PORT ANGELES — In the end, locked in a tense, defensive overtime struggle and with dreaded penalty kicks looming against Highline for the Northwest Conference women’s soccer championship, the Peninsula players and coaches had the faith in themselves and their teammates that they were going to pull the match out.
That faith was rewarded when Bri Valiente, who had barely played all year, came through with a clutch goal in the 107th minute to give the Pirates a 1-0 golden goal win in the second overtime for the women’s first NWAC title since 2013.
After Valiente’s goal, she was mobbed by teammates, which led to a nightlong celebration and Pirate players were still nearly floating in midair with joy Monday. As Kennady Whitehead put it Monday, “I’ve been smiling all morning.”
Valiente said she can barely remember the goal.
“I can’t honestly even put into words how I feel,” Valiente said.
“I couldn’t believe it [when I scored]. I was in shock … it’s the most amazing feeling ever,” she said. “It’s still so unreal.”
“We deserved it. We were a deserving champion. That doesn’t mean other teams weren’t deserving champions,” said coach Kanyon Anderson.
Anderson said the Pirates were deserving because of their attitude and hard work. He had a 20-0 team in 2013, and he felt this year’s 19-1-1 squad was better than that team.
“This is a really, really special group. I’ve never had a group so positive and honest. I’ve never been able to get the level of commitment I’ve seen from these girls,” Anderson said.
“I told them ‘talent doesn’t win you championships, it’s the work that you do.’”
Hoku Afong, the leading scorer on the team, said this was a mentally strong team. She had a feeling last year when Peninsula was in the postseason that the team’s attitude wasn’t right.
“People thought that team last was the team to take it all the way. A lot of the players were there physically, but not mentally,” she said.
Anderson said that while Afong led the team in goals, the Pirates somewhat used her as a decoy. It was part of the Pirates’ team philosophy to not feature a single player.
“We tried to make people think Hoku was all we had,” he said.
“We had diverse players, diverse scorers. There isn’t a focus on just one player,” Afong said. In fact, 21 out of the 24 women on the Pirates roster scored goals this year.
Team was confident all along
Anderson said he never doubted that the Pirates would prevail, despite the 107-minute-long 0-0 deadlock.
“I was confident we would win. I was confident we would win in the penalty kicks. I wasn’t nervous,” Anderson said.
Whitehead, who has battled injuries all season herself, echoed Anderson’s sentiment.
“I knew were were going to score, we had been knocking on the door all game. I didn’t know who would put it in, but I knew someone would,” Whitehead said.
It was special to see Valiente get the championship-clinching goal, Anderson said, because she had barely played all year. She had her ankle badly sprained early in the season when she was stepped on by an opponent. Valiente said she also had a partially torn ACL this spring that limited her in practice and preseason. Anderson said Valiente has spent all season rehabbing her ankle, determined to get back to help her team.
Valiente came back to play in the semifinals against North Idaho Friday and scored two goals in a 3-1 win. With her Highline goal included, three of her seven goals all season were scored in the Final Four.
Afterward, Valiente was named the MVP of the Final Four.
“I was just happy I was finally able to contribute to our team,” Valiente said.
“I wasn’t expected this [three goals at NWAC Final Four]. I was really emotional about it. This season and last season have been so tough,” she said.
Two of Valiente’s teammates deserved assists on her gem of a goal.
The play that ended the marathon match only took 10 to 15 seconds to develop. On a clearing kick from the Highline goalie, the ball was headed by Peninsula’s Ellie Small to Valiente. Valiente made a perfect pass to Maddy Parton on the right wing, who used her speed to blaze past a Thunderbird defender.
Parton made a crossing pass — literally through the legs of a Highline player — to Valiente right in front of the goal and Valiente calmly kicked the ball in. Parton got the assist, but if it had been hockey, Small would have had an assist, too.
Valiente said part of what made that play special is that Parton is also her roommate.
Whitehead likewise had a tough season. She missed five games because of a concussion when she cracked skulls with an opposing player while heading the ball. She actually finished the game, then fell ill afterward and was rushed to the emergency room. She said that to this day she still seems to be having some memory issues.
Anderson also said in the North Idaho semifinal, Whitehead was flattened by a Cardinals player and sustained an injury to her ribs. She was told it might have even been broken ribs (Whitehead said she was later told it’s probably torn muscles in her ribcage area). Anderson doubted she would be able to play in the finals, but Whitehead told her coach the day after the semifinal: “I will play. Period.”
Anderson had Whitehead mark the Highline midfielder Chentay Warnes, a big, tough, talented player for the Thunderbirds. Anderson said Whitehead stuck with Warnes all match and kept her under control. Anderson doubted the team could have won without her effort.
“She [Whitehead] is so tough. That was the gutsiest performance we’ve ever had at Peninsula,” Anderson said.
After the championship match, Whitehead said, “I’m definitely tired and sore … but happy.”
Anderson said he held Whitehead out for five games, very much against her will, after her concussion, even though she was cleared to return after three. He wanted to make sure she would be 100 percent physically for the postseason run.
“We knew we needed her to be healthy,” Anderson said.
“I knew out team could make it through, whether I was playing or now. We’ve all faced injuries all season. The coaches took good care of us,” Whitehead said.
“Sometimes more than they wanted,” Anderson added.
Anderson also felt that Kameryn Jury-Hale played a very strong game on the back line against Highline, as did Jasmin Ramos and Isabel Vega. He said goalie Akari Hoshino has been a rock for the Pirates all season. He said he doesn’t think Hoshino, who got the shutout in the championship match, made a single mistake all season.
Afong and Whitehead said after the championship match, they decided to want to keep playing at a four-year school as teammates. Anderson said they will both play somewhere at a four-year school, and that Washington State coaches have shown interest in Afong and were scouting her at the NWAC championships.
Wherever they go, Afong and Whitehead said Peninsula has been a rewarding experience.
“I love Peninsula as a school. It’s a family, family being the men’s team, the basketball teams on and off the field,” she said.
“I was a lot different person when I came here,” Afong said. “The coaches here have opened my eyes to better and bigger things.”
Peninsula College will hold a celebration at 12:30 p.m. today at The Pub at the Pirate Union Building.
Anyone wanting to watch a replay of the championship match can go to YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9EsrHKksk4.