OLYMPIA — No one on South Kitsap’s coaching staff would refer to it as a “must-win.”
But Cory Vartanian made a point to reinforce the importance of the match before the Wolves’ 2-1 win Monday night against Olympia at Ingersoll Stadium.
The third-year South coach did that when he displayed the Class 4A Narrows League standings in front of his team.
“We put ourselves in a little bit of a hole earlier in the year,” Vartanian said. “We didn’t talk about it as a must-win. We talked about it as a crucial win.”
That is because even with the victory, the Wolves (3-3-2 overall, 2-2-2 league) are in fourth place. Only the top three teams in 4A Narrows advance to the West Central District Tournament.
Junior midfielder Isaac Sterling said the message resonated.
“We definitely had to bring our game,” he said.
It was Sterling who placed a controversial penalty kick into the left side of the net past the stretched arms of goalkeeper Davin Johnson in the 69th minute for the decisive goal.
“It got so jumbled right in the box there,” said Vartanian, referring to the foul. “I believe I saw [South freshman midfielder] David Mansfield take the first fall.
“I knew that Olympia’s coaching staff didn’t really agree with the call. We’ve been on the unlucky side of that, as well. It’s really the referee’s call.”
Sterling felt it was a call that “could go either way.” He just concentrated on his job.
“You just focus when it comes down to a 1-1 tie and put it in,” Sterling said.
Olympia (5-3-1, 4-2-0) led 1-0 at halftime behind a goal by forward Conner Desmond in the 14th. With the exception of Sterling’s free kick that sailed above the goalpost in the 39th, the Bears controlled possession for most of the first half.
Vartanian noticed a difference after the intermission, though.
“I really think our strikers, just from a defensive side, took their back four out of the game,” he said. “That’s where a lot of their possession was created in the midfield and we pretty much took that away by just adding high pressure to their back four.”
Vartanian and assistant Lee La Deaux also recently reworked the starting lineup with an eye toward developing more consistency in the midfield. The result has been a pair of freshmen — Mansfield and Grant Larson — seeing more playing time. Vartanian said he now sees “five, six and seven passes together in our midfield” without losing possession.
The Wolves took advantage of that when they pushed the ball up to junior forward Dylan Peterson, who had his initial shot stopped by Johnson before he collected the rebound and scored.
“He finished it and put it in the back of the net,” Vartanian said. “It was a great hustling goal.
“Dylan played extremely strong up top during in the second half. I told him he had ‘He-Man’ strength during the second half.”
And Sterling followed that with a goal that enabled South to open the second half of league play with a victory.
“It was a great shot,” Vartanian said. “The goalkeeper guessed the right way and he put it underneath him right in the corner. He’s very composed when it comes to that opportunity.”
The Wolves, who have a season-best two-game win streak, return home to play at 7 p.m. Thursday against Gig Harbor.
South Kitsap 2, at Olympia 1
First half-1, Olympia, Conner Desmond, 14th minute.
Second half-2, South Kitsap, Dylan Peterson, 55th; 3, South Kitsap, Isaac Sterling (penalty kick), 69th.