It took a full 80 minutes to break through, but the relentless Soldotna girls soccer squad scored a 1-0 victory over rival Kenai Central to complete a perfect regular season Saturday afternoon at Soldotna High School.
Under a scorching summer sun, the Stars finished their season at 12-0 overall and earned the top seed for the Northern Lights Conference tournament. The Kardinals ended 6-3-1 and will be seeded second.
“I don’t know if that’s what we strive to do in the regular season,” said SoHi coach Jimmy Love, downplaying the perfect mark. “I think the goal is you need to get better from one game to the next, culminating with the region and state tournament.”
Between the searing heat and the pressure of triumphing in a game that both teams wanted so badly to win, an epic struggle to score played out for the duration of the match.
Soldotna controlled most of the game, taking a total of 20 shots (unofficially) on goal compared to just one from Kenai, and getting seven corner kicks to Kenai’s one.
It made for a busy day for Kenai goaltender Alli Steinbeck.
“She made some amazing saves,” said Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen. “It comes down to when a team plays as a team and with heart and passion, even if you dominate us, we can hang on longer.”
With two minutes left in the first half, Soldotna’s Olivia Conradi had a header past Steinbeck disallowed for being offsides.
The intensity picked up in the second half, as both Conradi and Kenai’s Heidi Perkins were charged with yellow cards two minutes apart for rough play.
In the 69th minute, Steinbeck scrambled to save two rebound shots that came after a Soldotna corner kick, and a minute later, Kylee Wolfe sent a bullet shot toward Steinbeck, only to see it go too high and clear the crossbar.
Julie Litchfield had a great look on goal in the 77th minute, but her shot nailed the crossbar.
“We’ve got a lot of younger players on the bench who haven’t been in a game of this magnitude,” Love said. “This is Kenai and Soldotna. You just don’t lose. You don’t want to give it up.
“You’re just hoping with as much pressure as we were getting in those last 10 minutes, that it was going to break at some point. Fortunately for us, it did.”
When the head referee called for five minutes of stoppage time, it was now or never for the Stars. Moments after the call, sophomore Alyssa Wolfe found the ball with open space in front of the net and buried the goal for a 1-0 SoHi lead.
“I just took my time on it and aimed for where Alli wasn’t,” Wolfe said. “I was gonna be mad if we lost or tied.”
But, with at least four minutes left in stoppage time, Soldotna had to keep fighting just to hold on. The Kards were not able to string together a run in the final minutes.
Kenai boys 4, Soldotna 1
The Kardinals got the better of the Stars to clinch the second seed in the Northern Lights Conference Southern Division.
Kenai ended its season 6-3-1 overall, while Soldotna dropped to 5-5-2, good for third in the southern division.
“Without that (defense) they probably would’ve had better chances on goal,” said Kenai assistant coach Granger Nyboer, who was filling in for a traveling John Morton. “I really think the last couple of games we’ve played really well.”
Homer took the Southern Division with a 10-1 overall record, with Soldotna and Kenai filling the middle two conference spots and Nikiski picking up the final NLC berth.
With both teams playing evenly in the first half, Soldotna struck first in the 15th minute with a shot from Charalambos Asimakopoulos that found its way past and just to the left of Kenai goalkeeper Wren Norwood.
The Stars erupted in jubilation, but their enthusiasm was quickly tempered two minutes later when TJ Wagoner caught a rebound off SoHi goalie Kayne North and sent in the equalizer. Another two minutes later, Wagoner sent a cross to Trevor Shirnberg, who beat North and tapped in the go-ahead goal.
“These guys wanted to win this game,” Nyboer said. “They just worked their butts off in the first half to get those goals in.”
Kenai extended its lead in the 26th minute when Wagoner scored his second goal with open space in front of the net. Wagoner caught an airborne bounce of the ball and secured it with his feet to add the insurance goal. The Kards went into halftime with the 3-1 lead.
“We know the time you’re most vulnerable is after you score,” said SoHi coach Jeff Siemers. “We knew it but didn’t hold strong, and it kept rolling and we were just digging out of a hole the rest of the game.”
The second half saw SoHi take control and hold the ball in Kenai territory for much of the 40 minutes, but Kenai was the one to find the back of the net. Jake Meyer found himself in the right place to catch a loose ball six minutes into the second half, and North tried wrapping up the ball but lost the grip and Meyer was able to tap in the ball to score.
It sent a big wave of relief through the Kenai players, and left the Stars on the ropes trying to recover.
“Going up three goals was pretty demoralizing for another team,” Nyboer said. “A two-goal lead is tough to keep, so getting a three-goal lead was better.”
Once the lead for Kenai was 4-1, SoHi continually pushed the ball down the field and threaten a comeback, but each and every opportunity was spoiled, be it due to the heat or fatigue.
With the second seed, Kenai will face the third seed from the Northern Division, while SoHi will get the second seed from the north.