The Soldotna girls pushed one of the state's top girls soccer teams and nearly won Friday in the state semifinals at Anchorage Football Stadium.
Unfortunately, the ending was not a happy one for the Stars, who lost 2-1 in overtime to South Anchorage, who is moving on to Saturday's state championship soccer game against Service.
"It's just so frustrating," said Soldotna coach Jimmy Love. "They did everything they could do, and it just wasn't enough."
The loss is the first of the year for Soldotna, and the Stars will face a familiar foe in Saturday's state third-place game — Kenai Central — set for 11:30 a.m.
"It goes back to the whole thing about Peninsula teams can't compete with Anchorage," Love said. "Well, if we can't, then that game shouldn't have gone into OT. If we're not that good and we're not that worthy, then we shouldn't have been there.
"I'm tired of hearing that, because these girls left everything on the field today and I think the referree kind of got involved when he didn't need to."
The gamewinner, scored by South's Keely Jelenik with eight minutes left in the second 10-minute overtime period, was the difference.
In the final minutes following Jelenik's goal, the Wolverines played a game of keepaway, holding the ball in the right corner of Soldotna territory in an attempt to drain the minutes off the clock.
"You heard the crowd, it's not the best soccer, but at this point we're trying to win a state championship," said South coach Brian Farrell. "It's a credit to our players that they know to do that, just to hold it and let them foul us."
Once the Stars realized South's antics, the desperation kicked in and frustration led to pushing and shoving. Kylee Wolfe and Olivia Conradi were both given yellow cards in the final two minutes of overtime.
"We wouldn't do it, but I don't know if we'd be forcing the issue either," Love responded. "We're not going to play the ball into the corner, but they've been in games closer than that and that's their tactic. I guess we just go with it."
Love said the object he took most issue with was the inconsistency of the officiating. After letting a number of aggressive plays stand earlier in the game, the head referree charged SoHi with several calls late in the game and in overtime, including the pair of yellow cards.
"I think towards the end there it started becoming lopsided on the fouls," Love said. "I mean, they let it go all game, then they tighten up in overtime, that's BS.
"That part I don't get. There was some pushing for sure, but it was no different from the first four minutes of the first half."
Right away on Friday, the Wolverines began putting pressure on a Soldotna defense that is rarely tested. South had several close chances brushed aside by SoHi goalkeeper Katelynn Kerkvliet.
An open strike that got by Kerkvliet in the second minute of the game clanged off the left goalpost, and a nearly identical shot hit the post again in the 21st minute. Kerkvliet blocked a point-blank shot in the 25th minute to keep the game scoreless.
South outshot SoHi 8-1 in the first half, and took four corner kicks to SoHi's zero.
The Wolverines eventually broke through five minutes into the second half when a shot bounced off the crossbar above Kerkvliet's head and back to the South attacking unit, and Vanessa Velez was there to score.
However, South's goal seemed to wake up the SoHi offense, as the Stars began finding better opportunities down the field.
The shift in momentum was helped by improved play from defensive sweepers such as Taryn McCubbins, Delaney Love, Alex Ashe and Bailey Rosin. Soldotna's strikers up front became the beneficiaries of passes from the defense, and when South did attempt offensive attacks, players like McCubbins fought back and contained the Wolverines' efforts.
In the 53rd minute, Soldotna equalized with a long range strike from Kylee Wolfe that caught South goalie Jacqueline Burke off guard and sailed right over the goalie's head.
"For them to turn around and have that kind of strength and response, that was unreal," Love said. "I think it helped them to think, 'Hey we can do this,' and it gave them a good shot."
As the minutes wound down, the action became chippier and players more aggressive. Ultimately, the teams were forced to extend their battle into overtime, where two 10-minute halves were needed to decide a winner.
Two minutes into the second extra period, Jelenik took advantage of a South corner kick and got to the ball first.
"I wasn't surprised it was this close," Farrell said. "You always know when you play a team from the Peninsula that they're gonna bring it and are gonna play all 80 minutes. They're not dirty or cheap, but they're a physical team."
With the loss, SoHi will attempt to match their best state finish of third place from 2012 and 2013, and they will face Kenai.
Service girls 1, Kenai 0
Only one goal was scored in Friday's state soccer semifinals matchup between Kenai Central and Service, but it was all the Cougars needed to punch their ticket to Saturday's state championship game.
Instead, the Kardinals will be facing their nemesis Soldotna in Saturday's third-place game at 11:30 a.m.
Service topped Kenai in a match that saw the winners dominate possession, but fail to break through until deep into the game.
"Last time we played Service it was 4-0 at half, so we've definitely come a long way," said Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen. "They did a great job, I have nothing but praise for them."
Service outshot Kenai 19-2 on goal, but didn't score until the 56th minute, when Haleigh Van Allen collected the ball near Kenai's right goalpost and sent a shot into the left corner past goaltender Alli Steinbeck.
Steinbeck was kept busy for most the game as she saved nine quality chances by Service.
"We had to adjust and play a little like Soldotna and overlap that midfield," Verkuilen said. "We had to make sure our strong-side midfielder was dropping back with that last wing."
What ensued was a midfield struggle that saw Service get the most shots on the outside and on Steinbeck, but the sophomore goalie held tough all game long.
"I said you've been able to keep one of the best teams in the state from scoring," Verkuilen said. "I said I want you to go out and get a goal and make that one touch that can make a difference."
As one-goal games tend to go, Service could not afford to let up and let a possible goal slide through. In the final minute of play, Kenai found itself with a rare chance to score, but the play was called dead with an offsides call.
"It was a matter of controlling the ball and being as efficient as possible," said Service coach Mark Cascolan.
Service was running on the energy of a double-overtime game on Thursday that pushed scheduling back to after 10 p.m. Cascolan said he was surprised nonetheless that the final result was a one-goal game.
"I knew it was going to be a tough game, but I was hoping it would bounce our way more," Cascolan said.
Kenai and Service played in the state tournament 4th-place game in 2012, as the Cougars topped the Kards 4-0. Saturday, Kenai is guaranteed to improve on that finish, as fifth is the worst they can finish.