On the heels of two incredibly tight regular season contests, the Kenai Central and Homer girls knew Friday’s Peninsula Conference semifinal could go either way.
In the end, the third-seeded Kardinals prevailed over the second-seeded Mariners in a tense 1-0 game to punch their ticket to Saturday’s region championship final and the state tournament in one week. It is the fifth straight season the Kenai girls have gone to state.
“I think we’re all excited to play for the region title,” said Kenai sophomore goalkeeper Kailey Hamilton.
Kenai freshman Julia Hanson provided the lone goal of the game 28 minutes into the first half with help from Abby Schneiders and Olivia Brewer. Hanson collected the ball from Schneiders on the right side of the box and sent a shot to Homer goalie Ali McCarron, whose fingertips weren’t enough to keep it from dropping in on her far side.
Just like the most recent meeting between the two schools, Hamilton was once again tough to beat in net, as she and the Kards defensive line stood strong against Homer’s relentless waves of offense in the final 20 minutes.
“It was crazy, it got really intense,” Hamilton said. “I’m not going to lie, I was getting a little nervous.”
Hamilton tallied seven saves for Kenai, while McCarron also stopped seven. McCarron was making her second start in net after missing part of the season to a medical issue.
The Kards and Mariners split their regular season matchups with two one-goal games, Homer winning 1-0 at home and Kenai prevailing 2-1 on its home turf.
“Every game we’ve played has been like this,” said Kenai head coach Dan Verkuilen. “We don’t have the misconception that it’s going to be easy.”
Homer head coach Mike Tozzo said the loss would weigh heavily on him and the team, which he believed was good enough to earn a spot to state, an accomplishment that will have to wait another year.
“Life happens,” said Tozzo, the 2018 Peninsula Conference girls coach of the year. “We had our chances and things didn’t bounce our way.
“I’m disappointed because I want the girls to have everything they deserve. They didn’t deserve to lose.”
The Homer girls haven’t been back to state since qualifying in 2007.
Prior to Kenai’s first-half goal, the Mariners had controlled possession for a chunk of time, and in the second half, the Homer offensive duo of Andie Sonnen and Raisa Basargin, both seniors, combined to harass Hamilton in goal, but to no avail.
“It stings, but we’ll get over it,” Tozzo said.
Verkuilen said he made sure to keep Kenai’s defense, namely Anya Danielson, on Sonnen, a versatile striker that made life difficult for the Kenai sweepers.
“Last time they scored at the top of the box, (Sonnen) had a nice shot,” Verkuilen said. “I told Anya to watch the top.”
Verkuilen added that the increased physicality of a playoff game made it crucial to substitute in a lot of midfield players over the course of the contest.
“We knew it would be a dogfight either way,” he said.
It became just that. Hamilton had to make several gritty saves as wave after wave of Homer offense kept coming, and at one point in the second half came up wobbly after colliding with Homer’s Aiyana Cline, who had a run on goal.
Soldotna 5, Nikiski 0
The top-seeded Stars earned their first state berth since 2015 by shutting out the fourth-seeded Bulldogs.
“We have individual goals and goals as a team, and definitely one of our top three goals as a team is to make it to state,” Soldotna coach Jimmy Love said.
But Friday was not all happiness for the Stars as the Bulldogs came out determined to nab the first state berth in program history.
“One of the things I talked to some of the girls about, they look at this game the same way — win and you get a state berth,” Love said.
For the first 20 minutes, the Bulldogs were right with the Stars.
“I was not happy at all,” Love said. “They came out very flat. Even once they started finding their rhythm, for the first half they were completely off their game and not doing what they were supposed to do.”
But the Stars did escape the first half with a 3-0 lead, with Meijan Leaf scoring in the 21st minute, Journey Miller scoring in the 31st minute and Leaf tallying again just before halftime on an assist from Katie Delker.
“I kind of lit into them at halftime and I will say they came out much different in the second half,” Love said.
Just five minutes into the second half, the Stars led 5-0 when Sierra Kuntz scored on assists from Whitney Wortham and Haley Buckbee, and Cameron Blackwell scored on a rebound from a Buckbee shot, which had been set up by Kuntz.
“At that point, I looked at the bigger picture and put people on the bench to let some of the others rest more,” Love said.