Soldotna's Brad Duwe keeps a Dimond player from the puck in the first period Friday at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Soldotna coach Kyle Howell knew his team was improving when the Stars valiantly fought their way to a 2-1 loss to three-time defending 4A state champion South in mid-November.
After dropping another 3-2 heartbreaker to visiting Dimond on Friday night, he could sense a change, a feeling that his team was on the cusp of competing at the caliber of the traditionally dominant Anchorage schools.
"I'd sure like to steal one from the Anchorage teams, though," Howell said following the loss to the Lynx. "But one goal, we're right there."
The breakthrough occurred sooner than some may have thought.
Not Howell, though.
Again overcoming an early 1-0 deficit to Service on Saturday, the Stars received the tying goal from freshman Brad Duwe and senior Clayton Glick added the game winner with 36 seconds remaining in propelling Soldotna to a groundbreaking 2-1 victory over the Cougars, the Stars first-ever win over Service.
"I thought we could win this game. I really did. I thought we've improved a lot," Howell said, citing a 3-1 setback to the Cougars earlier this season. "I'm just pretty excited. The kids really worked hard. They deserved to steal one."
Logan Rounds staked Service to a one-goal lead when he beat SoHi goalie Mike McGrath (25 saves on 26 shots) with 1:02 to play in the first period.
But as the Stars (11-7) showed against South, when they fell behind 1-0 before knotting the game, and again versus Dimond, trimming a two-goal deficit to one late in the final period, the word quit doesn't exist in their vocabulary.
Friday, Duwe tied the game off assists from Glick and Jake Pokryfki with about two minutes to play in the second.
And as the game was on course to enter overtime, Soldotna grabbed a two-man advantage with one minute to play.
They weren't about to let this golden opportunity slip through the cracks, either.
Daniel Markstrom and Duwe found Glick, who beat the Service goaltender for the winning tally with just 36 ticks remaining on the clock.
"I think this is good. We've had an excellent weekend. ... This is perfect to roll into our week with our region games and right into the region tournament," Howell said. "I think this will help us out a lot. It will give us some confidence."
The setback on Friday clearly did exactly that.
Despite recording half as many shots as the undefeated Lynx, SoHi held its own for most of the game and nearly evened the score on numerous occasions. But once again, the Stars came up just shy.
"If we make state, we'll see," Howell said of a rematch with Dimond. "If you end up losing in the region championship, that's probably the team you're going to see off the get-go.
"I'd rather be the No. 1 seed and play somebody a little weaker. But, yeah, I'd do it again."
With only two conference games remaining against Homer and Kenai, Soldotna sits comfortably in second place of the North Star Conference at 6-2, just one game behind league-leading Wasilla, whose only loss came against SoHi.
Dimond, on the other hand, is cruising. Ranked No. 1 in the state at 20-0, the Lynx hold the patented goal of winning a state title, something they haven't accomplished since 2001.
Soldotna goalie Michael McGrath makes a stop in the second period Friday against Dimond.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
And with only two games remaining after handling Kenai, 10-0, at the Soldotna Sports Center on Saturday, the first undefeated season in program history is within reach.
But having finished second three years in a row and five out of the last six seasons four of those were one-goal losses anything short of a championship would be a disappointment.
"Every year we do, we go in thinking that," Dimond coach Dennis Sorenson said of capturing the 4A crown. "The unfortunate thing is the last three years, we've been runner-up and it's kind of sour."
It did on Friday, but not without a little scare.
The New England Patriots of Alaska high school hockey snagged a 1-0 lead just 5:21 into the game when Nolan Youngmun stole the puck behind SoHi's net and promptly fed Erik Cooper in front for an easy one-timer.
But the Stars' never-say-die attitude emerged with 3:17 to play in the frame when Duwe also pilfered the puck behind the net and centered it to a wide-open Markstrom, who lifted it over Dimond goalie Mickey Geraghty's left shoulder for a 1-1 game.
"Our team has really developed the character. Palmer kept jumping on us and we never quit against Palmer. That's the one thing about them, we don't fold under the pressure, the kids keep coming and keep going," Howell said. "At one point you're sitting there and you're thinking, 'Ah, which way is this going to go?' They fought their way through there."
After outshooting the Stars 12-4 in the first but emerging with just one tally, Dimond came out firing in the second, recording a goal just 3:34 into the period albeit with a little luck.
When Austen Burgh's shot from the point sailed to the left of McGrath, it fortuitously bounced off the boards and directly to Scott Wamsganz, who was perfectly positioned on the near post. After easily corralling the rebound, Wamsganz lifted the rubber into the far netting past McGrath, who was still on the other side of the pipes.
McGrath kept the Stars in the game late into the second, denying a plethora of solid opportunities on the doorstep with roughly eight minutes to play and turning away the puck on another scrum just more than three minutes later.
He even stopped a breakaway by Youngmun with 3:35 to play, stoning the sophomore, who took a football-like pass from Dimond's own end.
But McGrath could do only so much.
And Youngmun could be contained for only so long.
Only 39 seconds after the failed breakaway, Youngmun received a pass just inside SoHi's blue line, beat the defense around the right side and again found himself one-on-one with the SoHi goalie .
This time, however, he delivered, wristing the puck past a sprawling McGrath and into the far corner of the net for a commanding 3-1 advantage.
Yet again, though, Soldotna fought back as Anton Olson won a faceoff in the Lynx zone and dropped the puck to a waiting Branden Fisher with seven minutes remaining.
Fisher quickly rifled a shot through the defense. The puck somehow found its way past Geraghty and into the back of the net.
After single-handedly keeping his team alive in the loss to South with an incredible 50 saves on 52 shots, 27 of those shots coming in the second period, McGrath again proved he's one of the state's best, too, turning away 37-of-40 shots on the evening.
And it didn't surprise Sorenson one bit, as McGrath was enrolled at Dimond to begin this year before transferring 170 miles South to Soldotna.
"He knew the pecking order at Dimond was tough with Geraghty, who is the top goalie, and (Neil) Gotschall. We rotate our goalies every other game, and he knew he'd be the No.3 goalie. He's an excellent goalie and a great kid. He's a senior and he wanted to play and I've got a senior and a junior that were ahead of him. You can't blame a kid for that," he explained. "He made a choice and it worked out for him in hockey and academically. He's doing great. He had 40 saves or so and a couple from his bottom and he was reaching up in the air. He did a great job.
"But we see him in the comp leagues. So, we're well aware of who he is and how he plays."
The Lynx now know how the Stars play, too.
"I expect Soldotna to get in (to state)," he said. "I expect Soldotna and Wasilla out of that conference to get in."
After the Stars' monumental win on Saturday, Anchorage opponents should officially be wary.
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