The Kenai Central boys soccer team still hasn't found a win at the state soccer tournament, but the Kardinals are getting warmer.
Kenai was eliminated from the state tourney Friday after a 2-1 loss to East High of Anchorage in a fourth-place semifinal at Colony High School.
The Kardinals, making their third straight appearance at the state tournament, again came up short of their stated goal to nab the program's first victory at state.
However, by giving East everything it could handle despite being hampered by injury, Kenai also showed the quantum leap the program has made in the past three years.
"I think we've put Kenai on the map as far as soccer goes," said Kenai senior Richard Alexander. "Before, nobody knew who Kenai was but now they do.
"I'm glad I was a part of that."
In the early going Friday, it was all East. The Thunderbirds used short passing to amass a huge advantage in possession against the Kardinals.
"It was nice, but it didn't amount to much," East coach Tre' Gaither said. "You can dominate possession and look good, but it doesn't matter if there are goose eggs on the scoreboard."
In the 20th minute, the Thunderbirds finally broke through. Joel Lawrence clanged a shot off the post. In the scramble for the rebound, Kenai was whistled for a foul in the penalty box.
Chris Hoke put East up 1-0 by converting the penalty kick. Hoke put the ball on the ground to the right of Kenai keeper Eric Nyce. Nyce got a hand on the ball, but could not nudge it outside the goal mouth.
About that time, however, senior J.D. Pault was inserted into the game at forward. Pault is an all-region midfielder, but he hadn't seen any field time until the state tournament due to a sprained left ankle.
"I'd been resting for so long," Pault said. "I was so anxious to get in there all season. I was ready to go, and I think the team sensed that and picked up the energy."
Immediately upon entering the game, Pault began to ping-pong around the field challenging for balls with an infectious ferociousness.
"He was the difference," Kenai coach David Landry said of Pault. "He was the catalyst that got the boys fired up."
In the 24th minute, Pault started a string of deft passes that resulted in a tie score. Pault played the ball to Chris Amen on the sideline.
Amen found Carlos Carreon near the corner of the penalty area, and Carreon immediately played the ball to Alexander. Alexander glanced behind him and saw Ryan Hansen had a clear path to the goal.
Alexander dummied the ball to Hansen, and the freshman banged home a hard shot that left East's keeper with no chance.
Kenai continued to push the attack after the goal, creating several more good scoring chances.
"If we could have put one of those in before they got their second goal, obviously it would have been a different game," Landry said.
By the second half, Kenai had taken East out of its short passing game. The match became an end-to-end affair of counterattacks. However, heady sweeper Wally Ward and speedy outside defenders Marcus Webster and Cory Janson were right at home thwarting the East counterattacks.
"We probably have the fastest defense of just about anybody in the state," Landry said.
Added Webster: "Speed-wise, we had the edge. We knew they couldn't get behind us."
Having no luck generating scoring chances in the run of play, East resorted to a set play on a free kick for the matchwinner. In the 65th minute, East's Wayne Willis took a free kick from just outside the penalty area and put it right on the forehead of Patrick Sherry on the goalie's doorstep.
Nyce saved Sherry's header, but Joel Lawrence was there to nudge in the rebound with his forehead.
With five minutes left in the game, Kenai made its big push for the equalizer. Jose Arayo made the East keeper dive to save a free kick, and the ball bounced around in front of a vulnerable goal before East touched it out for a corner kick.
On that corner kick, Pault found Ward for a sound header, but an East defender pushed the effort just wide. East then cleared the ensuing corner kick.
"I thought for sure one of those two corner kicks was going in," Pault said.
Even though the Kardinals didn't get that first win at state, Landry said seniors Carreon, Alexander, Ward, Pault, Webster and Nyce had done plenty for the program.
"Those six guys are a big reason we made it to state three straight years and had three straight top-three finishes in the region," Landry said.
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