The Kenai Central girls and boys soccer teams swept the Peninsula Conference titles Saturday at Nikiski High School.
But not by much.
The Kenai girls (9-5-2 overall), the No. 2 seed, defeated No. 1 Homer (11-5-2) 1-0 after 80 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime. With just a few minutes remaining in the second of two 10-minute overtime sessions, freshman Seanna Swanson cracked a brilliant shot from just outside the penalty area to decide the game.
The Kardinals won their first Peninsula Conference title since the league was created in 2018 by the split of soccer into two divisions. Soldotna had won all the previous titles.
The Kenai and Soldotna boys went scoreless through 80 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime, leading to a penalty shootout. The shootout is scheduled for five rounds, but Kenai Central goalie Gavin Langham ended it early by saving two of three.
When Sam Baisden, Enrique Mercado, Wade James and Joe Hamilton all made kicks for the Kardinals, Kenai had it first Peninsula Conference title since 2018. Homer won in 2019, the pandemic canceled 2020 and Soldotna won 2021.
All of the teams in the championship games qualified for Division II state by getting to the championship. The Soldotna girls team also is going to the state tournament due to an at-large berth.
Kenai girls 1, Homer 0, OT
The Kardinals lost to Homer 1-0 and 2-0 during the regular season, so it was no surprise the teams played a close game again.
Kenai was missing conference co-MVP Kylie Verkuilen due to injury and coach Dan Verkuilen was thrilled with the way his squad responded.
“It was by far their best game,” the coach said of his team. “I felt like everybody gave everything they had. And it was sincere. They really cared.”
The biggest example of a player stepping in with a huge performance was Swanson. Verkuilen said she probably only has like 10 minutes in as a varsity player. With fatigue setting in, Verkuilen put her in at left midfield.
“I keep telling her, ‘You’re getting ready. You’re getting ready,” Verkuilen said. “Today, we needed her and put her out there, and she was doing well over there.”
Swanson did more than just well when the ball trickled to her through the box.
“I just thought, I might as well hit it,” Swanson said. “It was like perfect, a perfect roll just the way it came right to me.”
After nearly 100 minutes of scoring chances being missed, when Swanson’s shot whistled into the net, it surprised more than some in the crowd.
“I was shocked,” Swanson said. “I didn’t think it actually went in. I was like, ‘Wait a second. Did I actually just make that?’”
Swanson is part of a young team that improved a lot this season. The Kards start just one senior and four juniors.
“My son said it well,” Verkuilen said of Travis Verkuilen. “He watched the first games online at college in Chicago and said it was hard to watch. He said now, sitting there watching you guys, I don’t even recognize you.”
Homer lost for the first time in conference all season.
“I thought both teams did a really great job,” Homer coach Mike Tozzo said. “It was super fun to watch and be a part of. The little things just didn’t go our way.”
The coach said the whole team played well, but that his team was matched closely with both Kenai and Soldotna and that didn’t change Saturday.
“They’re devastated, and rightfully so,” he said of his team. “It stinks to lose this way. But we move on, because we still have the state tournament.”
Kenai 1, Soldotna 0
This was a game that belonged to the center backs and goalies.
Both Kenai coach Shane Lopez and Soldotna coach Erik Dolphin said that with the shorter field, those players had to have marvelous games to keep the contest scoreless for 100 minutes.
For Kenai, Gavin Langham was in net and Daniel Shelden and Koda Poulin played in the center on defense.
“Both center backs kept us in the game by limiting chances and opportunities,” Lopez said.
For Soldotna, Gehret Medcoff was in goal and Hamilton Hunt, Collin Peck and Parker Rose were on the back line.
“Hamilton played a fantastic game in the back,” Dolphin said. “All the 50-50 balls and just the constant dealing with Wade and those guys up top is such a challenge.”
SoHi was even able to survive going down a man with 10 minutes left in regulation due to a red card, plus losing starting midfielder Simon Willets to injury in the first half and not having starting striker Brock Poe for most of the game.
In penalty kicks, though, Kenai went up 2-0 after the first two rounds. In a fitting moment, Hamilton, the conference MVP, clinched the title with a penalty kick.
“The man has nerves of steel,” Lopez said of Hamilton. “He’s played great all season, other coaches saw that and that’s acknowledgement from them that he is an exceptional player.”
Lopez also said Baisden was great in the midfield.
Dolphin said losing on penalties is tough after battling so hard.
“Disappointed is the easiest thing to feel but it’s hard to be mad about how the game went,” Dolphin said. “We played super hard.”
He said Daniel Heath came of age as a varsity player and Zac Buckbee provided a steady presence the whole game in the midfield.
Soldotna girls 11, Nikiski 0
The Stars (7-7-2) won third place by toppling the Bulldogs (0-12).
The shutout was shared by Isabella Rodriguez and Sunny Miller, while conference co-MVP Jolie Widaman led the offense with a hat trick. Also for the Stars, Katharine Bramante had two goals, and Sadie Lane, Morgan Lemm, Jazzalynn McDonald, Sariah Waugh, Zayra Poage and Caylee Uribe-Koivisto had goals.
Nikiski coach Angie Coelho said her team played hard this season despite not having subs available and did a good job of building skills.
“We’re looking forward to being contenders next year and showing them what we can do,” Coelho wrote in a text message.
Homer boys 11, Nikiski 1
The Mariners (7-10-1) topped the Bulldogs (0-11-1) for third place.
In the first half for Homer, Jack Hrenchir scored on an assist from Owen Pitzman, Hrenchir scored on an assist from Jake Tappan, Lucas Story scored unassisted, Hunter Green scored unassisted, Casey Otis scored unassisted and Tappan scored unassisted.
In the second half, Pitzman scored unassisted, Story scored unassisted, Michael Reutov scored on an assist from Pitzman, Green scored unassisted and Story scored unassisted.
Homer coach Adam Diaz was named boys co-coach of the year. He said he is grateful for the award because this is the most proud he’s ever been of a team because the team never quit. Diaz also gave credit to assistant Zach Kudla for instilling the no-quit attitude in the team.
“Nothing would have been possible if it wasn’t for all of us, we all add to the program in a unique way,” Diaz said. “I love I get to be head coach of the Homer Mariner Boys Varsity team.”
For Nikiski, David Weathers scored on an assist from Sam Yerkes.
“It was a good finish to the season,” Nikiski coach Jeremy Garrett said in a text message. “Sam Yerkes played an outstanding game and had a great assist to David. I am very proud of our team and how we finished.”
Peninsula Conference awards
Co-MVPs — Kylie Verkuilen, Kenai; Jolie Widaman, Soldotna.
Co-Coaches of the Year — Angie Coelho, Nikiski; Dan Verkuilen, Kenai.
First team — Debbie Weisser, Homer; Emma Weeks, Nikiski; Katharine Bramante, Soldotna; Sela Weisser, Homer; Cali Holmes, Kenai; Bay Bloom, Soldotna; Valerie Villegas, Kenai; Kate Wisnewski, Kenai.
Second team — Felicia Weisser, Homer; Caleigh Glassmaker, Soldotna; Mariah McGuire, Homer; Izzy Dye, Homer; Kori Moore, Kenai.
Good Sport — Grace Beiser, Kenai; Olivia Glasman, Homer; Sadie Lane, Soldotna; Maddy Stichal, Nikiski.
MVP — Joe Hamilton, Kenai.
Co-Coaches of the Year — Adam Diaz, Homer; Shane Lopez, Kenai.
First team — Zac Buckbee, Soldotna; Wade James, Kenai; Hunter Green, Homer; Casey Otis, Homer; Quinn Cox, Soldotna; Samuel Baisden, Kenai; Koda Poulin, Kenai; Kaiden Bogie, Homer; Kevin Love, Nikiski.
Second team — Gehret Medcoff, Soldotna; Hamilton Hunt, Soldotna; Owen Pitzman, Homer; Ky Calvert, Kenai; Rocco Flora, Homer.