You never get a second chance to make a first impression, but you also never get a second chance to leave a last impression.
So it's disappointing that, with so many great achievements this season, the Soldotna and Kenai Central hockey teams left a negative last impression.
Both teams did some great things this year. The Stars notched the school's first undefeated record in North Star Conference play, while the Kardinals won their first region tournament title.
The Stars opened the Alaska School Activities Association State 4A Hockey Championships with an unforgettable game, putting together one of the greatest team efforts I've ever seen before losing to eventual runner-up Dimond in four overtimes. The Kardinals were leading East 3-2 late in the second period before the Thunderbirds rallied to win.
But it's not how you start, it's how you finish.
The Stars finished in the consolation bracket semifinals with a loss to Chugiak that included a 10-minute misconduct call, a game disqualification and a pair of five-minute majors among the Stars' 46 minutes of penalties. Keep in mind that a regulation high school game is only 45 minutes long, and that in the 1 hour, 11 minutes and nine seconds the Stars played the night before against Dimond, they picked up just two penalties for four minutes.
Said Soldotna defenseman Keith Herring: "After we were down, we still wanted to make a statement, but, of course, we didn't want it to be a negative statement. We needed less penalty minutes and more shots on goal and goals."
The Kardinals advanced through the consolation semifinals to play in the fourth-place game, but, with his team trailing in the third period, a Kenai player jumped on a Chugiak player, started a fight and got himself ejected from the game. This came after that same player accounted for a good chunk of Kenai's second-period penalty problems in the semifinal by drawing a 10-minute misconduct penalty.
Said Kenai coach Brian Gabriel Sr. of Saturday's behavior: "Let's just say I wasn't happy with it. It wasn't a reflection of the rest of the boys on the team, the coaches, or the program."
That's the kicker, though. Both teams had seasons to remember, but teams are judged by their performance on their biggest stage, whether it be a region tournament, or the biggest stage the state has to offer, the state championships.
And while it can be difficult to pick out every great individual play when considering a great team effort, it's real easy to pick out the plays that detract from that effort.
It would be easy just to write off the behavior, particularly in the hockey environment where boys will be boys, it's a rough-and-tumble game and there's a ton of testosterone flowing in a culture of machismo. At higher levels, fighting is part of the game, and the crowd certainly didn't turn away in disgust during Saturday's altercation.
But high school athletics, while extracurricular, are as much a part of a well-rounded education as is everything learned in the classroom -- where boorish behavior isn't tolerated. Part of high school hockey is learning how to control the intense emotions of the game, how to turn it on for a minute-long shift, then turn it off when it's time to give the next line a chance.
It's unfortunate that a few bad apples would detract from the season-long effort of the rest of the team, especially considering the effort Gabriel Sr. and Soldotna coach Pat Nolden put in to teach their charges to play with both discipline and class.
In fact, after a game earlier this season in which the Kardinals were whistled for seven penalties for 14 minutes while their opponent, Palmer, picked up 13 for 53 minutes, players boasted that Kenai had a reputation for staying disciplined, even in difficult situations.
And Nolden has gone above and beyond what is required under high school rules to enforce discipline on his squad, benching players that need a little more time to reflect on improper actions.
Of course, the threat Gabriel Sr.'s infamous no-puck practices or the prospect of spending a game on the bench aren't as much of a deterrent for a senior who will be done with the program once the final whistle blows, leaving the team's coaches and underclassmen to clean up any sullied reputations when next year's season rolls around.
So, how does it all fit together? Was a sterling season ruined by the actions of a few?
I don't think Kenai and Soldotna should spend too much time worrying about a handful of stupid mistakes in the context of a whole season. After all, no matter what happened in the next game, that opening-round battle against Dimond was one for the ages. There's no way to tarnish that. And there's no taking away the dedication and effort that paid off with the Kardinals' first region title.
Soldotna deserves every accolade it gets for its undefeated NSC season, as do the Kardinals for their run through the region tournament and their success in the state competition.
At the same time, the incidents shouldn't be entirely erased from memory. As Kenai sophomore Micah Lillard said, "Our seniors showed us anything is possible, if we work hard enough."
A few of those seniors also showed what happens when you stop working hard, and that's a lesson that shouldn't be forgotten.
This column is the opinion of reporter Will Morrow. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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