For the Stars, there's next week.
For the Kardinals, there's next year.
The Soldotna High School hockey team kept itself in the running for bigger and better things, qualifying for its fourth straight trip to the State Championships with Friday's 4-1 win over Wasilla in the semifinals of the Region III/4A Championships at the Soldotna Sports Center.
"I'm impressed where we've come from and where we are now, with just four seniors and all the youth that we have," said Soldotna coach John Carlin. "We have a lot of young kids playing in big action."
On the other side of the fence, the Kenai Kardinals finished the season with an impressive run, coming within a lucky bounce of the puck to knocking off top-seeded Colony Friday. The Kardinals fell just short of the mark, though, as the Knights came away with a 4-1 win.
"What hurts most is that it's my last game," said Kenai goaltender Nick Wirz.
For both the Kardinals and the Stars, just playing for a chance to go to the state tournament might have seemed like a long shot back in November.
Wirz was the only senior on the Kardinals roster, and while Soldotna had four seniors, Carlin was calling on untested freshman and sophomores to fill out his top lines.
The Stars had a tough go of things early on, opening the season at the Chugiak Invitational, while the Kardinals took their lumps during their first road trip to Anchorage.
"We started rough," said Soldotna goaltender Kelly Gee. "This just shows how hard we've worked all season and how far we've come."
"We've been trying to get together (as a team) -- it's been a battle all year long," said Soldotna's Joey Newby. "There was only one place to go and that was up. It was good to start off that way. Nobody got overconfident."
Wirz had similar sentiments regarding his teammates.
"I'm pretty impressed with the way we've picked things up over the last two weeks," Wirz said. "Not too many high school teams will do that."
"We had a good season -- we can feel good about the way we went out," said Kenai freshman Cory Janson. "We gave it our all, and that's what counts."
Wirz did everything but stand on his head to keep the Kardinals in the game against the Knights, turning aside 42 of the 46 Colony shots he faced.
Colony lit the lamp first, scoring 6:20 into the opening period. Jake Luthi fired a pass across the Kenai crease to a crashing Nathan Schwartzbauer, who one-timed a shot past Wirz.
Kenai hung tough and tied up the game in the second period on a beauty of a goal by Mike Brown. Ross Baldwin found Owen Brewer in the middle of the Colony zone. Brewer made a perfect pass to Brown, who roofed a quick wrist shot over Knights goaltender Greg Strohmeyer's shoulder.
Despite being outshot 46-13, Kenai nearly took a 2-1 lead early in the third period. Strohmeyer stopped a Kenai shot but the puck squirted free from his grasp. The puck flirted with the goal line, but the bounce went Colony's way.
Brewer set up the play with a check on Schwartzbauer that reflected the nature of the game as a whole -- the 5-foot-nothing freshman going in hard against the 6-foot-plus senior and getting the puck to go his way.
"We thought we were going to win -- everybody did," Wirz said. "That's hockey. Things can be going your way and somebody gets a lucky bounce."
"We talked about playing them period by period," said Kenai coach Brian Gabriel Sr. "I had a good feeling that if we could go into the third period that close (1-1), we could get a bounce to go our way. If we get that goal, the game would have had a whole different complexion. ... They're taking the loss hard, and that's good to see.
"It means there's a competitive edge, and they didn't give up and lose the game before it started. They've got some genuine emotions like maybe they let one slip away."
Colony broke the stalemate 4:36 into the third period with a goal by Seth Reda, assisted by Luthi and Aaron Acena.
Schwartzbauer solidified the Colony lead, scoring the Knights' third goal with 4:56 on the clock, assisted by Chris Cavanaugh and Jeremiah Benson, and Chris Atwell scored the goal that broke the Kardinals' back with 2:45 left in the game. Nate Pokryfki and Jamie Bennett were credited with assists on the play.
"With Wirz in net, we knew that we would need close to 50 shots on net to beat them," said Colony coach Eric Troisi. "I was nervous before the game. Both (Kenai assistant coach) Bob (Downs) and Brian (Gabriel Sr.) are excellent coaches. I've got a lot of respect for both of them. I knew that Kenai was going to be well-prepared."
Wasilla also gave the Stars a run for the money, taking a one-goal game into the third period. The Warriors came out firing in the the final frame, but Gee was able to smother the rally.
"I was zoned -- after the first goal, I was all zoned in," Gee said. "I knew this was our seniors' last chance to go to the state tournament, and I knew I had to do my best to give those guys the opportunity to go."
"We came out flying, but we couldn't put one in," said Wasilla coach Marc Dugas. "We had the intensity, and Soldotna was standing around a little bit. ... We needed to be a little more consistent, especially on defense."
Derek Martin gave the Stars a 1-0 lead just 16 second into the game, but Wasilla quickly made up the deficit, netting a power play goal by Jamie Roberts 1:58 later.
Martin made it 2-1, though, with a goal in the opening minute of the second period. Martin took a pass from Eric Newby and slid the puck under Wasilla goalie Stephen Erdman's pads.
Elliott Neese, playing his first game in several weeks after eligibility problems, cushioned Soldotna's lead with 4:36 left in the game when knocked in a rebound of Joey Newby's slap shot from the point, and Peter Kim added an empty-netter with 1:15 to play. Martin and Joey Newby were credited with assists on the play.
"Our seniors have been to the state tournament three times, and we didn't want to disappoint them," Eric Newby said. "Last year, we went 0-2 at state. This year, we want to get farther than that."
STARS 4, WARRIORS 1
Wasilla 1 0 0 --1
Soldotna 1 1 2 --4
First period -- 1. Soldotna, Martin (unassisted), :16; 2. Wasilla, Roberts (Wright, Schmelz), 2:14 PPG. Penalties -- Soldotna 1 for 2:00.
Second period -- 3. Soldotna, Martin (E. Newby), :25. Penalties -- Soldotna 1 for 2:00.
Third period -- 4. Soldotna, Neese (J. Newby), 10:24; 5. Soldotna, Kim (Martin, J. Newby), 13:45. Penalties -- Wasilla 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal -- Wasilla 11-5-8--24, Soldotna 8-9-6--23.
Goalies -- Wasilla, Erdman (23 shots, 19 saves); Soldotna, Gee (24 shots, 23 saves).
Power play opportunities -- Wasilla 1 for 2, Soldotna 0 for 1.
KNIGHTS 4, KARDINALS 1
Colony 1 0 3 --4
Kenai 0 1 0 --1
First period -- 1. Colony, Schwartzbauer (Luthi, Pokryfki), 6:20. Penalties -- none.
Second period -- 2. Kenai, Brown (Brewer, R. Baldwin), 1:22. Penalties -- Colony 2 for 4:00, Kenai 2 for 4:00.
Third period -- 3. Colony, Reda (Luthi, Acena), 4:36; 4. Colony, Schwartzbauer (Cavanaugh, Benson), 10:04; 5. Colony, Atwell (Pokryfki, Bennett), 12:15. Penalties -- none.
Shots on goal -- Colony 9-13-24--46, Kenai 2-8-3--13.
Goalies -- Colony, Strohmeyer (13 shots, 12 saves); Kenai, Wirz (46 shots, 42 saves).
Power play opportunities -- Colony 0 for 1, Kenai 0 for 1.
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