It may not have been the way they wanted to finish, but the Soldotna girls soccer team is still going to the state tournament after losing to Colony 2-1 in the championship game of the Northern Lights Conference tournament on Saturday at the Kenai Soccer Complex.
Colony will head into state as the top seed from the Northern Lights Conference, Soldotna will be second and Grace Christian will be third after defeating Kenai Central 1-0 in the third-place game.
For Soldotna, it marks the fourth consecutive year of qualifying for the state tournament, but the first year of doing so without winning the region title.
“It’s an achievement, so we kept that streak alive, but it’s frustrating,” said SoHi coach Jimmy Love. “Going to state is cool, but we’re going to state as the second-place team. You want to win out your region, especially if it’s Colony or Kenai or one of those other teams.”
Colony will be returning to the state meet after missing out one year ago.
“It’s a very big deal, we’ve been working really hard for this,” said Colony coach Lorie Miner.
It all went wrong for the Stars early in Friday’s game, as Colony’s Ali Baker successfully converted on a cross from a teammate in the 15th minute that slipped by SoHi goalkeeper Katelynn Kerkvliet.
In the 34th minute, Peyton Johnstone nailed a second goal into the net that caught Kerkvliet looking again, which really put the Stars on their heels.
“We weren’t even here. They don’t play with their backs to the wall, because they’re just not used to it,” Love said. “So when the pressure hit them, they didn’t finish.
“It should’ve been 5-2 at the half, but when it comes to finishing, that wins games. They had their opportunities.”
Trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Stars knew they had a chance to rally back because of the strong wind that was sweeping across the field. In the first half, SoHi was playing into the wind, but received the benefit of playing with the wind in the second half.
“Every game we won thus far has been in the second half, so we know we’re capable of it, plus the wind was stronger today then the last two days, so we knew that was going to be an advantage as well,” Love said. “We definitely had them on that side of the field. But, you don’t win games by controlling possession, which we had, but we still lost.”
It was only seven minutes into the second half when Kylee Wolfe was able to find Olivia Conradi in front of the Colony goalie and with space to work with. Conradi sent home the goal that would put the Stars back in it.
In the ensuing minutes, SoHi was able to find opportunities, but none were being completed. SoHi recorded nine shots on goal in the second half, compared to just one for Colony, and took five corner kicks while Colony had one.
“They needed to turn around and get another one right away, and they kind of backpedaled and were comfortable for a couple minutes, instead of pressing forward,” Love said. “When we pressed, they made mistakes. But, we kind of took our foot off the gas and let them bring the ball to us.”
Miner said her team’s plan was to not get defensive and the outlast SoHi for the final 30 minutes.
“The wind played a little bit of a factor, they had it in the second half, but we stayed focused and determined to come out with a win on this one,” Miner said.
For now, SoHi will wait until they learn which seed they will be at the state tournament and who they match up with. Tournament play begins on Thursday.
Grace Christian girls 1, Kenai 0
A year after qualifying for the state tournament, the Kenai Central girls missed chances to score, which led to a 1-0 loss against Grace and the end of the season for the Kards.
Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said that while the loss certainly stings, the team played well considering the obstacles the season brought.
“I think the thing that hurt us was the lack of time on the field,” Verkuilen said. “We have a lot of talent, but it was things like finishing and working shots and crosses, things like that.”
Kenai certainly had moments in Saturday’s game where a goal could’ve changed the game, but none were completed. Kenai had eight shots on goal in the second half.
“I said there’s time, and I don’t know how many chances we had in the second half, but there was time to do it right, and if we keep the pressure on them we can do it right,” Verkuilen said. “They started getting more aggressive on the slants and the runs and you could see that there were more opportunities we had.”
The lone goal of the game came in the 27th minute of the first half when Grace’s Katrina Wood sent a long ball sailing from over 30 meters out and past Kenai goalkeeper Sydney Taylor.
“It was just one that was quick and unexpected,” Verkuilen said. “It was an unexpected shot at that distance. Sydney almost touched it and it was about a foot off the corner, and it was just one of those shots that was in a perfect place.”
At halftime, Verkuilen knew that a one-goal lead was perfectly attainable for the hard-charging Kards, and the team got the looks on net that they needed, provided mostly from seniors Cassie Ross and Jenna Calhoun.
“We felt like we could do it, maybe if we had a little break, we could’ve energized them a little more,” he said. “I can’t say they didn’t give it their heart. Sometimes it’s just one goal that makes the difference in the playoffs.”
In the end, it just wasn’t meant to be for Kenai, but Grace coach Chris Seidl said he knew better than to get comfortable with Kenai.
“We knew it would be a close game, it always is,” Seidl said. “I was trying to hold it all in, they had nerves too, but I’m doing a lot better now.”
It’s the second year in a row that Grace qualified for state by winning the Northern Lights Conference third-place game.
For the Kenai girls, the season ends just short of where they wanted to be, but Verkuilen said they harbor no regrets.
“Jenna and Cassie were just rock-solid all year, and they come in day after day with the attitude of, ‘I’m going to work,’ and they’re really special,” he said. “Allie Ostrander is just an endless heart too, and plus a lot of talent. This whole team has that mentality.”