It may be a restructured conference, but a three-peat is still a three-peat.
The Kenai Central boys won a third straight region tournament with a 3-0 victory over Homer on Saturday afternoon at Soldotna High School, claiming the inaugural Peninsula Conference championship.
Earlier in the day, the Soldotna Stars clinched the girls championship with a 2-0 win over Kenai on their home turf, their first conference crown in four years.
On the heels of a 13-1-1 regular season, the Kenai boys just had to win Friday’s semifinal to secure a spot at state for a fourth year in a row, and did so with a comfortable 6-0 victory.
Saturday’s championship would prove to be much tougher to settle, but even sweeter when it was all over.
“This means a lot,” said senior striker Zack Tuttle. “It’s nice to go out on a high note.”
The Kardinals scored two goals in quick succession near the end of the first half. Tuttle broke open a scoreless game in the 34th minute with a shot that initially deflected off Homer goalkeeper Tucker Weston and made its way by to trickle into the net.
Tuttle, the 2018 Peninsula Conference MVP, is part of a senior class that has lifted the KCHS soccer program to new heights. As sophomores, the 2016 Kardinals won the first of their now three region crowns with a taught win over Colony, then a week later finished second at state, becoming the first peninsula soccer team ever to play in a state final.
Last year, the junior class again won the region crown but fell in a state semifinal to an unbeaten West Valley squad.
This year, winning the Peninsula Conference is old hat for the seniors, but still just as memorable. Saturday was also the fourth straight title-game appearance for the Kards, who have made a habit of playing in championships during the current four-year run.
“It feels good,” said Kards head coach Joel Reemtsma. “We wanted to win it for the seniors, and the new crew of juniors, sophomores and freshmen can follow through.”
The importance of keeping the run of region championship success going wasn’t lost on the boys, either. Reemtsma said every few years, former Kenai coach Wally Ward provides the team with a history lesson of Kenai soccer, helping to reinforce their belief in themselves.
After Tuttle’s first goal, it wasn’t long before the Kards scored again, this time off a throw-in by Tuttle just four minutes later that freshman Leif Lofquist got his foot on in the goal box scrum. Kenai reached halftime with a 2-0 lead.
Homer did its part to forge a rally in the second half, keeping the Kards honest with stealthy midfield play. A Mariners free kick at the right edge of the goal box in the 49th minute provided a scare, but Kenai goalkeeper Braedon Pitsch batted it away to preserve the shutout.
Homer head coach Warren Waldorf said Kenai created twice as many scoring opportunities than his squad, which had tied Kenai 1-all in their most recent meeting May 8.
“My goalkeeper has twice as many shots to deal with,” Waldorf said. “We were just trying to create an attack, and we had none.”
Waldorf also pointed out that while Kenai eased to Friday’s semifinal win, the Mariners were still feeling the effects of their narrow semifinal victory over Soldotna, a 100-minute marathon that ended in penalty kicks.
“They’re feeling a little down, a little disappointed,” Waldorf said. “But I’m feeling better than yesterday.
“Yesterday I was nervous. I wasn’t nervous today.”
Tuttle added that Homer’s Charles Rohr and Simon Dye were two players that had to be contained if Kenai wished to preserve the shutout.
“Just don’t let Charles and Simon get out,” he said.
In the end, it all went Kenai’s way. Rykker Riddall finished off the scoring in the 65th minute with a long blast that dropped into the goal box and flicked up over Weston’s mitts for a 3-0 lead.
Soldotna girls 2, Kenai 0
Accustomed to success for so many years, Saturday’s Peninsula Conference championship had to feel long overdue for head coach Jimmy Love and the rest of the SoHi girls soccer program. The Stars had won four region titles in five years, but not since 2014, when they defeated Kenai for their most recent region crown.
“These are always nice,” Love said. “I told them congrats on the win, but we have practice on Monday.”
SoHi secured the win with goals from freshman Meijan Leaf and junior Haley Buckbee, the latter of which scored with 14 minutes to play, essentially sealing the title.
“It’s so nice for the team and for Soldotna,” Buckbee said. “It’s good to win in a sport other than football.”
SoHi senior goaltender Maddie Kindred saved four shots for the blank sheet, while Kenai sophomore Kailey Hamilton notched six saves on eight shots.
The last time the two teams met for a region title in 2015, Kenai came away with a tight 3-2 overtime win.
Saturday would be the Stars’ turn. SoHi wrapped up the top seed of the tournament by winning 9 of 10 conference games this year, including a pair of 3-0 wins over Kenai.
The Stars took an early lead when Leaf tapped in an easy goal after colliding with Kenai goalkeeper Kailey Hamilton 11 minutes in. Leaf’s initial strike glanced off Hamilton and perhaps another player in the box before Leaf collected the rebound and had no one in front of her to defend.
From there, the two engaged in a mighty struggle for midfield position for the next 55 minutes before Buckbee provided the insurance goal on a header that started on a run down the right flank by Journey Miller. Buckbee said Miller was able to provide a perfect cross to her to set up the goal.
“Journey looked at me and I knew I had to get my head on it,” Buckbee said.
Love said after a season’s worth of work with Buckbee to get her to use her head more in scoring situations, the moment couldn’t have been better timed.
“I almost fell off the bench in shock,” he said.
The Kardinals turned up the pressure in the final 15 minutes, but could never quite mount a charge at SoHi’s net until the dying moments, when Kindred had to come up with a big save.
Kenai head coach Dan Verkuilen said the SoHi defense has been stout this year, and it was a lot for Kenai’s attack to penetrate.
“We knew their offense had a better goal-scoring punch,” Verkuilen said, referring to the combination of Leaf, Buckbee and Miller. “It was nice to get our defense some more experience.”
After a year of massive improvement, Verkuilen said an emotional 1-0 semifinal win over Homer on Friday sapped a lot of game energy from his squad, and it might have showed up when Leaf broke open the scoring early in the game on what he called a defensive mistake.
“I think we were still able to come out and give them something,” Verkuilen said.
Soldotna boys 5, Seward 1
The SoHi boys clinched third place in the tournament with a Saturday victory over Seward.
Scoreless at halftime, the Stars scored all five goals in a 15-minute span, starting in the 45th minute with a Eli Sheridan goal and continuing with goals from Luke Trammell in the 53rd minute, Josh Hieber in the 55th and 57th minutes and Trammell in the 59th.
Seward got its lone goal from Brandon Lynch in the 71st.
Homer girls 2, Nikiski 1
The Mariners shook off a tough semifinal loss with a third-place game win Saturday morning.
Homer reached the halftime break up 1-0 thanks to a 38th-minute score by sophomore Alyssum Veldstra, and senior Raisa Basargin made her final career high school game memorable with a goal in the 62nd.