HOUSTON — The Nikiski Bulldogs would probably be surprised to learn Houston goalkeeper Sage Stirling is entering just his second season in his team’s net.
As the Bulldogs steadily attacked the Houston end, Stirling swallowed shots, knocked others above the crossbar, and put more back into play. On one series alone, Stirling made four consecutive saves to keep the Hawks within striking distance.
Nikiski did walk off Houston High’s new turf field Friday afternoon with the 3-0 win. But the Bulldogs needed a barrage of shots to beat Stirling and the Hawks.
“I thought he did an outstanding job. One time, I think he made four saves on one shot. It was awesome,” Nikiski head coach Jim Coburn said. “He did a nice job today.”
Houston head coach Brian Cook was thrilled with the work of his junior keeper.
“He’s phenomenal when he’s on his game. He was outstanding today,” Cook said of Stirling. “When he’s on his game he knows where balls are going, he’s reading people, reading shots.”
Nikiski was able to take advantage of the aggressive Stirling early in the match. During the 13th minute, as Nikiski captain Christian Riddall chased a through ball from the midfield, Stirling left the box to challenge. Stirling missed a dive at the ball, and once the ball got away, Riddall was able to tap in an easy shot for a score.
Nikiski scored twice during a four-minute span in the second half, but both shots were difficult to contest. During the 50th minute, Michael Stangel sent a high arcing shot from outside the 35-yard-line. Stangel managed to tuck his shot just underneath the crossbar, but right above the fingertips of Stirling.
Four minutes later, Garrett Feller converted a penalty kick to give the Bulldogs the 3-0 lead.
“It was a bit of a frustrating game there. We played well, I hoped we’d be in it a little better,” Cook said.
Overall, Coburn was pleased with the Bulldogs, who were making their 2014 debut.
“I felt like we’re getting better,” Coburn said. “This is only the fourth time we’ve been on a field this year. It takes awhile to get the passing down, the communication. Everything is better today than it has been.”
Both teams are small. Nikiski had only four reserves, while Houston boasted just a half-dozen on the bench.
“Houston’s a lot closer to the size of our school, so it’s a lot more competitive. It’s always fun,” Coburn said.
Houston girls 2, Nikiski 0
Scoring an early season win is big for any team. But it’s even more significant for a Houston Hawks squad eager to build a competitive program.
Houston, which scored its lone win last year against a junior varsity squad, earned a 2-0 victory over the Nikiski Bulldogs on Friday at Houston High School.
“It is a big deal,” Houston head coach Huey Farrell said after the match. “I think it’s a big confidence thing for them. As a coach, I have confidence in them. But if you don’t have that win, you don’t know how much confidence they have. They could start to doubt themselves.”
Cassie Kapuniai and Megan Wilbur both scored first-half goals to help Houston improve to 1-2-0 overall. Kauniai knocked in a rebound during the 15th minute to give Houston the 1-0 lead. About 15 minutes later, Wilbur scored to add to Houston’s advantage.
Senior Khristin Nida notched the shutout in the Houston goal.
“We’ve improved in every game, and I don’t expect that to change,” Farrell said.
Houston opened the season with a 6-1 loss to Palmer. Farrell said the Hawks played well at times against Palmer, but there was about a 15-minute stretch where the Hawks fell flat.
Earlier this week, Colony edged Houston 2-0. Despite the loss, Farrell said he felt good about the match against the Knights.
“You hate to lose, but against a good team like Colony, that’s a big improvement for us,” Farrell said.
Overall, things are looking promising for the Houston girls program, he said.
“We’re playing well right now. We’re young, but we’re fast,” Farrell said.
The Hawks have 22 players on the roster, the most during Farrell’s three years as the Hawks head coach.
“I’m happy with it. We can have two full teams going against each other,” he said. “We’re growing every year. I’m hoping to get up to 30 so we can have a (junior varsity team).”
The Hawks are also benefiting from the school’s new artificial turf field, which was installed prior to the start of the 2013-14 school year.
“Last year we never practiced or played on our field. Even when it melted off, there were holes and it was muddy,” Farrell said. “We couldn’t prepare it fast enough to play, so we had to move all our games to Colony. They had turf. This year it melted off three weeks ago.”
Farrell’s roster features only three seniors. But the head coach is excited about the young talent on his team.
In particular, Farrell noted freshman center midfielder Aspen Ruth.
“In my opinion. I haven’t seen a player better than her. I’ve been doing this three years,” Farrell said of his tenure with the Hawks.
Farrell also listed freshman center forward Megan Adair among the players to watch.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman sports editor Jeremiah Bartz at email@example.com.