With their state-tournament hopes and undefeated status on the line, the Service Cougars preserved both with a late-game goal from sophomore Alex Nunez in a 2-1 win over the Chugiak Mustangs in the first round of the Division I boys state soccer tournament Thursday.
The match-winning goal in the 88th minute wasn’t scored with Nunez’s feet, but with his face.
“It was crazy because I just saw the ball hit the post then I saw the ball come to me and I was like ‘Oh this is it.’ I actually hit the ball with my face — with my actual face," Nunez said.
Nunez’s goal sent the Cougars into Friday’s semifinal round and moved them to 12-0-2 on the season.
Also advancing were the Colony Knights, who knocked off defending champion Dimond 4-2 in a replay of last year’s championship game. The Knights avenged last year’s 1-0 loss to the Lynx.
Joining Service and Colony in the semifinals are the West Eagles, who shut out Wasilla 3-0, and West Valley, which outlasted South 1-0.
This was Service’s first undefeated regular season since 2004, an achievement head coach Dan Rufner attributed to youthful chemistry. The program’s JV team was also undefeated.
“We’re young and I really didn’t expect this year to bring the record we had — I felt this was going to be a building year,” Rufner said. “I think it was just the team chemistry with a lot of guys stepping up with each other and feeling confident with each other.”
Service entered the match against Chugiak (5-6-3) as a heavy favorite, but the Mustangs stood toe-to-toe with the Cougars for the majority of the game.
Although Service controlled the tempo and played aggressively on offense and defense in the first half, Chugiak sophomore goalie Christian Beesing worked hard to keep the score knotted 0-0.
Midway through the second half, a yellow card on Beesing set up a Service free kick from just outside the penalty area, which sophomore Hatcher Manning converted to put the Cougars up 1-0 in the 61st minute.
“I’ve played soccer for long enough that the pressure doesn’t really bother me much anymore,” Manning said when asked about delivering a big goal in a high-stakes game.
The Mustangs tied the game 1-1 with a high-arching goal from sophomore Haruki Ono four minutes later.
The stalemate lasted several minutes until Nunez’s goal. Chugiak came inches from tying it less than a minute later, but Grant Jones’ shot bounced off the crossbar.
The Mustangs got clean looks at the net during four minutes of stoppage time, but couldn’t convert.
ASAA/First National Bank state soccer tournament
Service 2, Chugiak 1
West 3, Wasilla 0
Colony 4, Dimond 2
West Valley 1, South 0
Friday’s matches (location in parenthesis)
9 a.m. — Chugiak vs. Dimond, loser out (Eagle River)
11 a.m. — South vs. Wasilla, loser out (Eagle River)
5 p.m. — Service vs. Colony (Service)
7 p.m. — West vs. West Valley (Service)