Jose Cortez sprang into the air with a what-just-happened look on his face.
Seconds later he was in the middle of a celebration, soaking up the moment with his Kodiak High School boys soccer teammates.
Cortez scored two goals, including the game-winner, in Kodiak’s come-from-behind 3-2 victory over Nikiski in a Northern Lights Conference match on Saturday at Joe Floyd Track and Field.
It wasn’t your normal run-of-the-mill-type victory; it was the first varsity win in program history, and it was an improbable one.
Down 2-0 at halftime, Kodiak rallied back and netted the game-winner in the 78th minute when Cortez booted in a free kick from 32 yards out. The ball ricocheted off a head of a Nikiski defender and soared over the stretched arms of Bulldogs keeper Sullivan Jackson.
Kodiak’s entire sideline erupted. More than 10 minutes later the Bears celebrated like they had just won a state championship. Parents took pictures and high-fives were passed around like candy.
“This is better than a state title, this is your first win on your home turf,” Kodiak assistant coach Tony Lumpkin said.
This was Kodiak’s fourth varsity match after being a club the past three seasons. The Bears lost a pair of 7-0 decisions to Kenai two weeks ago and picked up a 5-2 loss to Nikiski in Friday’s nonconference affair.
Kodiak washed away all of the early struggles with 40 minutes of solid soccer and improved to 1-1 in the NLC, 1-3 overall.
“It is such an awesome feeling,” Cortez said. “A lot of our players thought we were going to lose it, but in the second half coach gave us a talk and told us what to do. We did it and ended up scoring three goals in the second half.”
Cortez came up with the biggest of the three goals with a powerful kick from the right side that caught just enough of a Nikiski player, redirecting the ball into the net.
“I kicked it right into the penalty area, the guy got his head on it, and the goalie wasn’t ready and caught him off guard,” Cortez said. “It was the best feeling ever knowing that that was going to be the game-winner.”
Cortez had his footprint all over the match. He got an assist on Kodiak’s first goal when Daniel Beltran found the net on a corner kick in the 54th minute. Three minutes later Cortez lasered the ball past the keeper from 30 yards out to even the match at 2-2.
“We just never lost hope. We were always confident that we had this game,” said Kyle Smude. “We saw how they played yesterday and we knew exactly how to beat them this time.”
Nikiski controlled the first half with goals from Nico Castro in the 16th minute and Sam Tauriainen in the 26th minute to take a 2-0 lead after the opening 40 minutes.
Kodiak owned the second half, grabbing the momentum and putting pressure on Nikiski.
Captain Gunnar Armstrong credited the comeback to coach Eric Waltenbaugh, who gave the team a riveting halftime speech.
“Just that little bit of acknowledgement that we are doing good and on the right track just brought it all together,” Armstrong said.
Waltenbaugh credited his players for not giving up and playing for the entire 80 minutes.
“It is an incredible feeling, and it just shows me so much about these boys,” Waltenbaugh said. “This is something that I haven’t seen from them. They just stepped up.”
Saturday’s match marks the end of Kodiak’s home season. The Bears finish the regular season with away games against Seward, Homer and Soldotna.
Only the top four teams in the South Division advance to the conference championships, and Saturday’s victory will help in getting to postseason play in the program’s inaugural season.
“This validates our ability to compete in this league,” Waltenbaugh said. “I always knew we could — our biggest deficit is experience, but the way these guys are learning every game, it is not going to take us long.”
Derek Clarkston is a staff writer at the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact him at (907) 486-3227.