Of the 16 squads that started the Region III soccer tournament Friday morning, just eight four boys teams and four girls teams were left standing when play wrapped up Friday night.
And of those eight survivors, four had already punched their ticket to the state tournament by winning their semifinal matches the Skyview and Grace Christian boys, and the Homer and Grace Christian girls.
Two more teams would make the state tournament by winning the third-place match Saturday morning while the other two would be left with a long bus ride home.
"It's such a relief to get through (to the region championship game)," said Skyview goalkeeper Matt Stalnik, who posted a pair of shutouts in Friday's matches. "I know Carp (Skyview coach Dave Carpenter) has been wanting to get there for a long time."
Skyview survived a battle with Wasilla to make it out of the first round, posting a 1-0 win, then came back five hours later to beat Homer by the same score. The Mariners had advanced to the semifinals with a 1-0 win over Palmer in the opening round.
On the other side of the boys bracket, Nikiski lost to Grace Christian 4-3 in the first round while Soldotna dropped a 3-1 decision to Colony.
Grace defeated Colony 1-0 in the semifinals Friday evening.
In the girls bracket, the Homer Mariners clinched their second trip to the state tournament in three seasons by beating Wasilla 2-0 in the opening round and downing Palmer 3-0 in the semifinals. Palmer had opened the tournament with a 4-0 win over the host Kenai Kardinals.
Soldotna suffered an opening-round heartbreaker, losing 1-0 to Grace, which went on to defeat Colony 1-0 in overtime in the semifinals. Colony opened the tournament with a 4-1 win over Skyview.
The day was grueling for teams with aspirations of playing in the state tournament as the first round of games were elimination games, and recovering, both physically and emotionally, for the the second round in just five hours was no easy task.
"I think we spent a lot of (our energy) on Wasilla," Stalnik said. "When it came around to this game, we were burnt."
Indeed, the Panthers struggled to move the ball in the first half of their semifinal match with Homer. The Mariners were frequently able to push toward the Skyview net, though, and the Panthers defenders were kept plenty busy and Stalnik made several good saves to keep the game scoreless heading into the half.
"I felt they were the better team in the first half," said Skyview's Trevor Barber of Homer's attack. "We were better in the second half. They didn't put their chances away, and we did."
Skyview's goal came in the 65th minute. The Panthers were awarded a penalty kick when a Skyview shot hit a Homer player's arm in the penalty area, and Barber converted the chance with a nicely-placed shot to the lower right corner.
"We were a bit unfortunate with the penalty kick, but in a game like this, sometimes that's what it takes to win," Homer coach Mike Olsen said of the way the break went.
The goal gave the Panthers their second wind, and Llosh Winne received his second yellow card of the game two minutes later, forcing the Mariners to play a man short for the remainder of the match. Skyview was able to control the pace of the game over the final 15 minutes of play.
Barber also scored for the Panthers in their tournament opener against Wasilla, but said it was difficult to come back for a second match Friday.
"We put it all on the line vs. Wasilla, and the Homer game caught us off guard," Barber said. "We went home and went to bed (between games). We ate healthy, got some water and showered."
Carpenter said Jake Bauer and Buck Kunz, both freshmen, were instrumental in helping the Panthers get through the second game, coming off the bench to for good chunks of time to give spent players a rest.
Olsen said that his squad put out a winning effort, but added that the match came down to desire.
"At this point, it's not about who's a better team, because we're all good," Olsen said.
Homer proved its mettle by defeating Palmer on a goal by Brady Boone in the first round of play.
"We were knocking on the door all game, and we finally put one in," Olsen said. "... These kids knew what it would take to beat Palmer, and it was their best game by far. Then they came out (against Skyview) and dug deep."
In the boys opening round games, Soldotna's Brook Carver scored a first-half goal to cut Colony's lead to 2-1. The score remained that way until the final minutes of the match, when the Knights added an insurance goal.
Soldotna coach Jeff Siemers credited forward Garrett Gardner and stopper Keegan Birchfield with solid matches.
"I was pleased with the way we played, even though we came up with a loss," Siemers said.
Nikiski played a tight match with Grace Christian, but the Knights ended the Bulldogs season with a 4-3 win.
Jeremiah Taylor put the Bulldogs up 1-0, but Grace came back to take a 3-1 lead. Nicholas Russell scored a pair of goals to tie the game up for Nikiski.
"Nick Russell had his game of the year," Nikiski coach Jim Coburn said. "He saved his best for last."
Grace won the game on a penalty kick. Coburn also said Travis McGahan and Ben Kellie played solid matches.
The Homer girls had no problem getting themselves ready for their second game Friday and scored just nine minutes into a match they dominated throughout.
Chantrelle Cousins scored the first goal of the match against Palmer, finishing off a play with a header into the net after her first shot was parried away by the Palmer goalkeeper and the follow-up by Claire Siekaniec was deflected by a defender.
Homer hit the crossbar nine minutes later and pumped in one more goal before the half when Siekaniec lofted a shot from 30 yards out over the Palmer goalkeeper in the 38th minute.
Bailey Lowney made it 3-0 for the Mariners 10 minutes into the second half.
Kathryn McCorren recorded her second shutout of the day for the Mariners, and Homer coach Mickey Todd said his squad actually played much better in the evening game.
"We didn't really play good soccer this morning, but we won 2-0, and we came to play in this one," Todd said.
Lowney and Erika Gavenus scored in the tournament opener against Wasilla, and with five goals on Friday, the Mariners have now netted 40 goals in 10 games while posting six shutouts.
"I was pretty happy with how we played and I think we can still play better," Gavenus said. "I felt like we wanted it a little more, and once we scored that first goal, it deflated them a little bit."
The Mariners were able to move the ball well, especially transitioning from the midfield into the attacking third of the field, something Gavenus attributed to teamwork.
In other girls first-round games, the host Kardinals were eliminated by Palmer 4-0.
Skyview played well in defeat, dropping a 4-1 decision to Colony. Ginny Berg scored an unassisted goal for the Panthers, and coach Tony Lewis also liked the play of Amber Kunz and Nicole VanRyzin. Lewis said Marina Holt played well at forward and added that Laura Smith's return to the lineup on defense made a difference.
Soldotna lost a heartbreaker to Grace, and Stars coach Katie Tongue said she appreciated the effort from seniors Annie Penner, Abby Kiffmeyer, Rikki Jackson, Erin Hartman and Catie Coursen.
The Stars were able to control the action, especially in the first half, but couldn't find the back of the net.
"I know they wanted it bad. They played hard," Tongue said.
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