Just in case there was any doubt that Soldotna was going to miss the state tournament for the first time in three years, the Stars quelled that notion as early as they possibly could Saturday morning.
After being bounced into the third-place game with a loss to Wasilla in Friday's semifinal of the Northern Lights Conference soccer tournament at Palmer High School, Soldotna got goals from juniors Jeff Mullen and Blaine Carver in the opening seven minutes of action en route to third place and a state-trip-clinching 2-1 victory over Grace Christian.
"We definitely knew the urgency of the game this morning and the guys came out knowing that well and scored quickly against Grace," Stars coach Jeff Siemers said via cell phone from the Valley. "We were disappointed that we weren't going to be playing for the regional championship, but we definitely knew that that wasn't our last shot. "Maybe we'll see one of these guys (Colony or Wasilla) at the state tournament," he added while watching the NLC championship game, won 2-0 by the Knights. "We still have our ticket for this season."
The top seed from the south for the second straight season, having suffered a gut-wrenching 2-1 overtime loss to rival Kenai Central in last year's championship match, the Stars opened the tournament with a convincing 3-0 win over Palmer before losing 1-0 to the Warriors on the heels of a goal by Ray Keown in the 26th minute of play.
The two teams tied 1-1 during their regular-season meeting.
"We weren't winning the 50-50 balls, should have been going to the ball better than we did," Siemers said. "We weren't able to create on the opportunities that we had to score.
"It was a hard-fought game ... We just weren't able to put one in the net," he added. "We felt like we could have done better, but that's tournament play. The team that shows up is the team that's going to win. So it's important to play every game."
They did on Saturday.
Soldotna came charging out of the gates and Mullen found the back of the net just two minutes in. Carver, the 2009 Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year and Northern Lights Conference MVP, padded the lead in the seventh minute, his 26th tally of the season. Grace struck deep in the second half but couldn't crawl out of the early hole.
"It makes coaching a lot more comfortable when you're up 2-0 the majority of the game," Siemers joked, adding defenders Taylor Jackson and Garrett Byerley and goaltender Daniel Geller had good games. "It was strong goalkeeping this whole tournament."
The Stars -- which had Carver, Geller, Matt Grubb and Kyle Van Ryzin named to the NLC first team and Byerley and Anthony Griglione honored on the second team -- now get a chance at besting their consecutive fourth-place finishes at state the past two seasons.
"I think we would have been very disappointed if we were not able to go to state," Siemers said.
While the conference's top seed would have been nice, perhaps earning Soldotna a better draw in the opening round Wednesday, the Stars suffered the same fate at state the past two seasons, first-round losses, despite taking third in the NLC two years ago and second last season.
"Considering we went in getting third place two years ago, we were able to capture fourth, that's good confidence for us," Siemers said, cautioning against the value of seeds. "It's going to be, once again, up to that first game. We're 4-2 at the state but the last two years we've lost the first game."
Regardless of their first state opponent, the Stars are breathing a major sigh of relief.
"Our morale's a lot better than it was yesterday at this time," Siemers said.
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