The Nikiski Bulldogs are growing up fast.
Led by sophomores Israel Blatchford and Rick Miller, the Bulldogs ran away with a 3-1 win Saturday over the visiting Homer Mariners.
Blatchford provided the offensive punch for Nikiski, netting two first half goals as the Bulldogs controlled the pace early despite having to go into a stiff wind. Following the game, he said credit for the win should go to the entire Nikiski team, which used solid teamwork and passing to stay one step ahead of Homer throughout.
"We just played as a team," Blatchford said. "We were working hard on defense and just not letting them get the ball."
When the Mariners did manage to mount attacks, Miller was there to hold the line, thwarting nearly every challenge the Mariners could mount. The Nikiski keeper nearly finished the game with a clean slate, but his shutout bid was foiled by a Joe Hoanin penalty kick in the 76th minute.
Still, Nikiski head coach Jim Coburn said he was impressed with the sophomore's strong work in net.
"He did a great job out there," Coburn said. "I would have liked for him to get the shutout, but Homer just kept playing hard."
Homer kept up the intensity through the final whistle, despite trailing most of the game. But it was the Bulldogs who were able to get the better chances early on, and the Bulldogs' early dominance translated to a 2-0 halftime edge.
After Nikiski failed to convert on several good chances early, Blatchford tallied his first goal in the 21st minute with a nifty header off a Brett Allemann feed that caught Homer's keeper flat-footed.
Then in the 32nd minute, Blatchford struck again. Using some crafty footwork, he created a bit of space inside the Homer box and found himself unmarked. With the Homer keeper off his line a bit, Blatchford's teammates yelled at him to shoot, a request he had no trouble obliging. His right-footed strike stung the upper corner of the Homer net, giving the Bulldogs an extra lift going into the half.
In the second, Homer got an early lift when two of its key players, sweeper Hoanin and starting goalie Taber Webb, arrived on the pitch. The two juniors had driven up from Homer after taking their SAT tests, and the addition of two of its core defenders seemed to lift the Mariners' spirits.
After earning a corner kick, the Mariners were awarded their first penalty kick of the game on a Nikiski hand ball in the 47th minute. But Max Drathman wasted Homer's best chance of the game, ripping his try way high of the Nikiski crossbar. Still, the Mariners kept the pressure on, getting heavy strikes from Llosh Winne and Jeremy Andrews in the next five minutes, and it appeared as if things might get interesting. However, Miller held his ground, and Homer was unable to convert on any of its attempts.
Homer coach Mike Olsen said an inability to finish has been Homer's Achilles' heel all season long.
"We've got a good, solid ballclub, and if we could just finish we'd be near the top of the division," said Olson, whose Mariners dropped to 0-4 on the season.
"It's frustrating, because it's not that they don't know what to do, it's just that we're not doing it," Olson said.
Nikiski put things away in the 57th minute after the Mariners suffered a disastrous communication breakdown deep in their own end. With Homer's defense apparently in control of a slow roller, Webb and one of his defenders disagreed over who should handle the ball. While the Mariners used the moment to grab a quick nap, Nikiski's Zach McIrvin was wide awake, sneaking in and touching the ball through to give Nikiski the 3-0 advantage.
With the win, Nikiski moved to 3-3 on the season. More important than just the win, Coburn said the Bulldogs found a bit of confidence in their ability to work as a team and find the net.
"It was a great game," Coburn said. "We played as a team and were able to finish up front. I think that made the difference."
Juneau girls 1, Homer 0
Juneau's Greta Thibodeau converted a first-half penalty kick, and Juneau's defense made the goal stand up, as the Crimson Bears hung on for a 1-0 win over the Homer girls Friday at Skyview.
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