Since their 2-1 loss against Colony in the Northern Lights Conference game last Saturday, about the only thing coach Jimmy Love has been stressing to the Soldotna girls soccer team is finishing.
Finishing shots on goal, finishing games and finishing their season with a statement performance at the ASAA state soccer tournament, which is set to kick off today at the Chugiak and Eagle River high school fields.
“It’s about can you put the soccer ball in the net,” Love said on Wednesday. “Any bounce, any pass, any situation, we’ve been working on finishing.”
On Wednesday, Love and assistant coach Scott Levesque had the team working on finishing shots with corner kicks. Every time the players on offense scored a goal, the defensive players had to do pushups, and if the offense couldn’t get the ball in the net, they were the ones doing pushups.
“It motivates me to come out stronger in the first half, especially with shots on goal,” said sophomore Miranda Wolfe. “We can’t be missing shots again.”
Love mentioned that the team was at full strength in Wednesday’s practice, a first this week due to the end-of-year activities such as graduation.
“My mind-set is I hope we play better than regions, and have a good first and second half,” said SoHi junior goalie Katelynn Kerkvliet. “I hope the practices we’ve had this week doesn’t affect our games this weekend, because it’s been hard to take things seriously when not all of us are here.”
The Stars will be starting their tournament with the same team they started last year’s with — Grace Christian. SoHi won 2-1 a year ago to advance to the semifinals.
This season, SoHi has beaten the Grizzlies twice with identical 3-1 scores. So it should be smooth sailing on Thursday for the Stars, right?
Not if the Grace goalie is performing at her peak.
Grace goalkeeper, Katelyn Houston, signed her letter of intent with University of South Carolina on Wednesday in Chugiak, and many players and coaches in the soccer community point to her as one of the best keepers in the state.
“She talks to her team a lot, and is really commanding and confident, which is kind of intimidating,” said junior midfielder Kylee Wolfe.
Although Wolfe, a persistent threat to opponents, said that she is confident playing against Grace and its superb goalkeeper, she also knows it will take a total team effort to advance.
“I think we have to come out in the first day and not underestimate Grace,” said senior Heidi Westerman. “When it’s state, everyone comes out and it’s not the regular season, and you just never know what’s going to happen. They have a good goalie and fast girls.”
Westerman is primarily a defensive player and said the biggest change through her four years on the team is the development of the Stars’ offensive line.
That offensive power will be heavily relied upon all three days for SoHi, and it will be key for freshman Anna Wrobel and sophomore Alex Ashe to provide structure in the middle to strikers such as the Wolfe sisters, junior Julie Litchfield and sophomore Taryn McCubbins.
Another thing to consider this year, for the first time, is the fact that the eight-team state bracket was determined by a blind draw. Love said he was OK with that procedure. The SoHi girls enter as the second seed from the Northern Lights Conference, after winning 10 games in the regular season with no losses and only one tie game.
“A team winning regions this year is based solely on a pride thing or bragging rights,” he said. “Because, in our region and Region IV, all you need to do is finish third to go to state. I don’t know, I guess they’re trying to tweak some stuff.
“It’s funny, because I was talking to (boys coach) Jeff Siemers about it after regions on Saturday, and I was joking with him and saying you know we’re going to end up with an Anchorage school. That’s just the way it is.”
Love said he has been telling his team that they need to act as if they are the underdogs in the tournament.
“We’ve talked about records and teams elsewhere, which is hard because you don’t really see them,” he said. “If you’re looking at records, then Dimond by far is probably the dominant team in the state. We’re six or seven games behind them, which is a lot for this sport this year. I think it’s a good bracket, but would I rather see West Valley and Thunder Mountain on our side? Sure! But I think if you’re going to get there, you need to earn your spot.”
The loss last week against Colony, plus their semifinal game against Grace — in which they rallied from a tie score at halftime — has only allowed the team to stay humble.
“We’ve been playing a lot of teams on the Peninsula, so we haven’t been in that position much,” Julie Litchfield said. “It’s good to be in that position and know what it feels like and know what it’s like to crawl out of a hole.”
Love said he hopes his team has taken on that mentality.
“Sometimes we have the mentality of, ‘Oh no, it’s Anchorage. We can’t compete with them,’” Love said. “That’s totally bogus. I don’t know where that came from, these girls have seen Dimond that last couple of years, and I’m not going to say they’re not great, but we were just having a conversation today about that.
“One of the girls walked out and they were a little worried about it, and I said why? She said because they’re good. I said, ‘And we’re not?’”