ANCHORAGE -- In under two months, the Kenai Central girls went from a side that defeated Region III doormat Houston by one goal to a unit that gave Colony all it could handle in the fourth-place game at the state soccer tournament Saturday at Dimond High School.
How did it happen? The answer was on plain display in Thursday's, Friday's and Saturday's games at the state tournament.
"I've watched the teams over the past two days that were eliminated from the championship bracket," Kenai girls coach Dan Verkuilen said. "I firmly believe they didn't play with a lot of heart because they no longer had a chance at the championship.
"That's garbage. We were up to play Friday and Saturday. That's coaching and that's leadership. That's also why we got so much better this year. Every minute these girls are on the field, they're playing hard, and you're not learning unless you're playing hard."
After losing to East 1-0 Thursday, the Kardinals came back to beat Chugiak Friday in a penalty kick shootout after 80 minutes of regular play and 30 minutes of overtime.
That endurance contest ended at about 8:30 p.m. Friday, but the Kardinals still had to get up and play the fourth-place game against Colony at 9 a.m. Saturday.
Although even Kenai's diehard fans looked a little tired from the maniacal schedule, Kenai still managed to take a 1-0 lead on the Knights in the second half before succumbing 2-1 in overtime.
The Kardinals had plenty of chances to give up Friday and Saturday, but resisted the temptation to quit more staunchly than George Burns.
Against Chugiak Friday, Kenai had a can't-miss opportunity to break the 0-0 deadlock 20 minutes into the second half. Senior Jessi Reilly fired a shot on the Chugiak goal, and goalie Liz Hall made a scrambling save. However, the ball ended up at the feet of Karli Knudsen, who had a wide open net from point-blank range. Knudsen pounded the ball off the side post.
In the course of the fray, Kenai received a penalty kick, but Reilly launched it over the goal.
It was a tough moment for Reilly, who had missed a pair of good opportunities in the 1-0 loss to East on Thursday.
But she would redeem herself later in a show of mental fortitude during the penalty kick shootout.
Kenai shot first, and Knudsen put her shot right at Chugiak keeper Hall. Chugiak's Leilani Kini then put the Kardinals in a serious hole when her shot to the corner didn't give Kenai keeper Wendi Wiles a chance.
The pressure to keep Kenai in the shootout then fell to Reilly,who turned the corner for the Kardinals with a bullet to the lower left part of the goal.
"She was a little stud," Kenai's Amy Fischer said. "She believed in herself."
However, Kenai's troubles were far from over. Kirsten Ehrhardt and Jamie Montgomery both missed penalty kicks for the Kardinals, and Kenai was down 2-1. One more goal by Chugiak, or a miss by Kenai, meant the Kards' season was over.
"I was so nervous, I pretty much wanted to pee my pants," Wiles said.
Chugiak's Julie Witacre provided the first key to Kenai's survival when she missed high and to the right.
Kenai sophomore Janna Krein then scraped the inside side of the net with her laser to knot the shootout at 2-2.
"Before I went out there, Jessi told me to believe in myself, and whatever I believed would happen, would happen," Krein said. "I just picked my spot and went to it."
Chugiak's Leah Humphries plunked her penalty kick off the crossbar to end the first round of the shootout in a tie.
The next step was to send out five more players for a sudden-death round. Kenai's Fischer put the Kardinals in the driver's seat by lacing her shot to the side of the net.
"We practiced penalty kicks pretty much every day," Fischer said. "Verkuilen said to pick a spot that you're comfortable with, and to practice going to that one spot all year. A goalie's only going to see you once. I just picked that spot and went to it."
Wiles then set off a wild pile of Kards on the field when she stoned Chugiak's Jessie Dunn, making the game a done deal.
Against Colony, which had defeated Kenai by scores of 5-2 and 3-1 this season, Reilly put the Kards ahead 11 minutes into the second half when she received a ball from senior Natalie Mills and volleyed it into the right side of the net.
Up until that point in the game, Kenai, as a couple of impartial observers on the sideline pointed out, had clearly been the more inspired team, even with their overtime game that concluded just 13 hours ago.
But once the Knights were down, they stepped up their attack and Samantha Gatto scored on a cross from Teresa Hill just six minutes after Reilly's tally.
"I've played against Colony for so long, I knew once we scored they would turn up the pressure 200 percent," Reilly said. "Maybe if I would have scored with six minutes left, we could have held them off and won."
Then, about three minutes into the first 10-minute overtime period, Hill played a low, hard cross into the penalty area. Colony's Sianna Garrod put a brilliant touch on the ball, sending it one-time into the upper left-hand corner of the goal.
"In the first five minutes of the overtime, we were just whacked," Verkuilen said. "Once we got down, we felt the emergency and somehow we got enough energy to get a few more chances on the goal."
Verkuilen said a big reason Kenai had the heart it did was because of the seniors. Reilly, Mills, Nicole Spence and Julia Richardson all played their last games.
"Those kids all showed a lot of leadership, whether it was on the field or from the bench," Verkuilen said.
The future looks bright for Kenai, however, because their defense of sophomore Krein, junior Ehrhardt and junior Rachael Popp, and junior goalie Wiles all return. That group gave up just two goals in regulation during three state tournament games.
"Just getting to state isn't going to be good enough for us anymore," Verkuilen said. "We showed we can play with all of these teams. We want to start winning more games at state."
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