The Kenai Central girls soccer team is battered, bruised and on its way to state.
The Kardinals scored two goals in the first 13 minutes of the game and made them stand up in a 2-0 triumph over Grace Christian on Friday in the Northern Lights Conference tournament semifinals at Skyview.
The Kards will face Soldotna at 2 p.m. Saturday at Skyview in the championship game. Grace faces Wasilla in the third-place game at 10 a.m., with the winner going to state.
For the reason why the Kardinals are heading to state for the first time since 2009 and the sixth time in the program's history, one need look no further than the upper left arm of senior co-captain Lauren Schams.
In the second half of Kenai's tourney-opening game against Colony on Thursday, Schams suffered a bone and muscle contusion so bad she had to leave the game.
As she left the grounds during the middle of the game, she turned to Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen with a simple message: "Just win."
So when the Kardinals pulled through with a 2-1 overtime victory over the Knights, Verkuilen said that Schams' status for Friday's game would be a game-time decision — at least in the mind of Verkuilen.
"I knew I was going to push through it," Schams said.
The Kardinals used Schams' attitude to start with a flourish and put Grace in a hole from which it would never recover.
Battling into a ferocious wind which was subtracting or adding about a quarter of a field to goalies' punts, Kenai scored just six minutes in when Jenna Calhoun hit an early cross to Ericka Reynolds, who beat Grace keeper Katelyn Houston.
Reynolds, who had the game-winner Thursday against Colony, recently showed her desire by not wanting to leave a game despite a bloody nose so bad it landed her in the emergency room.
"It all just shows the heart this team has," Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said. "We had to put everything together at the beginning of the year. We had to figure out everybody's positions.
"Everybody kept with it. They just kept progressing all year."
If Kenai had one problem this year, it was finishing goals. Verkuilen said finishing is skill and timing, but it's also desire.
In the 13th minute, the Kards got what could only be described as a desire goal.
The ball pinballed around the penalty box for at least four or five shots, with each one of them bounding off a wall of Grace defenders in front of the goal and just eluding the grasp of Houston.
Finally, the ball rolled to Schams, who took two steps and pounded it into the back of the net.
"We knew playing in the first half that we would have to beat the wind," Schams said. "We put it all out there and that's what happened."
The Kards were only up 2-0, but knowing that two-thirds of the rest of the game would be with the wind at their back, the lead felt much bigger than that.
"When we got the second one, I just had a feeling we were going to make it," senior sweeper and co-captain Vanessa Anderson said. "We just had to stay in the game and I knew we'd make it."
Grace was able to up the pressure a bit and get two shots on goal before the end of the half, but the Kards were able to make the turn with the two-goal advantage.
Grace coach Chris Seidl said his team has not been to state in seven years, and hadn't won a first-round NLC tourney game in seven years before Thursday's breakthrough.
"It was pretty even for the last 60 minutes," Seidl said. "For the first 20 minutes, I think you could see that this was new territory for them. I think youth and nerves played a part in that."
Grace held up OK in the second half, giving up five shots on goal, but the Grizzlies were never able to seriously challenge Kenai keeper Sydney Taylor. Seidl said Dayl Bacher did a good job on defense, while Shannon McNamara had a solid game in midfield.
"Kenai won the coin toss, and they picked it right," Seidl said of the Kards' decision to ride the wind in the second half.
Schams and senior co-captain and midfielder Taylor Ostrander were the only two to make the trip to state in 2009, but this is an entirely different situation.
"Last time I went to state I was a sub — a third-stringer," Ostrander said. "I really wanted to go to state my senior year and know that I helped my team get there."
When the final whistle blew, Ostrander and Schams hugged, and Ostrander said the duo was on the verge of tears.
"We kept the drama off this team, too," Ostrander said. "Everybody on the team kept it positive.
"Even when somebody said something negative in the heat of the moment, they would always go back and apologize."
Verkuilen said that with the tone Ostrander, Schams and Anderson set, this was the easiest team he has gotten to coach in years.
"Those three as the captains stuck with it," Verkuilen said. "They drove themselves and they showed the others how it is done."