Kenai coach David Landry wouldn't discuss the details of his team's shootout against Wasilla.
It wasn't because he didn't want to. Rather, he couldn't.
"It's been a couple years since I've watched a penalty kick," Landry said. "I just can't do it. My hair's turning whiter than it is."
While Landry was policing the bench area, cleaning up water bottles and anything else he could get his hands on, the Kardinals were advancing to the semifinals of the Northern Lights Conference tournament at Soldotna High School on Thursday.
After the Warriors knotted the game at two on a penalty shot with less than five seconds remaining in regulation, as the whistle sounded before Jimmy Sliwa converted on the free kick, second-seeded Kenai and third-seeded Wasilla battled through 30 minutes of overtime before the Kardinals earned a 4-2 penalty-shootout win in eliminating the defending NLC tournament champs with an exhilarating 3-2 victory.
"It feels real good," said senior Cory Toombs, who netted the clinching penalty shot. "They pretty much kicked our butts all three years and to get revenge is pretty good."
Not only had the Kardinals (6-2-2) gone more than 290 minutes over the past three seasons without finding the net against Wasilla until they struck in the 51st minute Thursday, but Kenai seniors were 0-5 in their careers when facing the Warriors, including a 3-0 defeat in last year's NLC title game.
"It's pretty sweet," said Kenai goaltender Justin Wisniewski. "Finally, senior year we take it to them. I'm definitely glad it happened this year for sure."
Landry is hoping this is just the beginning of a magical run for a squad seeking its fifth state tournament berth in the past nine seasons, if they're able to top Colony in the semifinals at 1 p.m. today.
"And the seniors, it was do or die for them," he said of his nine upperclassmen. "So, they get to play another day.
"What we have to do now is you have to win one out of two games," he added. "Our take on it right from the beginning of the year has been we wanted to be in the championship game. And after we played SoHi earlier this year, we thought that would be a perfect way to go out, to play each other in the championship game. We're trying to do our part at this point."
Thanks in large part to their penalty shot prowess.
The Kardinals spent Monday and Tuesday practicing penalty shots, attempting to whittle down the number of shooters to five in preparation for the tournament.
Having beaten Colony in a shootout in last season's semifinals before being eliminated from state by Soldotna in the same situation, Landry knew it could boil down to it again.
"We practiced our penalties and we knew who the first five were going to be," he said. "We never really worked with our second five. We never anticipated it would go beyond that."
When Wasilla's Tillerman Kroon blasted the opening shot over the crossbar, there was a good chance it wouldn't.
Kenai sophomore AJ Ewing converted on the Kardinals' initial opportunity, sending the ball down the middle off Wasilla keeper Eli Tingstad before it hit the back of the net.
Wasilla's Paul Sliwa evened the score before senior Devon Boyle rifled the ball directly over Tingstad and into the upper netting for a 2-1 edge.
But Aaron Sharrow, whose throw-in in the waning moments of stoppage time helped set up Jimmy Sliwa's game-tying goal, also booted his over the net.
"That was nice," Wisniewski said. "I was surprised both of them went over. That was a big advantage for us, of course."
Following successful shots by Kenai senior McKenan Steinbeck and Wasilla's Jimmy Sliwa that made it 3-2 in favor of the Kardinals, Toombs delivered the clincher when he easily drove the ball into the back, left corner of the net, setting off a wild celebration near midfield.
"We knew these games were going to be close, so we got them lined up and picked them out," Toombs said of practicing penalty shots during the week. "We have nine seniors on the team, so it was our last chance."
Toombs' drive also ended the careers for nine Wasilla seniors, who finished their final season with a 7-4-2 mark.
"It's tough to go to overtime and then golden goal and then to have your season end in a shootout," said Warriors coach Blake Livingston. "It's definitely not what you're hoping for."
As for whether or not Wednesday night's graduation would contribute to a lackluster effort by the Kardinals, it didn't appear to have any affect.
"We told everyone to be in by midnight and most of our team came in before that," Toombs said. "We knew it was a big game, our last chance to wear a Kenai jersey."
"Really what made the difference is that these boys have been down this road before," Landry said. "They've experienced the highs and the lows and they know how terrible the lows are. It's just a matter of reaching down."
Following a scoreless first half, 280 straight minutes against Wasilla without a goal to that point, the Kardinals finally struck first when a Toombs' corner kick sailed off the head of Steinbeck before senior Reed Ehrhardt poked it past Tingstad.
But 13 minutes later, Wasilla benefited from a push in the box during a direct kick and capitalized when Jimmy Sliwa converted on the ensuing direct kick, shooting it past the wall and to the right of a diving Wisniewski.
Kenai recaptured a 2-1 advantage in the 73rd minute when Boyle lofted a pass over the defense to freshman Codi Woodcock, who outraced a pair of defenders to the ball before chipping it over a charging Tingstad.
"He plays with a lot of maturity at times. This is a great experience for him," Landry said of Woodcock. "We had four or five underclassmen out there today. We've got a lot of future that we're playing right now."
The lead didn't last long, though, as a hand ball on Kenai in the box with seconds remaining in two minutes of stoppage time set up Sliwa's tying goal.
In the end, though, Livingston had difficulty finding the right words to describe what transpired in the shootout.
"Kenai has an outstanding keeper, arguably maybe the best keeper in the state. He's tough. It's hard to say," he said. "It was definitely a roller coaster game, lots of drama. I guess in some ways, maybe it's fitting that it ended in a shootout."
Colony boys 3, Nikiski 2
James Meaney tallied two goals, including the eventual game winner, and an assist in guiding the top-seeded Knights within one win of a state tournament berth after missing out on the big dance for the first time ever last season.
"I feel like we've got a good, quality side. I feel like we are one of the top three teams and we should be able to make it," said Colony coach Jeremy Johnson. "But anything can happen in a tournament like this. There's lots of quality teams. So, we've got to make sure we try and win tomorrow and guarantee we've got that spot at state and then think about trying to win the region and getting that higher seed."
All the fourth-seeded Bulldogs were thinking of was pulling off a major upset. And they nearly did.
After Meaney opened the scoring off an assist from Tim Jaronik, Nikiski senior Josh Vance drove home a cross from Beau Calderwood, knotting the game at one.
But Colony didn't go 8-0-1 in the regular season for nothing.
Meaney assisted Weston Patrick in staking the Knights to a one-goal lead entering halftime.
"You go up against Colony," said Nikiski coach Jim Coburn, "you can expect them to be skilled, well-coached and play hard, and they did."
So did the Bulldogs, who tied the game at two when Stefan Krogseng headed in a direct kick from Calvin Williams in the early moments of the second half.
Meaney struck again about eight minutes later off an assist from Oliver Querin and the Knights made the lead stand up the rest of the way.
"It was the best game of the year," said Coburn, whose team finished the season at 3-7. "I couldn't have asked for anything better. A win would have been nice, but to have your team come out and play at 100 percent, you can't ask any more than that."
Johnson was equally impressed with the Bulldogs in the teams' first meeting this season.
"That's the best team Jim's put together that I've seen," he said. "All I had heard was they were scrappy and they worked hard. That was for sure, but they definitely came with a little more skill than I thought they would."
The Bulldogs' future looks bright, especially with the return of sophomore goaltender Jordan Harrison, who preserved the 3-2 game when he made a diving save on a penalty shot by Aaron Richardson.
"That's hopefully an all-region goalie by next year," Coburn said.
Homer boys 2, Grace Christian 1
After being shut out by the second-seeded Grizzlies in their opening game of the season, the third-seeded Mariners received a late goal by senior Sam Satre in capturing the win.
"They came out and played great," said first-year Homer coach Warren Waldorf. "Actually, that's the best ball I've seen them play this year."
Senior Aaron Lewis put the Mariners on top in the 16th minute when he snuck a shot underneath the crossbar and Homer carried the lead into halftime.
Grace's Jordan Edwards tied it up in the 56th minute, but the Mariners remained composed and retook the lead for good when Satre's shot bounced off a Grizzlies' defender and into the back of the net.
"I loved that. They just buckled down and figured out a way to put it in the net again," Waldorf said. "That's impressive. They didn't fold."
Soldotna boys 4, Palmer 1
Sophomores Blaine Carver and Jeff Mullen each netted a pair of goals in leading the top-seeded and undefeated Stars past the fourth-seeded Moose and into a semifinal matchup with Homer.
"Especially considering the rest of the games, some surprises, some OTs," SoHi coach Jeff Siemers said of handling Palmer. "It's good that we can come and do what we were seeded to do."
The Stars, who improved to 10-0-1 on the season, are seeking their third overall and second consecutive trip to the state tournament at 5 p.m. today when they square off with the Mariners, who they dominated 8-0 a week ago.
"They had a real tough game with Grace right before, so hopefully they're worn out," Siemers said of the Mariners' 2-1 victory. "That's the reality of these games, especially this first one, is we're real happy to get this done with. That one and out is always rough, so it's good to be done."
Carver got things rolling in the 17th minute when he netted his 21st of the season and Mullen followed seven minutes later for a 2-0 lead.
Carver then matched his total from all of last season when he recorded his 22nd goal of the year in the 29th minute and Mullen sent his team into the intermission with a 4-0 cushion when he found the back of the net in the 35th minute.
Palmer senior Zach Zegydryn netted the Moose's only goal when he converted a direct kick in the 56th minute.
"All of our subs saw a lot of time and so that rests our guys for a three-day tournament, which is always real good," Siemers said.
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com
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