Make no mistake about it. The Skyview soccer team finished third at the state soccer tournament Saturday due to its emotion and energy, not its skill.
The Panthers headed north to the Matanuska-Susitna valleys possessing the skill it takes to compete at state, but Skyview did not have the overwhelming skill to cruise to a third-place finish. The Panthers would have to play with passion to achieve such a result.
In the opening minutes of May 20's opening round game against Dimond, the Panthers saw just how far skill would take them. Skyview didn't compete hard for the ball in the first 18 minutes of the game, and the Lynx dominated in taking a 1-0 lead.
The Panthers are a proud team that lost just twice before the state tournament, and being treated so harshly forced them to kick their energy into a higher gear.
"We knew they were a good team, and we knew we had to play hard," Skyview's Jason Smith said of the attitude change after Dimond's goal.
After that goal, the Panthers began competing for the ball. As a rule, a Skyview defender would go hard at a Dimond player with the ball. The Skyview player would not always win the ball, but would disrupt the Dimond player enough to make him play a bad ball or slightly lose control of his dribble.
On and on down the line, Skyview players went hard at the ball and, through grueling effort in temperatures in the 70s, disrupted the Dimond attack.
At the same time, a funny thing was happening with the Lynx. Dimond stopped playing with the urgency it had in the opening 18 minutes. Their skill wasn't as imposing when it wasn't mixed with effort.
Kyle Eshleman and David Lliteras scored goals to give Skyview the comeback win. It was the first victory for a peninsula boys team at the state soccer tournament.
"They worked harder," Dimond coach David Gonzalez said after the game of Skyview. "This game mattered more to the other team."
That work ethic became a theme for the Panthers as the tournament wore on. Skyview lost to Juneau-Douglas, which with five straight championship game appearances is the premier boys program in the state, in the semifinals 2-1.
The Crimson Bears were the better team, but it was shocking to see how Skyview's enthusiasm controlled the game for the seven minutes in the second half after Lliteras' goal made it 2-1.
That enthusiasm continued Saturday, when Skyview's effort eventually won it the midfield against Chugiak. Trevor Barber finished off the 2-1 win with a free kick with less than a minute to play.
Now comes the hard part for Skyview, which will be led by state all-tournament selections Matt Stalnik and Barber next season. After the game, when coach Dave Carpenter was asked how he could keep Skyview's momentum going, he talked about getting more players to buy into the off-season training program.
That will take care of the skill, but what will be much harder for Skyview to capture is the passion with which it played at state.
This was Skyview's first trip to state. They were the underdog. They had something to prove. They played with the effort of a team with a chip on its shoulder.
That Dimond team Skyview defeated in the first round provides a cautionary tale.
"The leaders on this team were sophomores when we won the state title," Hernandez said, wondering why his team didn't match Skyview's effort. "Maybe they had too much success too early."
Juneau coach Gary Lehnhart watched the second half of the Dimond-Skyview game and the celebration that followed. Skyview celebrated like it had won a championship, not a berth in the semifinals.
"We built our program from the ground up, so I know what it's like to do that," Lehnhart said. "It was neat to watch that celebration and remember what it's like to go through that.
"It seems like our kids don't get as excited after those games anymore because of the expectations success has placed on them."
Next time around for Skyview, it will be peninsula teams giving everything to knock off the team that finished third at state last year. Skyview won't sneak up on Dimond and Chugiak. The Panthers will be the object of their revenge.
Skyview would do well to remember the passion it took to achieve its third-place finish at state.
This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticisms can be forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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