The high school soccer season came to a close Saturday, and for the first time in program history, the Soldotna girls team got to hoist a state championship trophy.
The Stars defeated top-seeded and previously undefeated Kenai Central in a dramatic 3-2 classic that went into double overtime and resulted in a title-game shootout, where Soldotna ultimately prevailed.
“I’m elated and so proud of these girls,” Soldotna coach Jimmy Love said. “They played their hearts out, we were short-handed with a couple of injuries, and I just kept telling them, ‘This is the last game, this is the last 15 minutes, and keep going.’”
Despite having narrowly lost to the Kardinals without scoring a goal in their three regular-season matchups, the Stars were able to persevere against Kenai, which came into the title match with a perfect 18-0 record this season.
“I told that we were going into this game with nothing to lose,” Love said. “I’ve been here twice before and we played Juneau-Douglas, and they took it to us, so it was nice to get back. Just to be here is an accomplishment and taking the title home is another thing.”
The fourth time seemed to be the charm for Soldotna as they opened the scoring with a goal from sophomore Jazzalynn McDonald just under seven minutes into the game.
Kenai quickly responded less than three minutes later with their first goal courtesy of senior Rylie Sparks, who knocked the ball in on a header following a deflection.
Shortly after that, the Stars took the lead back on junior Bay Bloom’s first big goal of the game and would hold it until the Kardinals managed to tie the score with less than 13 minutes until halftime on a successful free kick from junior Kylee Verkuilen.
“We came out a lot stronger than we usually do against this team, and they weren’t expecting us to play like any other team,” Bloom said. “They were expecting us to get into our heads and not play our game.”
The scoring frenzy stopped there and a drought began, persisting through the end of regulation as well as both overtime periods, forcing a shootout scenario.
“Honestly, I was just kind of sitting back when we went into extra time because I knew if we went into (penalty kicks) that we could win it,” Bloom said. “They had such high press, we just had to sit back, defend our goal, and as long as we ran out time, we would be able to get into PKs and win.”
Kenai had a chance to win the game toward the end of the second overtime period on a second free kick attempt for Verkuilen, but the ball fell wide right of the goalpost.
The Kardinals missed three out of their five attempts during the shootout while the Stars made three. The victory-clinching third successful shootout attempt came from Bloom, who didn’t know at the time that it would be enough to win it all.
“All last night, we sat down and said that we have to do it (win) and be the first team for Jimmy,” she said. “He’s been coaching since before I was born and this is his first state title. A lot of it comes from him being a great coach and us wanting to do this for him.”
Soldotna’s 2023 title run almost didn’t happen: They essentially stumbled into the state tournament as an at-large bid, according to Bloom, but still were able to make the most of their shot once they got in.
“I don’t think a lot of people expected to see us in this game, and that just made it easier for the girls to come out and play that much harder,” Love said.
Juneau-Douglas boys claim back-to-back titles with dominant performance
Soldotna had a chance to have a pair of Division II state soccer champions crowned on Saturday, with their boys team in the finals as well. But the reigning state champion Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears refused to let the Stars pull off what their two programs did last year by winning their second straight title.
“It’s great and I’m happy for these kids,” Juneau-Douglas head coach Gary Lehnhart said. “We were super dangerous up front and on defense, we’ve been steady all year long.”
While the same number of goals was scored in the first half of the boys championship game as in the girls game — four in total — all the goals on the boys side belonged to Juneau-Douglas, and the game ended in a 4-0 shutout.
Standout sophomore and All-Tournament selection Ahmir Parker scored the game’s first goal less than four minutes in and senior Will Robinson scored the second with just over 29 minutes left in the half.
Senior Kean Buss earned player of the game honors after recording his first multi-goal game of the season by finding the back of the net twice in the final 10 minutes of the first half.
“Last year was amazing, and this year we just kept getting better, and it’s nice to finish off my high school career like this,” he said. “I’ve been playing with these guys since I was 4 or 5, and it’s been awesome to spend this time with them and play well.”
On his first goal, he slipped the ball past the goalkeeper, who tried to come out of the goalposts to try to stop his attempt. Buss’ second goal came on a second-chance opportunity off a deflection.
“This year I’ve scored pretty consistently but I had yet to have more than one goal in a match, so it’s nice to do it here,” Buss said.
Even though they weren’t undefeated, the Crimson Bears came into the state tournament as the clear-cut top team and proved they deserved to be the top seed and the favorite to run the table by outscoring all their opponents by a combined 10 goals.
“They earned, they deserved it, and clearly they were the superior team all year — and proved that again today,” Lehnhart said.
Division II girls soccer state tournament
No. 3 North Pole 4, No. 6 Grace Christian 2
No. 1 Kenai Central 10, No. 8 Nikiski 0
No. 2 Soldotna 3, No. 7 Houston 1
No. 4 Juneau-Douglas 4, No. 5 Homer 0
Homer 2, Nikiski 0
Grace Christian 4, Houston 2
Kenai Central 2, Juneau-Douglas 0
Soldotna 4, North Pole 3
4th/6th place, Homer 2, Grace Christian 0
3rd/5th place, North Pole 2, Juneau-Douglas 1
Championship, Soldotna 3, Kenai Central 2
Division II boys soccer state tournament
No. 4 Ketchikan 1, No. 5 Kenai Central 0
No. 3 Soldotna 2, No. 6 Grace Christian 0
No. 1 Juneau-Douglas 4, No. 8 Homer 0
No. 2 Palmer 3, No. 7 North Pole 2
Kenai Central 2, Homer 0
Grace Christian 4, North Pole 3
Juneau-Douglas 2, Ketchikan 0
Soldotna 2, Palmer 0
4th/6th, Kenai Central 1, Grace Christian 0
3rd/5th, Ketchikan 2, Palmer 0
Championship, Juneau-Douglas 4, Soldotna 0