The Kenai Central High School girls soccer team will mark it’s return to the state tournament as the Northern Lights Conference champions with a noon kickoff today not bad for a squad that was simply hoping to win one game at the conference tournament last week.
“I don’t think it will sink in until we’re on the turf and about to play,” said Kenai defender Sammie Johnson of the run that has netted the Kardinals their first NLC title and their first trip to the state tournament since 2001.
The Kardinals will open the tournament at Anchorage Football Stadium against Dimond, the third-place finisher in the Cook Inlet Conference standings with a 9-4-2 season record.
Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said his job at practice this week has been to make sure his players know they belong in the state tournament.
“We had a nice chance (Monday) at the team banquet to celebrate what they’ve done. Now, it’s time to focus on what they haven’t done,” Verkuilen said. “A big part of what I want to do is convince them they can beat these guys. We’re not going up there just to celebrate going to state.”
The Kardinals are seeded fifth under the newly adopted seeding system for this year’s tournament, behind defending champion South Anchorage, Juneau-Douglas, Chugiak and Dimond. Palmer, West Valley and Grace Christian round out the seeding, which is based on head-to-head records, overall records, records against other teams in the tournament, record against common opponents, and strength of schedule.
“I saw what they can do (at the conference tournament), and I think they have a good chance,” Verkuilen said.
While the Kenai girls team always has been known for lightning-quick forwards, much of the team’s success this can be attributed to its overall strength front to back.
“We work together. It’s not one person trying to do it all,” Johnson said.
“It’s the first time we’ve actually been a team in my high school career,” added forward Keeley Boyle. “... I think our biggest strength is that we attack as a team. It’s hard to get through us.”
Indeed, Kenai’s defense generally pushes as far forward as it can to support the Kardinals forwards and play-making midfielders.
“We’re offensively-minded for defensive players,” Johnson said, explaining that she and her fellow backs will frequently make runs forward when opportunities arise.
Haley Mishler, a Kenai midfielder, said excitement has replaced last week’s nervousness prior to the conference tournament, where the team put a tremendous amount of pressure on itself to advance after several seasons of disappointment.
“I was really nervous for regions. Our reputation for regions wasn’t good at all,” Mishler said.
“We’re just excited about state. It’s something new, teams we’ve never seen before,” Boyle said.
And while the Kardinals are thrilled with how their season has gone, they’d like their state tournament appearance to be more than a footnote.
“I’m happy with where we are, but it’d be really cool to go farther, just because it’s taken us so long to get here,” Mishler said.
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