It would appear to be a good year for the Kenai Central boys soccer team.
Last season, the Kardinals became the first Kenai Peninsula team to make a state final in soccer, losing 3-1 to South Anchorage.
Kenai lost three starters to graduation, but the majority of the big contributors to the Northern Lights Conference title and run at state return, including all-state tournament players Max Dye, a senior, and Zack Tuttle and Kevin Ramos, both juniors.
And what’s more, this season could put a premium on experience that hasn’t been seen in some time. The past few seasons have seen those teams with turf, which at this point is almost everybody, get on the fields in early March. But this year, coaches have lost a month of field practice due to the reappearance of Alaska winter.
Normally, this would mean an advantage for Anchorage schools, which could play early season games at The Dome in Anchorage. But The Dome collapsed in late January under a heavy snowfall, meaning Anchorage schools are in the same boat as everybody else.
“That’s definitely not something we would have wished for — having The Dome collapse — but it does put us on a more level playing field,” said Kenai coach Joel Reemtsma, who has led the Kards to state in both of his seasons at the helm. “It compresses the Anchorage schedule. We’ve been having a tough time scheduling games with them.”
The shortened schedule can be a double-edged sword, though. It places a premium on staying healthy because, with the start of the NLC tournament looming May 18, a few significant injuries can hamper even deep, talented sides.
“We take great pains to talk to players about not clattering into each other or hacking each other in practice,” Reemtsma said. “We just can’t afford it.”
That’s because the Kards face threats in the Southern Division of the NLC.
Last season, in his third year as head coach, Darryl Byerley led Soldotna to its first state appearance since 2013 by finishing third at the NLC tournament.
The Stars lost all four all-conference players from that unit, but five starters return. Byerley said numbers in the program are down and there will be no junior varsity team, but that has not dimmed expectations.
“I hope to show as strong as we did last year,” he said. “It’s a situation where we don’t have a lot sitting on the bench to cheer them on, but the quality is there.”
Homer also has an up-and-coming squad. Warren Waldorf, in his 10th year, has led the Mariners to fourth at state in 2012, third in 2014 and seventh in 2015.
Last season, Homer had a young squad which grabbed the No. 4 seed out of the Southern Division and threw a scare into Colony, No. 1 from the north, in the NLC tourney’s first round. A young core, including NLC first-teamer and junior Charles Rohr and NLC second-teamer and junior Simon Dye, return for the Mariners.
“We’re going to be a little better than last year because we are one year older,” Waldorf said.
Southern Division foe Kodiak also proved to be a troublesome foe last season, getting a tie against Kenai in the regular season and then getting to the conference third-place game before falling 5-2 to Soldotna.
The Nikiski program will begin to build itself back up after losing Jim Coburn, who had been head coach since 1998, and a bunch of seniors. Harrison Deveer takes over the reins of the program, which faces the difficulty of getting young players ready without a turf field.
“I am looking forward to the future,” Deveer said. “I tell the boys that this year may be tough, but the future is going to be great.”
Seward coach Dustin Phillips also is planning for the future. With low numbers and a bunch of young players, the Seahawks will play a junior varsity schedule this year to get ready to return to varsity play next year.
The following is a closer look at the peninsula’s soccer programs:
Even with all the accumulated experience, the Mariners are still young, with just one senior in goalie Kenzington Cortez.
“I think we’re excited about our prospects this year,” Waldorf said. “Again, we have a pretty short bench and a couple of injuries could hurt us a lot and change the future rather dramatically.
“If we manage to stay healthy, I have no doubt this group can pull together as a competitive team.”
In addition to Rohr and Dye, a strong junior class also includes midfielder Charlie Menke, midfielder Timothy Blakely, midfielder Oliver Beck and central defender Jordan Beachy.
Sophomore Dexter Lowe also adds more young talent to the midfield.
“It’ll be how well those players play together and fold in the contributions of anybody else that steps on the field with them,” Waldorf said. “I expect they’ll be able to do that pretty well early.”
Kenai Central Kardinals
An indication of the depth of the Kardinals talent is the fact that of the three all-state returners, only one — scoring machine Tuttle — is also a team captain.
Junior Braydon Goodman, who along with Dye creates a rock-solid defensive presence in the middle, and senior goalie Tristan Landry, who stopped two penalty shots and made his own to lead the shootout victory over Service in the state semis, also serve as captains.
Landry was an NLC second-teamer along with Ramos, while Dye and Tuttle had first-team NLC nods.
Sophomore Damien Redder comes back better after scoring some big goals for the team last year, and juniors Karl Danielson, Luke Beiser and Rykker Riddall give a lot of versatility.
“That junior class is just loaded,” Reemtsma said.
Sophomores Tomas Levy-Canedo and Tyrone McEnerney will joint a host of others competing for playing time. With 43 kids out for soccer, Reemtsma has plenty of choices, including seniors Chase Gillies and Kalvin Daniels, who join soccer for the first time after starring in other sports.
Reemtsma also said his team is very coachable, with five players that have Kenai Central coaches as parents.
But he’s also the first to admit all these positive signs guarantee nothing.
“Just getting to state is an honor and a privilege,” he said. “It’s something that must be earned.”
Deveer said the goal is to inject his love of soccer into the program.
“I’ve always loved soccer,” he said. “I grew up in Ghana, West Africa, and it’s the only sport I ever played growing up so I always had a passion for soccer.
“I played soccer as an exchange student at Kenai in 2003, and it’s always been a dream to help bring the knowledge of soccer here.”
Deveer also said the coaching job is a good fit because he works at the Nikiski Fire Department, so he has a good relationship with the kids at the school.
He is excited by a freshman class headed up by Michael Mysing, a midfielder who will serve as captain. Freshman goalie Michael Eiter has a lot of potential, and freshmen Hamilton Cox and George Napoka will get plenty of experience at defense.
The freshmen class also includes defender Joseph Yourkoski, forward Martin Cox, midfielder Noah Litke and utility players Hunter Fraley, Mason Payne and Caleb Weeks.
The scoring threat will be sophomore Justin Harris, while sophomore Kameron Maxie will play defense.
Seniors Clayton Larson and T.J. Hooper also are giving soccer a try for the first time, with Larson playing midfield and Hooper playing forward.
“I think it’s going to be a difficult season, but like I keep telling the boys, focus on the game of soccer and playing it the right way and hopefully they’ll get better,” Deveer said.
The Stars will be led by senior captain Ben Godfrey, an attacking midfielder, and junior captain Ethan Bott, a defensive midfielder.
Other returning starters are from a strong junior class in center defender Gavin Goggia, attacking midfielder Eli Sheridan and defender Luke Trammell.
Junior attacking midfielder Sam McElroy and goalie Chase Miller, a transfer from Cook Inlet Academy, also join the starting lineup.
Byerley said this is a perfect chance to mix experience with youth.
“I’m excited in general about the younger players that will get an opportunity this year,” he said. “We have a strong freshman class, and while the sophomore class is thin, it’s good they’ll all get a chance to play.”
Byerley said he is excited to have assistants Erik Dolphin and Horst Haunold onboard to guide the development of the young team.
“We’ll be young in some areas, and there’s always that transition from middle school or comp soccer to high school soccer,” Byerley said. “Some will have to pick it up fast, but I think we’ll be fine.