An undefeated season in the world of sports has somewhat become a holy grail for teams. Finish off a year with a sparkling clean slate, and you have really accomplished something.
Winning a lot of games or contending for a state championship is one thing, but to go an entire season without dropping a single digit into the loss column gives you true honorary status.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins won the Super Bowl, but their story isn’t about that game; it’s about the entire season as a whole. In fact, it’s been reported that the remaining members still get together to pop a bottle of champaign every year in celebration when the last remaining undefeated NFL team loses their first game of the season. That’s how special it is.
Local high school and legion teams in Alaska may not hold the same attention or prestige as national sports, and certainly not the same competition level, but what the Cook Inlet Academy Eagles soccer team has done this fall season is still remarkable.
The CIA coed team has compiled a perfect 18-0 season to date, after sweeping the competition at the Alaska Christian Schools Athletic Association tournament that ended Saturday, with only one more tournament remaining on their schedule in the Borealis Conference.
The only games remaining on the Eagles’ schedule are two weekends from now at the state tournament in Delta Junction. If Cook Inlet can win two Friday games that would put them into the championship game on Saturday, they hold a shot at completing a 21-0 season.
“We have a really good side,” said CIA coach Kenny Leaf. “Since training in August, they’ve really been putting together some good stuff, and they work hard.
“But then we find that competition changes from year to year, but there’s some good quality teams in the conference, so the kids have shown some character.”
The Eagles played five perfect games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Kenai Sports Complex fields, part of group play in the Alaska Christian Schools Athletic Association tournament.
On Thursday, CIA beat Wasilla Lake Christian and Lumen Christi with identical scores of 4-0, then shut out Birchwood Christian 4-0 and Holy Rosary 6-0 on Friday, setting them up for a Saturday championship showdown with Holy Rosary again, which they won 5-0 on the strength of a hat trick from Timmy Smithwick.
“I have 24 players, and I can only play 11 at a time, so I’ve got 13 subs here just chomping on the bit,” said Leaf. “They’re into it, and they’re cheering when good things happen, and supporting their teammates when bad things happen.”
That’s another thing that has made this perfect season even more impressive — the lack of points from opposing teams.
“This entire tournament has been a shutout for us,” Leaf said. “The last goal we had against us was Tri-Valley two weeks ago, I think. And everybody’s getting into the games, so for us to maintain a clean sheet like that is super impressive.
“The philosophy we have is, if we don’t have the ball, we’re 11 defenders. When we do have the ball, we’re 11 attackers.”
CIA had Friday’s games locked up pretty early. In the first game of the day, against Birchwood Christian, Nicole Moffis converted a penalty kick (the team’s first of the year) in the fourth minute, and Riley Smithwick scored in the 12th minute to extend the lead. Timmy Smithwick and Courtney Snodgress added goals in the 65th and 74th minutes.
In the late game on Friday, Andrew Hammond started the scoring with a goal in the fifth minute, followed by a goal by Timmy Smithwick in the 18th (with an assist from Hammond). Noah Leaf added a third goal in the 30th minute before the halftime whistle. Connor Leaf and both Smithwicks each added a goal in the second half to give the Eagles a decisive win.
In Saturday’s championship game, Timmy Smithwick and Connor Leaf got CIA out to their traditional early lead with goals in the third and seventh minutes, respectively, with assists from Moffis and Hammond. Hammond tallied a goal in the 22nd minute to extend the lead to 3-0 by halftime.
In the second half, Smithwick struck twice — in the 43rd and 65th minutes — to complete his hat trick. Noah Nelson received the shutout in goal for CIA.
As if the current Eagles squad isn’t formidable enough, opponents can expect the domination to continue in the next several years. In the junior high tournament Saturday, Cook Inlet Academy won the championship with a 2-1 win over Lumen Christi, getting goals from Riley McKee and Johnny Smithwick.
“That’s one of our objectives, to have a unified team, even for those players that aren’t seeing a lot of time, because they’re the next generation,” Leaf said.
Another stat that turns heads is the fact that it’s not just a boys game for CIA. The girls on the team often partake in scoring as well. Coach Leaf said that the ACSAA requires at least four girls on the field at all times, but for the Eagles, that plays right to their advantage.
“Our girls have always held their own,” Leaf said. “(Friday) is one of the rare games that we have not had a girl score. We have some freakishly athletic girls.”
Junior striker Madison Orth is one of them.
“Coach Leaf is a great coach, and we scrimmage a lot in practice, like practicing actual game situations instead of just drills,” Orth said. “We’re not afraid to drop the ball back, which I think a lot of people just try to cram the ball forward because they don’t want to let the ball go back to their defenders.”
Orth and senior defender Mylon Weems both say that communication has been a factor this year, which helps the team position properly for scoring chances.
“It pretty much all starts with her (Orth) up front, and then our midfield and our backs just try to play to feet when we get the ball,” Weems said. “Everyone’s active when we play.”
And if you think the squad is nervous about trying to maintain a perfect record as the season comes to a close, think again.
“I just know we’re undefeated, so we just go in and play every game, knowing we have a good chance of winning,” Weems said.
Leaf is in his sixth year as head coach for the Eagles, and said after he graduated five seniors who were all-conference players last year, he never expected this year to turn out the way it has.
“Every year, I think oh my goodness, we lost a lot,” he said. “This is the only team I’ve had that’s rode this far undefeated, and that could have something to do with the competition.”
In 2012, CIA experienced only one loss and one tie, the latter result coming in a game against Holy Rosary, and Leaf said it’s difficult to say which of his soccer squads in the past six years was the best.
“That’s a tough call, you always look at who’s better, you know, like Lakers or Celtics,” Leaf joked. “Every year, you’re looking at new competition, and when I first started coaching, the Northern teams were the best thing rolling, and that’s turned back and forth between schools. It would be really interesting if someday we could stack team against team.”