The fields may not be ready for spring soccer, but local teams on the central peninsula sure are.
Slow-melting snow and additional flurries this week have stalled the early efforts to get outside on natural grass and turf, but most roster numbers are better than ever for area teams.
Perhaps the early optimism can be traced to the offseason overhaul to the state soccer scene. As a single division since 2000, the Alaska School Activities Association had sanctioned the season-ending state tournament for all teams, no matter school size.
Now, for the the first time in Alaska, the state will host two tournaments to crown two state champions. The Division I tournament will determine a state champion among schools of 851 students and more, and the Division II tournament will crown a state champion among schools of 850 or less. Both tourneys will feature six teams, down from the eight-team, single-division format of years past.
It’s a change several years in the making, according to peninsula coaches, who universally accepted it.
“This is the biggest shakeup that I’ve ever been involved in,” said longtime Soldotna head coach Jimmy Love.
“We’re really happy,” added Nikiski coach Linda Zimmerman. “It’s about time, I guess.”
At the Division II level, where all peninsula teams will compete, there are four conferences. The newly hatched Peninsula Conference will feature Soldotna, Kenai Central, Homer, Nikiski, Seward and Voznesenka, which joins the mix as a new contingent.
The Northern Lights Conference that the peninsula schools used to inhabit is now a five-team division that includes Grace Christian, Houston, Kodiak, Palmer and Redington.
The Peninsula and Northern Lights conferences earn two spots each to the Division II state tournament, but only the Peninsula Conference will host a region tournament to decide its state qualifiers. The other two state bids go to the champions of the Mid-Alaska and Southeast conferences. The Mid-Alaska conference consists of Eielson, Hutchison, Monroe and North Pole, while the Southeast includes Juneau-Douglas, Ketchikan, Sitka and Thunder Mountain.
While the shakeup will not necessarily change the dynamics of the regular season, the noticeable difference will come at the end of the year. With their Mat-Su Valley rivals gone (save for the Palmer Moose), peninsula squads could have an easier path to making it to state, and once there, with the powerhouse Anchorage teams out of the picture, anything goes.
Homer head coach Mike Tozzo said he is in favor of the new system because it levels the playing field across the state.
“When I first heard about it, the thing I liked was … the schools that have 300 to 400 kids, they don’t have to compete with schools with 1,000-plus in them,” Tozzo said. “It’s been a struggle, it’s a different level of play. Those teams are playing year-round and have club teams and indoor facilities, and Kenai and SoHi have a foot of snow on their field.
“It bodes well for a sport like soccer in the future.”
The Peninsula Conference tournament will be held May 17 to 19 at Soldotna High School.
Another key change will be the first-day byes that the top two seeds in the Peninsula Conference tournament receive. In a physically punishing sport like soccer, clinching one of those two top spots will be key to an easy postseason run.
Love has had teams in the past put out superlative regular season records, only to fall into the clutches of an Anchorage team that has year-round soccer players that enjoy an indoor dome and more time with the club teams. Three times in the past six years, the SoHi girls have finished third at state, the highest a peninsula girls team has ever gotten, and Love said he believes the new divisions will reward the hard work that peninsula, Fairbanks and Southeast teams have put out.
“It’s part of the evolving game,” Love said. “You’ve just got to roll with the punches.”
The SoHi girls kick off their 12-game schedule Tuesday with a conference game in Homer that will not count in the final division seedings (unless tiebreakers are needed). It’s a game that will likely mark the first outdoor minutes for the Stars, according to Love.
“I feel fairly confident that it’ll be our first time outside,” Love said with a chuckle.
The top seed from the NLC South Division in 2017, the Stars fell short on two chances to qualify to state last spring, losing to Wasilla in the NLC semifinals, then falling 3-2 in penalty kicks to Kenai in the third-place game.
“We had a fairly young team last year, a couple freshman had starts at the varsity level,” Love said.
The biggest loss stems from graduated senior Abi Tuttle, a formidable striker and all-conference player that was always dangerous up front.
However, a talented freshman class from last year has now blossomed into a stout sophomore class.
“Our sophomore class will do a good job filling in,” Love said. “Will they fully complement that loss (of seniors)? Probably not, but we’re also stuck in a gym, so it’s hard to say where they’re at.
“You can see little bits of brilliance indoors, but indoors is about eight times smaller than the field.”
Soldotna went 10-5 overall last year, a significant dip from previous years in which SoHi often lost just one or two regular season games, but with the revamped division system, Love expects to be near the front again.
“My expectations are always generally the same, we should be competing for the region title,” he said. “I think we have the players to do it, the mind-set to do it, but the last two years maybe I was wrong on that.
“I think we’re different this year, I can see it in them.”
This year’s lineup includes eight seniors, four of which return as varsity starters. That list consists of goalkeeper Maddie Kindred, forward-turned-defender Whitney Wortham, defender Hannah Wells and midfielder Ella Stenga. Both Kindred and Wortham are signed up to play college soccer next year, Kindred with Northern Oklahoma and Wortham at Clark Community College in Washington.
Kindred is a noteworthy addition because the star goalie lost time playing as a sophomore due to an injury, then missed the majority of last season to ineligibility. Love said with the senior back on board, the Stars have their dynamic playmaker on the field.
“For me that’s big,” Love said. “That’s probably the big step for the team.”
Wortham started up front last year, but was moved to the back line in a reshuffling by Love, and will likely be joined this season by Wells, junior Sierra Longfellow, sophomore Kiana Holland and junior Hannah Delker. Love said he likes to play four on the back line, so one of those players will likely be moving closer to the front.
In the SoHi midfield, returning players include sophomores Journey Miller, Ryann Cannava and Cameron Blackwell, a trio that could be joined by freshmen Katie Delker and Sierra Kuntz and junior Kortney Birch.
Up front, Love believes SoHi’s scoring punch rests in the feet of sophomore Meijan Leaf, junior Haley Buckbee, and perhaps freshman Kyrie Medina.
Other contenders for varsity playing time include Serena Larrow, Mykenna Foster and Marina Walton.
Kenai Central Kardinals
The Kenai girls have four straight state appearances and five in six years, so is another state run in the cards? Head coach Dan Verkuilen hopes so.
“That’s always a good expectation to have,” Verkuilen said. “You don’t always know the health of everybody, but we always push each other to do the best, and it’s a big reason we’ve been successful for many years.”
The Kardinals won region championships in 2015 and 2016 before Colony took it last year. Since 2004, Kenai has finished as high as fifth at the state tournament, but the introduction of a second division has made Kenai’s path to state a little easier.
Still, Verkuilen admitted that the loss of a core of senior leadership will make for a rough early going. Kenai graduated eight seniors last year, five which were starters.
“With the expectations we also have realities,” he said. “Those realities are getting the kids to step up the plate and do their best.
“It’s fun and challenging to work everybody into position.”
The Kards went 12-8 overall last year, including playoff games. Kenai lost 1-0 to eventual region champion Colony in the NLC semis, then narrowly prevailed 3-2 in penalty kicks over SoHi in the third-place game, punching the Kards’ ticket to state.
At state, Kenai went winless and failed to score a goal in two tournament matches.
While getting outside has been tough, Kenai already scrimmaged down in Homer on the Mariners’ turf field. The Kards officially open their season Wednesday at home against Nikiski, although current conditions may cancel that game, in which case the first contests will be Friday and Saturday against Palmer and Colony.
With 31 players out for the team this spring, Verkuilen can pick and choose the most ideal lineup.
Brenna Eubank and Annabelle Schneiders lead the team as the two senior captains. Eubank will anchor the defensive line while Schneiders will patrol the midfield.
Verkuilen said sophomore Liz Hanson will lead up front as a striker, junior Olivia Brewer will join Schneiders in the midfield, and sophomores Alissa Maw and Anya Danielson will join Eubank on defense. Sophomore Kailey Hamilton returns as starting goalkeeper.
“There’s definitely some soccer sense and some athleticism in them,” Verkuilen said. “The varsity pace is something they’ll have to become accustomed to. The hard part is you won’t be able to see that until you get out on the field of competition.
“There’ll be a lot of learning on the fly.”
The Homer girls haven’t been to state since 2007, an 11-year drought that coach Mike Tozzo feels could be quenched this year.
“Every year, our goal is to get to state,” Tozzo said. “Right now, one of our first goals is to finish with the one or two seed going into regions so we get that bye to put ourselves in better position.”
Tozzo will be joined this year by assistant Zoia Basargin, a former Homer player herself.
Coming off a 2017 season that saw low numbers, Tozzo said he is buoyed by the influx of new players. The Mariners at times last year played down a player with no one else to sub in, but right now, Tozzo said he is working with 28 on the roster.
“I think our chances have definitely gone up,” he said. “But that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that Kenai and SoHi have good teams. We still have to do our job.”
Homer’s artificial turf field has been clear for over a month, as the lower Homer bowl has seen low snowfall this winter. Tozzo said the Mariners have been out practicing as early as Feb. 28.
As the third seed from the NLC South Division last spring, the Mariners lost on the first day of the NLC tournament with a 4-1 decision to Wasilla, ending their campaign on the spot.
While Homer lost three seniors from that team, they do return two this year in Andie Sonnen and Raisa Basargin, both returning starters that have crucial experience under their belts. Sonnen is a striker while Basargin is a midfield threat.
Sonnen and Basargin will join a returning cast of juniors that include midfielder Brenna McCarron, center back Kimberly Lynn, right wing Eve Brau, defender Daisy Kettle, defender Rylyn Todd and goalkeeper Ali McCarron.
The returning crew will be joined by a handful of new faces, including freshman striker Laura Inama, sophomore center midfielder Kate Bering (a West Valley transfer), sophomore midfielder Rylee Doughty, junior defender Summer McGuire and junior forward Sienna Carey, who is a transfer from Talkeetna.
In years past, only eight teams were invited to the NLC tournament. Nikiski missed out on the conference tournament last year, but with the rule changes in 2018, the Bulldogs are assured of playing in next month’s tourney.
Coach Linda Zimmerman said with a guaranteed spot wrapped up, the Bulldogs can use the regular season to sharpen their game as much as possible.
“I think just playing as a unit, playing good defense,” she said about the team’s objectives. “I just want them to play better as a team. I think they made a lot of progress last year, I was super happy with that, and I think they get along off the field and on.”
Nikiski’s first game is Wednesday in Kenai, but the current snow conditions may cancel that meeting.
Zimmerman said the loss of senior goalie Brianna Vollertsen will be a tough spot to fill, but with 25 players on the roster right now, Nikiski has the ability to reload.
“We’re tenacious Bulldogs,” she said. “We play until that last whistle blows.”
Zimmerman said the team returns at least five players from 2017, a list of senior winger Melanie Sexton, senior forward Diedre Lamping, junior defender Emma Wik, sophomore midfielder Tika Zimmerman and sophomore midfielder America Jeffreys.
Joining the varsity mix up front will be senior Shelby Baylie, sophomore Jordyn Stock, and junior Jada Glaves in the midfield, while the defensive line will also include senior Ashlee Tiner. The goalie position will likely be shared between Emily Hightower and Abby Bystedt.