After dominant campaigns in the East Division of the Northwest Athletic Conference and victories over impressive teams in arguably the toughest set of quarterfinals, the CC Spokane women and the North Idaho College men are headed to Tukwila Friday to play in the league's Final Four at the Starfire Sports Complex Saturday and Sunday.
For the Sasquatch, it is nothing new as the team has been a perennial power in the East Division and is back for the third time in five years, reaching the championship game two years ago. The Cardinal are in the Final Four for the sixth consecutive time; though this appearance comes after a nine-year absence from the NWAC.
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On the women's side of the NWAC Championships, the Bigfoot are part of a field that includes all four division champions from the season. But to get to that point, they had to knock off Highline College, arguably the best second-place finisher in the league.
The Thunderbirds finished tied with Peninsula in the West Division with 15-1-2 campaigns, but a 2-0 loss at home and scoreless draw at Peninsula gave the Pirates the division title on the tiebreaker. Spokane and their semifinal opponent Everett were the only other teams to finish with one loss.
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Meanwhile, Spokane breezed through the East Division that saw a bit of a dip in quality on the year with usual power Walla Walla CC struggling through their worst season since they finished fourth in the two larger divisions format of the league in 2000. That left questions as to just how strong the East, and relatively, Spokane's squad was this season, particularly going up against the Thunderbirds' league-leading offense.
"There was. That is always the unknown. Is the East strong, is the West strong, is the North strong - you know, its hard to say," Martinson said of potential doubts as to the comparative quality of his team outside the division. "We had seen Highline. We had seen teams that had played against them. We knew they were gonna be good; we just didn't know how good. The one thing that we came away with - talking to their coach - is they underestimated us; and they admitted that. So that was good. Yeah, we didn't know. I think we did what we had to."
Tied with Everett with the league's second-best defense (eight goals allowed, Peninsula led at two), the Bigfoot stymied the visitors for a scoreless first half. Just before the hour mark a ball played into the box from the right side by Jessica Geibel decided matters when Sarah Melvin made an excellent first touch on the ball to turn and face goal with space before firing it past the keeper from about 10 yards.
Goalkeeper Samantha Burmester and the defense, featuring NWAC All-Star selections (announced this week) Serena Robertson and Sydni Thomas, kept Highline off the board for only the third time on the season. It was their 17th clean sheet of the year, continuing to blow past the old program record of 12 in a season.
Now the focus turns to the Final Four, which features all the top seeds for the fourth consecutive year.
"That's the way it should be; that's the way it should be. I think that's the way its been for the past couple years now where the number one seeds have gone."
"We like our chances. We've played two of the teams that are there. We didn't come out on top with both of them, but we feel both teams we can beat. We have the one unknown for us with Everett. But, you know I think that's the way it should be at the Final, and have all the number ones there.
Spokane will face Everett CC in the opening game of the weekend Saturday morning. Everett's lone loss came at the hands of Highline, 2-0, earlier in the season. It was their only game in which the opponent scored more than once. Since that game, they have gone 14 league games without a loss, including a 1-0 victory over Peninsula - scoring one of the two goals the Pirates have allowed - and their 3-0 playoff win last weekend. They have allowed just two goals in the last nine games.
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Spokane has come a long way since those games and finished with a very dominant run with just one goal allowed in their last eight league games, including the playoff match. The lone goal came in an inconsequential finale, similar to Everett's draw against Shoreline, at fellow playoff qualifier North Idaho that finished in a 1-1 draw.
"We are far better," Martinson said of the improvements the team has made. "We are more disciplined. The team knows our system. We've got the lineup out there that we like. We know when we need to make changes. So yeah, I think we're much better, much better than we were at the friendlies."
NORTH IDAHO COLLEGE MEN
A 13-1-1 division record, 16-1-2 overall. Not bad for a team's first season in a new league. Back after their lengthy absence, North Idaho proved it had not lost a step since their previous soccer-only five-year stint in the NWAC from 2000-04 in which they made the postseason every year and reached the Final Four three times.
The Cardinals dominated from the beginning of the year, cruising through the South Division in the crossover contests with one of their lone blemishes of the season being a 2-2 draw against South champion Clark, who finished the league campaign unbeaten. The strength of the South though, was suspect given the East's 21-4-5 record (79-22 goal differential) during the crossover play. And in the end, Clark proved not up to the postseason challenge as it was the only division champion not to make it through the quarters, falling 2-1 to the North's 7-4-2 second-seeded Skagit Valley.
Meanwhile, the East proved to be top-heavy with Peninsula and Highline both finishing 9-1-3 on the year in the division and splitting against one another. Highline, though, grabbed the top seed on tiebreakers, sending the reigning two-time champion Pirates to Idaho after they easily took care of Pierce College out of the South in the opening round.
That loss to Highline was Peninsula's only defeat during the season, and they came into the quarterfinal match with the league's second best defense with just 16 goals allowed (Clark first at 11). North Idaho, meanwhile, went into the game with their only league blemish since the Clark draw being a 3-1 loss second-place Walla Walla CC, which came off the heels of a hard-fought 3-2 win at Spokane three nights prior. The two matches marked the only times other than the Clark game that NIC allowed more than a single goal in a league match.
Much like the win in Spokane, set pieces decided the outcome on a muddy, waterlogged pitch in Coeur d'Alene that proved difficult for Peninsula. A free kick from Brady Ulen was redirected in front of goal by Alec Johnson for Braden Ridgewell's tally from 14 yards at the half-hour mark. In the second half Johnson blistered a free kick off the wall that the visiting keeper could not hang on to, allowing Ulen, who was key at the other end with centerback Jake Kraut in keeping the Pirates off the board, to put away the rebound.
The huge win out of the way, the Cardinals now face an opponent who they already handily defeated, 3-0, earlier this season and went 7-3-3 in league play, narrowly winning the North over fellow semifinalist Skagit Valley (7-4-2), who won the season series between the two with a win and draw. The Tritons have struggled to find consistency this season, coming into the match with a loss and two three draws in their last seven games. Earlier in the season they failed to earn a win against three teams from the East. They fell 4-1 to Spokane in the Starfire Friendlies and played to a scoreless draw at Walla Walla CC the day before their loss at NIC.
Johnson and Ulen played a key role in the mid-September win against Edmonds as well. Johnson set up Elias Herman's opener in the 28th and in the second half Kyle Bender connected with Ulen for the second and Johnson for the third.
Despite the one-sided result, Thompson certainly isn't looking past the Tritons.
"We want to set process-oriented goals, and evaluate ourselves minute by minute based on how we're meeting those goals," he said of their approach to preparing for the Final Four. "One of the impressive things about this group of college guys, is they don't get fooled by the score or momentum too often. They usually know when we're winning ugly or executing but not capitalizing."
Thompson said the team is pretty motivated to train well and feels like they are a bit of an underdog due to having to play on the turf at Starfire instead of their natural grass at home.
"It's a really tight group, great chemistry, and they really play for each other. Everyone plays for each other, and everyone is reminded of how lucky we are to do we do and have what we have."
There are also other motivations. In addition to the sophomores wanting to earn opportunities elsewhere once they finish at NIC and the freshman looking to set expectations for next year, many on the team are disappointed at the the lack of recognition the team received in the league's All-Star selections, which saw only Ulen, Kraut and Herman make the list in addition to striker Adam Talley, who was named East MVP. In particular, among the omissions was Johnson, who was tied for the most points among the South and East at the midfield position.
On the other side of the semifinal will be Highline or Skagit Valley.
The Thunderbirds were dominant during their campaign in the West this season, but suffered a preseason loss, 4-1, at the hands of Clark in their opener and lost to Peninsula, 2-1, during the season in addition to draws against a pair of third-place teams in Tacoma and Whatcom as well as Everett, who finished last in the North. They have gone 5-0-1 since the Peninsula loss, however, by outscoring their opposition 19-5.
SVC, meanwhile, may be the hottest team of the four going into the semifinals. Since losing four consecutive games - their only losses in league play - they have been unbeaten in nine games (7-0-2), allowing just five goals. The run included the two positive results against Edmonds, and last two were playoff wins over Wenatchee Valley and the unbeaten Clark side.
"In the end, in the heat of the moment, we'll be excited to win or disappointed by a loss. When the dust settles though, the goal is to be satisfied with our preparation and execution," Thompson said of the potential results in Tukwila.
NWAC CHAMPIONSHIPS SCHEDULE
WOMEN - Semifinals - Saturday, November 15
[N1] Everett CC v CC Spokane [E1] 10:30
[S1] Lane CC v Peninsula College [W1] 1:00
WOMEN - Championship - Sunday, November 16 - 3:00
MEN - Semifinals - Saturday, November 15
[N1] Edmonds CC v North Idaho College [E1] 3:30
[N2] Skagit Valley College v Highline College [W1] 6:00
MEN - Championship - Sunday, November 16 - 5:30
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