Soldotna's Shana Powell may have been voted the most valuable player of the Northern Lights Conference, but it was Kenai Central goalkeeper Lacie Wortham who was the unofficial MVP of the NLC tournament.
Wortham recorded her third shutout in as many days and eighth of the season to lead the second-seeded Kardinals to a 1-0 win over the second-seeded Colony Knights in the NLC title game Saturday afternoon at Machetanz Field in Palmer. "Lacie's a brick wall," Kenai senior Holly Perkins said. "She's kept us in so many games."
Wortham, who backstopped shutouts of Palmer and Wasilla during the first two rounds of the tournament, held strong through an early Colony push and a late Knights rush to lead the Kardinals to their first conference title since 2006, also the last time they qualified for the state tournament.
"She kept them in the game. She had phenomenal saves, and that's what saved them," Colony coach Lorie Miner said.
While the Knights could have easily taken the early lead, with multiple chances during the first 15 minutes of play, Wortham robbed Colony of a few golden opportunities in the final 15 minutes of regulation.
With about 10 minutes to go, Wortham used a fingertip grab to snag a shot launched by Colony junior Katie Gonski from about 20 yards out. Gonski's attempt appeared to be headed right under the crossbar before Wortham put her mitts on it. Just a few minutes later, Wortham caught a Jamie Krediet header that was set up by Adriane Richey's cross.
Wortham also routinely intercepted Colony crosses before the Knights could get another forward in the goalie box.
"She picked it off one at a time," Miner said. "One ball after another."
Krediet, alone, had a few of Colony's late chances. She sent a free kick just above the crossbar and a hard shot from outside of the box inches to the left of the far post during the final 10 minutes.
Just prior to those opportunities, Gonski nearly redirected a Krediet cross into the net.
"Toward the end we were getting really tired. I am sure they were too, but they went on that last little surge," Perkins said. "But we managed to keep it out of the net."
Senior Sami Bidwell provided the lone goal of the game, giving the Kards the 1-0 lead during the 45th minute.
Shelby Daly -- who joins Perkins and Wortham as first-team All-NLC selections -- set up the play with a direct kid from midfield by moving the ball into Perkins.
"Shelby crossed the ball and it took a weird bounce," Perkins said. "Their goalie came out and Sami put it right in the net."
When Perkins took possession of the ball, Colony sophomore goalie Meghan Riopelle took a few steps away from the goal and was caught in traffic in front of the net. Once that happened, Perkins was able to slip the ball to Bidwill, who finished.
Miner said she certainly couldn't fault the sophomore, who earned the start just before the first whistle sounded.
"We don't have a starting goalie," Miner said of her keepers Riopelle and junior Katelyn Payne. "It's how has the better warm-up."
Riopelle's play was also key during Colony's 2-1 semifinal win over Soldotna, and Miner applauded her for her efforts against a Kenai team that has outscored opponents 38-4 this year, including 5-0 in the tournament.
Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen, honored as NLC girls coach of the year, attributed that effort to his defense, consisting of Britt Kiser, Molly Graves, Khelby Kennedy and Kaylee Grant.
"They just really got in a groove this weekend," he said, adding Hannah Delaney, starting at midfield in place of injured Sheena Anderson, was on fire. "It was just a blast to watch her. Just the best game she's ever played, no doubt ... She's built toward that ... but today it was like a whole different level."
That's the way it's been all season for a Kenai team hungry to return to the state tournament after disappointing NLC-tournament showings the past two years.
"We always do our little pep talks before these games. I didn't meed to do a whole lot of cheerleading. They knew what was coming up. They understood none of these games was going to be easy ... you need to be in it for the full 80 minutes," Verkuilen said. "That maturity and that understanding of being there before and knowing what it takes to win one of these games, let alone three of them, it took that level of maturity and that experience, especially to shut out three valley teams in three days."
Gonski, Liza Laughlin and Kara Larson all had near misses early for Colony, which had the wind at its backs for the opening 40 minutes, according to Verkuilen.
In just the second minute, Gonski chipped a shot over the crossbar. In the fifth minute, a Larson cross narrowly missed a sliding Laughlin.
Laughlin pushed a pair of shots just left of post during a five-minute span midway through the first half.
"Toward the end of the half we started kind of figuring out how they were moving," Verkuilen said. "Long balls weren't going anywhere against it. They did a good job in that first half of shutting down our offense."
The second half was different, he said.
"Right away we started to put on pressure," Verkuilen said. "(The wind) was blowing strong. It wasn't right at our back but it gave you the advantage.
"It probably felt like we were playing at home on the Kenai field," he added with a laugh.
Bidwill and Kylee Woodard each scored during a nine-minute span midway through the first half to lead the Kardinals into the state tournament with a win over the Warriors during the NLC semifinals on Friday.
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