The Soldotna girls soccer squad may have claimed third place at the Alaska state soccer championships for the third year in a row, but this one felt the most bitter.
After suffering a brutal, 2-1 overtime loss to South on Friday, the Stars took care of business Saturday at a cold, blustery and rainy Anchorage Football Stadium with a 2-0 win over Kenai Central, but going by SoHi coach Jimmy Love, the end to the 2014 season could’ve been a whole lot better.
“It’s better to come here and win this game than lose it, but to say this makes up for yesterday’s loss, it’s not even in comparison,” Love said. “Not for me, although I think the girls enjoy it because it’s against their rival. But, it can’t make up for yesterday.”
With such a strong history of Anchorage teams finding their way into the state championship finals every year, it’s a rare opportunity for Kenai Peninsula teams to be in position to play for a state crown. The Stars, competing with a roster full of talent, had the opportunity to do so on Friday.
“That’s the sad thing about it,” Love said. “I told the girls in the bus earlier, the game we played yesterday was the championship game, in my opinion.”
South did end up winning the title Saturday, 1-0 over Service.
Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said he was pleased with a fifth-place result this year, the Kardinals’ best state finish in over a decade.
“I thought we had some great leaders this year,” Verkuilen said. “A lot of ninth- and 10th-graders accomplished some great things. A fifth place in the state with fifteen ninth- and 10th-graders, I’m very impressed.”
Among the 19 players on Kenai’s roster, only four are upperclassmen; the three juniors of Allie Ostrander, Jamie Bagley and Heidi Perkins, and the lone senior of Caitlin Steinbeck.
“I’m proud of them and I think they all deserve a good rest,” Verkuilen said.
After a sluggish start by both teams that saw the ball batted back and forth with no realistic chances on goal, Soldotna began to clamp down and attack the Kenai defense, which has stood resiliently all three days of the state tournament.
Backed by sophomore goalie Alli Steinbeck, the Kenai defense of Kylie Morse, Bagley, Steinbeck and Perkins continually warded off strong advances by the SoHi offense.
“I think they picked up something else from the region game after watching us play,” Love said. “They kinda dropped a lot of people in the box and we started noticing a huge gap between our midfielders and our defense, so we started staggering our D.”
That enabled Love to put two attackers in the midfield, which allowed the Stars to get several good shots off on goal.
SoHi midfielder Julie Litchfield fired off a shot in the 10th minute that soared above Steinbeck’s hands, but rattled off the crossbar. A few minutes later, Kylee Wolfe sent a long shot toward the net but missed wide to the right.
The Stars eventually scored with a corner kick from Wolfe in the 31st minute that found its way into the netting.
At the halftime break, SoHi held a 10-0 advantage in shots on goal.
“We wanted to get some buildup in the middle and some passes going,” Verkuilen said. “We had some beautiful opportunities late in the game, but Soldotna’s defense was good.”
When Kenai began fighting back and finding better chances in the second half, the Stars began relying on goalkeeper Katelynn Kerkvliet more and more. Remarkably, Kerkvliet held strong even with a limp, which she suffered from a collision during Friday’s game.
“There wasn’t a girl that was playing today that didn’t have an injury today,” Love said. “Whether it was significant or just bumps and bruises.”
The Stars scored again in the 53rd minute when a shot from long range was caught by Steinbeck, but rebounded right back to Olivia Conradi, who sent the ball into the upper netting.
After the game, SoHi sweeper Taryn McCubbins was presented with the player of the game award for her stubborn suppression of the Kenai offense on the outside lines.
Both McCubbins and Kerkvliet were named to the State All-Tournament team after the girls championship match. Kenai’s Kylie Morse was also named to the All-Tournament team.
Love said there is always an opportunity to make it back next year to the state championship semifinals.
“That will be our goal, to see if we can’t come back and match this year’s performance,” Love said. “It’s gonna be a younger team for sure, so we have our work cut out for us, but that’s why we coach.”
South girls 2, Soldotna 1
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.
“It’s just so frustrating,” said Soldotna coach Jimmy Love. “They did everything they could do, and it just wasn’t enough.”
The loss was the first of the year for Soldotna.
“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 referee kind of got involved when he didn’t need to.”
The game-winner, 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 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.”
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.
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 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 fourth-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 the Kards can finish.