the lead to 6-0, West Valley notched its final goal of the day on a serendipitous bounce with 4.2 seconds left in the period. A shot by Trenton Woods hit Yoder squarely in the pads, but bounced up and over Yoder’s head to trickle into the goal.
Heading into the second intermission, West Valley led the shots category 37-2.
Knowlten scored his goal unassisted at the 7:11 mark of the third period, helping to prevent a shutout by West Valley goalie Keel Simon, who saved six of seven shots total.
Urban said the upcoming offseason will play a critical role in determining how the Stars return next season. Only three seniors will be graduating in the spring — defensemen Calvin Hills and Cole Crandall and forward Emily Werner — and Urban is expecting a sizable freshmen class to add weight to the squad.
“We’ve got a pretty decent group of freshmen coming in next year,” Urban said. “I’d say the future’s looking pretty bright.”
Wolfpack 7, Stars 1
West Valley 4 3 0 —7
Soldotna 0 0 1 —1
1st period — 1. West Valley, Moretz (Rankin), 3:20; 2. West Valley, Rankin (Skorulski), 5:00; 3. West Valley, Skorulski (Moretz), pp, 7:47; 4. West Valley, Sadler (Moretz), 12:16. Penalties — Soldotna 1 for 2:00.
2nd period — 5. West Valley, Rankin (Skorulski), :12; 6. West Valley, Moretz (Woods), pp, 9:21; 7. West Valley, Woods (Moretz), 14:55. Penalties — Soldotna 2 for 4:00.
3rd period — 8. Soldotna, Knowlton (unassisted), 7:11. Penalties — West Valley 2 for 4:00.
Shots on goal — Soldotna 0-2-5—7; West Valley 19-18-6—43.
Goalies — Soldotna, Yoder (43 shots, 36 saves); West Valley, Simon (7 shots, 6 saves).
Power plays — Soldotna 0 for 2; West Valley 2 for 3.