The difference artificial turf makes in the soccer season is clear on the central Kenai Peninsula — Soldotna and Kenai Central have been practicing outside on their turf since the season’s start on March 2, while turfless Nikiski just got outside to practice this week.
Soldotna boys coach Darryl Byerley has been part of the program for 13 or 14 years, and said the completion of the turf field for the 2014-15 school year has changed everything.
“Last year and this year are the first times we’ve ever been out from the very start,” Byerley said. “The turf has extended our season by over a month, and the unseasonably warm winter has definitely assisted.”
SoHi even got two games in last weekend — both victories in Kodiak — before the Bulldogs got outside.
“When I first started coaching here, we had eight games a year and we played them in two or 2 1/2 weeks,” Byerley said. “Now going into regions, we have the opportunity to play 16 games and spread them out over a two-month period.
“It gives us an opportunity to develop a team.”
Kenai head coach Joel Reemtsma played for the Kards, graduating in 2000. He said a snowfall forced Kenai inside for two days this season, but that’s it.
“I played for Kenai quite awhile ago, and I can remember practicing on the beach because the field wasn’t cleared until May,” he said.
In some ways, Jim Coburn, who is in his 18th year coaching Nikiski, is still living in those days of the past. Same goes for Seward coach Dustin Phillips, who is in his 10th year. The Seahawks finally got outside at the end of last week.
“I think the biggest challenge — Seward faces the same challenge — is we have to wait for the snow to melt because we still play on grass,” Coburn said. “Everyone else in the state is playing on turf.
“That’s probably our biggest disadvantage, in addition to the numbers of kids.”
Phillips said his squad is only able to use a quarter of the field. He said that makes it tough on years like this, when his team is inexperienced.
“When you take a kid that’s never really played and you’ve got four weeks in a gym to teach him a game that takes place on a field 80 yards by 120 yards, that makes it tough,” Phillips said.
The Northern Lights Conference admits eight boys teams, four from the Southern Division and four from the Northern Division. The Southern Division is made up of Kenai Central, Homer, Soldotna, Nikiski, Seward and Kodiak.
Last year the bigger schools with the turf — Kenai, Homer, SoHi and Kodiak — took the berths to the conference tournament.
At that tourney, Kenai finished second and Homer third to earn state berths. At state, Kenai was fifth and Homer tied for seventh.
Byerley said the solid showing at the NLC and state tourneys shows the opportunity the extra practices provides. He said the turf has also allowed peninsula teams to get games with Anchorage squads this year, a very rare occurrence in the past.
“It’s giving us a chance to excel and get to the next level,” he said. “Whether we get there or not remains to be seen.”
The following is a closer look at the peninsula’s boys teams:
For a Class 3A school competing against mostly Class 4A schools in a state that lumps all the soccer schools into the same division, the Mariners and Waldorf, now in his ninth season, have been on a remarkable run over the past three years.
Homer finished third at state in 2014 and fourth in 2012 before the seventh-place finish last season.
Of course, one of the hardest things to do at a small school is to continually stay at that level when losing impact seniors, and Homer most definitely did that in graduating Kenneth Schneider, Filip Reutov, Drew Brown and Flynn Bloom.
Waldorf said he hasn’t talked to the program’s newcomers about the past success. All he knows at this point is everybody is putting in the type of hard work it takes for more success.
“You just go in a different direction — you can’t replace a new group of kids,” Waldorf said. “We’ve got a lot of talent in the sophomore class, only a couple juniors, and a short handful of seniors.
“We’re young and we have a pretty short bench.”
The coach said defender Daniel Wiest is the lone senior with significant varsity experience. Forward Quinn Alward, defender Marley McGuire and Cameroon exchange student Nouredine Mama also are seniors that give the team seasoning.
Junior Kenzington Cortez will play goalie, then a large part of the team’s success falls to a sophomore class led by Charles Rohr, who led the team in goals as a freshman.
Also part of that class are midfielder Oliver Beck, defender or midfielder Charlie Menke, Timothy Blakely, Jordan Beachy and defender Jake Marquardt.
Freshman Dexter Lowe also has a chance of earning a starting spot at defense or in the midfield.
“They’ll do find playing against teams with their size and age experience,” Waldorf said of his group. “It’s going to be hard playing teams loaded with juniors and seniors.
“It’ll be an uphill battle, but I think we can play with them.”
Reemtsma had an impressive debut season as head coach, leading the Kards to their first state tourney since 2008, then directing Kenai to the first victory in a game at state in the program’s history.
The Kards lost a couple of key pieces from that squad, most notably all-state goalkeeper Wren Norwood, but still return a bevy of maturing talent.
“We’re excited to have regions here this year,” Reemtsma said. “We have a home-heavy season, then we have regions in Kenai.”
The Kards are led by senior midfielder Ean Atchley, who will again serve as captain. Junior Max Dye, a second-team all-conference pick last season, also returns to anchor a solid defense.
Then comes the outstanding sophomore class, led by first-team all-conference player Zack Tuttle, who Reemtsma said is one of the best goal scorers Kenai has ever seen.
The other four sophomores who started as freshmen are utility player Kevin Ramos, center back Braydon Goodman, defender Riley McKee and midfielder Luke Beiser.
Added to the sophomore mix is Rykker Riddall, a transfer from Nikiski.
Junior Tristan Landry is charged with filling Norwood’s shoes at goalkeeper, while seniors Chris Hamilton and Draiden McMinn add even more experience.
Freshman Damien Redder also should get a starting spot.
“We’re really deep this year,” Reemtsma said. “That’s important because we have 15 games, which is more than we’ve ever had.”
Even if Nikiski had turf, Coburn, who will step down as coach after this season, would not have been able to field full-team practices outside.
A number of Nikiski’s players were on the boys basketball team that went to state and finished the season March 26.
Many of those same players also played for the small-schools state football championship in the fall and would love nothing more to earn the first state soccer berth in school history.
“They’re all competitive, and they’re friends that get along,” Coburn said. “That should help the team jell.”
Last season, an early season loss to Kodiak was costly as Nikiski missed the region time for what Coburn guessed was just the third time in his 18 seasons.
But the Bulldogs came on strong late and had a victory and tie against Kenai.
“Every year, a team is left out that’s probably better than a team that goes,” Coburn said. “But there are times we have gone when someone might have been better, too.”
Nikiski returns a group of seniors that now knows how much every conference game can count. Those seniors are defender Javon Pamplin, midfielder Cade Anderson, forward and midfielder Logan Griffel, midfielder Nathan Carstens, forward and midfielder Hunter Holloway, defender Ryder Payment, utility player Sam Tauriainen and goalie and forward Dylan Broussard.
Other key pieces for the Bulldogs are juniors Silus Buss and Warren Gage, sophomores Luck Broussard, Donovan Smith and Nick Braswell, and freshman Shane Weathers.
“We’ve got some experience mixed with inexperience,” Coburn said. “We need the inexperienced players to step up with support from the seniors.
“The seniors are showing good team leadership so far.”
With a group of enthusiastic middle school students coming up and a large group of freshmen and sophomores, Phillips said the future looks bright.
After Seward didn’t have a team in 2013, the program is now up to 23 or 24 members.
“We are very young,” Phillips said. “We have a lot of freshmen and sophomores, we only have two seniors and a handful of seniors.
“We’re in a rebuilding period.”
Alex Estes, a left midfielder, is the only returning senior, while junior goalkeeper Kjell Nilsson also returns.
“We just want to get better every game and go from there,” Phillips said.
Byerley will be trying to guide the Stars to their first state berth since 2013 and his first as head coach.
Last season, the Stars appeared to be on their way early in the season, but lost two games in the final weekend of the regular season to finish 11-4, then lost on the first day of the conference tournament.
Byerley, who said he’s grateful for the help of assistants Garrett Byerley, Jeff Siemers and Horst Haunold, said SoHi’s problem late in the season was scoring.
“It seems with a slight adjustment in formation, we’ll be able to alleviate the problems we had finding the net last year,” he said, of course staying mum on what those adjustments are.
A trio of transfers make their way into the scoring book no matter the formation or level of play. Seniors Timmy Smithwick and Andrew Hammond and sophomore Johnny Smithwick were prolific scorers for Cook Inlet Academy, which plays coed soccer under coach Kenny Leaf, and all got off to a solid start over the weekend in Kodiak.
“Kenny Leaf is very knowledgable in soccer,” Byerley said. “They’re all good athletes and he’s done a good job coaching them prior to this season.”
Senior midfielder Dylan Kuntz, a second-team all-NLC midfielder a year ago, is the leader of the team.
“He’s out to show it should have been first team, and I’m behind him 100 percent,” Byerley said.
Senior Tommy Flores will be playing central defense for the third year, and senior captain Drew Kant will provide experience at midfield and goalkeeper. Sophomore Blake Jones also will be in net.
In the junior class, midfielders Ben Godfrey and Andreas Asimakopoulos add more experience.
Sophomore Eli Sheridan started as a freshman in the midfield, and Byerley also is looking for contributions from sophomore defenders Sean McMullen, Gavin Goggia and Ethan Bott.