The Northern Lights Conference Southern Division picked up victories in three of the four girls games Thursday in the opening day of the NLC tourney in the Valley.
At Colony, top-seed Soldotna defeated Palmer 3-0, while second-seeded Kenai notched a 5-0 win over Colony, the defending conference champs.
At Wasilla, Homer, seeded No. 3 out of the south, upset Northern Division No. 2 seed Grace Christian 3-2. Wasilla, the north’s top seed, got by Nikiski by a 3-0 score.
Today’s semifinals will both be at Wasilla. SoHi and Homer play at 11 a.m., while Kenai and Wasilla play at 3 p.m. The winners move to Saturday’s 2 p.m. championship and earn a state berth. The losers play for third place and a state berth at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Soldotna girls 3, Palmer 0
The game started two hours later than scheduled and a thin haze hung in the air from the Funny River fire over 100 miles away.
But even with the adverse circumstances, the Soldotna girls still advanced.
“Oh, it’s a big relief,” said Soldotna coach Jimmy Love. “If you don’t win, you’re going home. So winning the first game is big, and it’s a big boost for the girls.”
The Stars held control early and often, leading the stats sheet in shots on goal (25) as the Moose struggled to keep the ball out of their defensive zone. Palmer managed only two shots on goal (unofficially).
“We were moving the ball fairly well, but it came down to finishing,” Love said. “Their goalie made some nice saves, but there were some spots where there shouldn’t have been a save.
“I think we did what we had to do to get past this game.”
SoHi was scheduled to play at 11 a.m. Thursday, but the day’s events were all pushed back two hours in hopes that the haze from the Funny River fire on the Peninsula would blow through, and sure enough, the skies cleared enough to safely hold soccer matches. By the end of the day, the skyline was once again dominated by famous Pioneer Peak.
“I understand why they did what they did, but you have your plans set on an 11 a.m. game time,” Love said. “Well that goes out the window, and I was upset we didn’t get here until 12:30.”
The Stars didn’t roll into the stadium until 30 minutes from kickoff, which Love said was due to traffic and bussing issues.
But all was right with SoHi once the match got underway.
Soldotna scored in the eighth minute on a penalty kick taken by Julie Litchfield. After a SoHi player was tackled in the penalty box, Litchfield was chosen to take the kick, and even though her initial shot was swiftly blocked by Palmer goalie Katarina Godden, Litchfield caught the rebound and netted it for a SoHi lead.
Just two minutes later, Alyssa Wolfe beat a Palmer defender and charged to the goal to take a shot. Her kick was deflected by Godden but the ball spun backward and into the net for a second goal.
Once the Stars were holding a 2-0 lead, the play on field ramped up as Palmer attempted to fight back. In the 32nd minute, SoHi’s Taryn McCubbins was charged with a yellow card for shoving an opponent, and 15 minutes into the second half, Kylee Wolfe was carded for rough play.
It didn’t matter for SoHi, however, as the Stars added a third goal in the 51st minute from Olivia Conradi, who received the ball on a rebound shot off the crossbar. Kelci Benson had the original shot.
Perhaps the lone area of concern for SoHi was in the 68th minute, when Kylee Wolfe tripped and fell to the turf clutching her leg. She needed to be helped off by coaches, but Love said her ailment was a simple muscle cramp.
For now, though, the Soldotna girls are sitting in the driver’s seat.
Kenai girls 5, Colony 0
The Kardinals made sure they were playing through Saturday by shutting out the Knights.
“This was big, we’re not one and done,” said Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen. “We’re excited Cori Holmes got cleared and got some time playing, that’s the first time she’s been on the field in weeks.”
Holmes was injured in a match against Grace Christian earlier in the season, and Verkuilen said Holmes’ presence in the game helped to alleviate midfield weaknesses left by Allie Ostrander, who is skipping the tournament to run the state track meet.
“We weren’t putting the ball in against better teams,” Verkuilen said. “That was my biggest fear, and it’s nice to get that breakaway goal early.”
The Kards struck first in the seventh minute, getting a goal from Taylor Sheldon, who brought home the strike on assists from Rebecca Miller and Abi Tuttle.
At the 15th minute, Lara Creighton received a through ball from Kylie Morse and was able to handily beat the defenders to slot in a second Kenai goal past Colony goalkeeper Peyton Shaw.
Even between Kenai goals, the Knights managed to make few attempts on goal.
“(Colony) made a couple runs at us, and we started figuring out what plays they were making and we were able to put the girls in the right spots,” Verkuilen said.
Tuttle scored in the 31st minute after receiving a throw-in to put the Kards up 3-0 at the halftime break.
Colony coach Lorie Miner said it was a challenge of battling against tougher competition with a team that doesn’t harbor a single comp player. Add in the fact that Shaw is a first-year goalkeeper, and Colony’s season ending early is not much of a surprise, even one year after winning the region title.
“It’s been a rough year, it’s been frustrating,” Miner said. “We have a lot of fresh, young players, and we’re just still trying to figure out the nuts and bolts of where we belong.”
Creighton added a second goal eight minutes into the second half with help from Cassie Holmes, and Samantha Morse wrapped the scoring up in the 70th minute with help from Jacey Ross.
Unofficially, Kenai outshot Colony 10-7, but now are faced with the task of beating a Wasilla girls team that is quite strict with ball possession.
“It’s exciting knowing that if they do well tomorrow, we’ll be going to state,” Verkuilen said.
Homer 3, Grace 2
The Mariners, chasing their first state berth since 2007, took a big step forward by besting Grace. The Grizzlies had beaten Homer in the first round last year, and also beat Homer earlier this season by a 6-0 score, but the Mariners are the team moving on to today’s action.
“This actually started four years ago when Wendy and I got back into coaching the soccer program,” Homer coach Mickey Todd said. “We wanted to make sure the program moved in the right direction, and the seniors stuck with us.
“We were able to take the next step and make the tourney last year, and this year we were able to beat Grace after they beat us handily a few weeks ago.”
Nikiski took a 2-0 lead on goals from seniors Mady Gerard and Maggie Koplin, but Grace cut the lead to 2-1 shortly before half.
Gerard pushed the lead to 3-1 just eight minutes into the second half, and Grace scored with 10 minutes left.
Todd said senior goalie Rachael Doan only had to make four or five saves due to great defense, especially by junior sweeper Aspen Daigle.
“She played the game of her life,” Todd said. “It was awesome.”
Wasilla 3, Nikiski 0
As the Wasilla Warriors put on a shooter’s display, Nikiski junior Rachel Thompson was busy putting on a goalkeeper’s clinic.
Despite finishing with about 30 shots on net, Wasilla had to settle for only three goals.
Alia Donnely, Alexa Starr and Ally Hull each scored to help Wasilla earn the win. But the goals didn’t come easy for the Warriors.
“We had about a dozen shots that would have probably scored on other goalies,” Wasilla head coach Patrick O’Neill said after the win. “We knew coming in she’s the top goalie, in maybe the state. She’s phenomenal.”
O’Neill, happy to get the win and move ahead, said he’s certainly not surprised by the 3-0 score.
“I had a feeling it was going to be a lower scoring game that most people thought based on the seeds and the records,” O’Neill said.
Nikiski entered the tournament as the No. 4 seed from the South Division.
Knowing Nikiski was the opponent, O’Neill said the Warriors worked throughout the week on a game plan to have success against Thompson, a past NLC Player of the Year.
“We talked about it before the game, about keeping shots on her, keeping shots low, try to get in the box on her,” O’Neill said. “She’s so good from outside, you’re not going to beat her from a distance. The goal was to get in deep, work the ball around and make it hard on her.”
O’Neill said the Warriors’ possession style of play helped Wasilla’s cause.
“We knew possessing the ball is kind of our style,” O’Neill said.
Wasilla was able to strike early. Donnely, in the center of the box, took a feed from Lydia Phillips from the left side of the field. Donnely was able to beat Thompson to give Wasilla the 1-0 lead.
During the 24th minute, Wasilla’s leading scorer, junior Alexa Starr, scored a highlight reel worthy goal to give the Warriors the 2-0 lead. Starr dribbled inside the left side of the box, and ripped a shot high, just underneath the crossbar, over the reach of Thompson.
“That was a matchup I was personally looking forward to, a big-time goal scorer against a big-time goalkeeper,” O’Neill said of the Thompson versus Starr matchup. “That’s a top one or two field player in the region going up against definitely the top goalie.”
Hull gave the Warriors a 3-0 lead with a goal in the 53rd minute.
With the win, Wasilla moves forward to play Kenai in the NLC semifinals. Kenai advanced with a 5-0 win over Colony Thursday.
O’Neill said Wasilla is looking forward to playing Kenai, a team that edged Wasilla 1-0 on the Warriors’ recent road trip to the Peninsula.