Having had their rule of the roost for three years in succession, the Kenai Central boys are enjoying life at the top of the Peninsula Conference.
Now, other teams want a piece of the prize.
Three conference titles and one state crown in the last three years have surely fattened up the trophy case and the walls of the KCHS gym with banners, but naturally, there will some hiccups experienced by the Kardinals, who graduated a handful of key seniors that helped orchestrate a three-year run of region titles. Kenai lost all four first-team conference members it had, including season MVP Zack Tuttle.
Kenai head coach Shane Lopez takes over for the Kardinals this year after four seasons as an assistant. Working this year with assistant coach Scott Pitsch, Lopez said the group of guys he has returning are more than capable of filling the shoes of the departed senior talent.
Many of them have already felt the pressure of a state match, and are aware of the tradition that Kenai Central has built in the soccer programs. In 2016, the Kardinals became the first peninsula team ever to play in a state final (the Kards finished second to South Anchorage), and last year they became the first to win a championship at the Division II level.
“It kind of adds into the story of the program,” Lopez said. “That’s what’s been so special to the guys the past few years, the heritage we have, particularly that class of seniors to come up with that and have so many of these firsts for Kenai. We take a lot of pride in that and it certainly means a lot to the program and to the guys.”
Kenai is looking at a tough road ahead in their fight to repeat as state champs. With the target squarely on their backs, the Kardinals will be facing every team’s best game throughout the season.
“It’s going to be a battle if they want that opportunity again,” Lopez said. “But they’ve seen the hard work it takes to accomplish, so we’re feeling good.”
One of the few teams to truly test the might of the Kardinals last year was Homer. The Mariners were the only conference team to not lose to Kenai in the regular season, courtesy of a tie.
In typical fashion, Homer head coach Warren Waldorf had his Mariners squad humming by the time postseason play came around, and the Mariners finished second in the region and third at state.
This year, Waldorf is staying quiet on the strength of his 2019 squad.
“We won’t know how good we can play until May,” he said.
While Kenai is at this moment still the reigning champs, there are some that believe Soldotna has surpassed Kenai as the new team to beat in the Peninsula Conference in 2019.
“SoHi’s on a whole another level,” said Nikiski coach Harrison Deveer. “They’re definitely the team to beat.”
SoHi gained a new head coach this season in David Holmes, who takes over for previous maestro Darryl Byerley. Holmes inherits a talented group of sophomores and juniors that were part of last year’s third-place Peninsula Conference team.
Waldorf and the Mariners will play host to Peninsula Conference opponents this May as Homer gets home field for the tournament May 16 through 18. The tournament will send two representatives to the Division II state tournament, but a new rule this year adds two more teams to the state field with at-large berths.
Waldorf pointed out the share of teams statewide that now get to go to the big dance — as recent as two years ago, when there was just one state tournament for all, eight teams out of the roughly 30 across the state qualified. Last year, with the introduction of two six-team tournaments split between Division I and II, that number became 12.
This year, with the at-large berths announced, the number of teams that get to go to state is 16, or about half of the schools across Alaska.
Waldorf wouldn’t delineate on whether he thought that was a good change or not, but other coaches believe it’s a positive step forward.
“I’m glad they bumped it back to eight,” Lopez said.
Deveer is pleased to see two additional spots open up to state, but knows his Nikiski boys team will still be fighting an uphill climb to secure a bid as one of the smaller teams in the division.
“Nikiski and Seward shouldn’t be in the same conference as Soldotna and Kenai, but it is what it is,” Deveer said. “I tell my players, compete against Seward, and beat one of (the bigger teams). That’s how we’re going to have to approach the region tournament. Play one game, then show up and give our hardest in the next.”
The following is a closer look at each team:
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
The Kenai boys won three consecutive region championships and one Division II state crown under Joel Reemtsma’s watch, but now Lopez steps up to take over the Kardinals after four years as an assistant. Lopez said stepping into his new role has become a privilege for him.
“It’s certainly big shoes to fill,” he said. “It’s definitely kind of a weird one, because Joel and I had become good friends and we worked well and had been a team with what we were doing. We had a lot of talks and spent a lot of time poring over film and doing all this work together to make it happen, so it feels strange going at this solo without him.”
Lopez will inherit a solid group of returning players that have been part of the ride. Among those leading the charge is senior midfielder Damien Redder, a four-year starter who Lopez said is a leader on the team. Joining Redder is a young striker in sophomore Leif Lofquist.
Lopez said Lofquist spent a lot of time last year learning from then-senior Zack Tuttle, and hopes the young talent will use that to help the Kardinals scoring punch with Redder.
“I think he picked up a lot working with Zack,” Lopez said. “He was tutored by one of our best alumni strikers.”
Kenai’s midfield sees the return of junior Nate Beiser and senior Thomas Levy-Canedo, while adding sophomore Tucker Vann and freshmen Joe Hamilton, Johann Carranza and Ezok Villalva.
Lopez said the defensive core will see a collection of players from junior Roman Custodio, senior Travis McKinley, sophomore James Baisden and junior Travis Verkuilen, who could also play up front.
Sophomore Braedon Pitsch is back in goal for Kenai, after a month of May 2018 during which Lopez said Pitsch did not allow a single goal.
David Holmes takes over a Soldotna program looking for its first state appearance since 2016, when the Stars finished tied for seventh.
Last season, SoHi lost 6-5 in penalty kicks to Homer in the conference semifinals, missing out on a chance to play at state by the slimmest of margins. The Stars ultimately secured third place at the region tournament with a win over Seward, but are looking for more this year.
“We have a young team,” Holmes said after a loss to West Anchorage on Friday. “We’re still working it out, we don’t have our legs yet … but I see a lot of promise.”
Of the returning players, sophomore Josh Heiber is among the ones to watch for as a returning first-team all-conference player. Heiber leads a trio of dangerous strikers for SoHi that includes junior Alex Montague and newcomer Kaleb Swank, a senior transfer from California.
Backing up the front row are sophomores Dylan Walton, Caden Hoover and Austin Escott. The defensive midfield will include juniors Brace Rosin, Kobe Miller and Cameron Johnson, along with sophomores Trenton O’Reagan and Jose Montague.
Waldorf is the reigning conference boys coach of the year, and for good reason. The Mariners defeated Soldotna 6-5 on penalty kicks in last year’s conference semifinals to earn a state spot, then won third place at the state dance with a 3-0 win over North Pole, the No. 2 seed.
Waldorf said he is still unsure of this year’s fortunes as Homer has yet to get a game under its belt. Homer will travel to play Soldotna on Tuesday, which will give the Mariners a chance to put all the pieces together.
“I feel like we’re off to a slow start this year,” Waldorf said. “I’m still struggling to get a couple kids eligible and we’re a bit smaller this year.”
With around 25 players on the current roster, Waldorf is still handling a talented lineup. Among the returning cast is senior goalkeeper Tucker Weston (who Waldorf praised for having a strong finishing kick in net last year), and forwards Clayton Beachy, Dexter Lowe and Avram Salzmann. Beachy is a sophomore and Lowe and Salzmann are seniors. Seniors Tom Gorman and Henry Russell will also get time up front.
The Homer midfield will include returning juniors Daniel Reutov, Austin Shafford and Ethan Pitzman, and will also welcome newcomer Eyob Knapp, who could also be sent to the front.
Waldorf added that Homer could receive a boost with the addition of defender Isaiah Nevak, but that it remains to be seen if Nevak will be able to play.
One of the highlights for the season will be a Southeast trip to play Juneau, Ketchikan and Thunder Mountain the third weekend of April.
Harrison Deveer returns for his third year with the team and is positive about the increased roster numbers, his biggest yet at around 30 players. It allows Deveer to play close to two complete teams at varsity and JV.
“I feel like we are, I wouldn’t say better, but we have a lot of new additions,” he said. “It’s going to make the team much better.”
The Bulldogs open their season Thursday with a big test at Kenai Central, but it’s a welcome contest on the artificial turf at Ed Hollier Field. Nikiski is the lone team on the central peninsula that doesn’t have the luxury of a turf pitch, which means the Bulldogs must wait for the snow to melt on their natural grass field, a slower process.
“We’re very excited for our first game at Kenai, I think this is the year we stand a chance to compete against them,” Deveer said. “I still consider us underdogs to compete against those teams, but our boys can show up and compete and maybe walk away with a win.”
The Bulldogs did not put any players from the 2018 team on the conference first-team list, but Nikiski does return one of two conference second-team members in junior Michael Mysing.
Leading the attack up front for Nikiski is Brazilian transplant Pedro Souza, who moved with his family from the soccer-crazy country in South America. Deveer is confident that Souza can use that experience growing up in Brazil to help the team.
“He has a great knowledge in soccer,” Deveer said.
Nikiski’s four midfielders behind Souza will include sophomore Gavin White and Kenai transfer Isaiah Gray, and seniors Justin Harris and Shane Weathers.
Behind that, the defensive core includes Mysing, senior newcomer Jace Kornstad, sophomore Jim Lamping, sophomore Trevor Mysing and Caileb Payne. Deveer said Koleman McCaughey and Seth DeSiena will also get significant time.
The Nikiski defense will be capped with junior goaltender Michael Eiter, who returns for another year in net.
The Seward boys are on the upswing after a rebuilding year in 2018. Last year, the Seahawks experienced the zero to hero storyline — Seward did not have enough numbers to field a boys team in 2017, but returned in 2018 to not only compete, but win their first game at the Peninsula Conference tournament, putting them into the semifinals with a shot to advance to state.
The state dream died with a loss to top-seeded Kenai in the region semis, but a lot of progress was made in just a couple of days.