Jax Nash pushes the ball into the goal for Soldotna High School during a Rocket League match played against Rutland Senior Secondary School at Skyview Middle School in Soldotna, Alaska, on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Jax Nash pushes the ball into the goal for Soldotna High School during a Rocket League match played against Rutland Senior Secondary School at Skyview Middle School in Soldotna, Alaska, on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Esports: SoHi, Kenai, Nikiski secure spots in playoffs

The regular season for fall esports in Alaska came to a close this week, and teams from Kenai, Nikiski and Soldotna will be competing when the playoffs open later this month.

Soldotna High School coach Jonus Kaponus-Angleton said Thursday that this season has seen the Stars roster grow, bringing a deeper pool of talent and the ability to compete in more games. As of Thursday night, before host service PlayVS has released finalized playoff brackets, it seems possible that the Stars may be represented in all three games played locally, certainly at least two.

The Stars have players not just from SoHi, but also from River City Academy, and Kaponus-Angleton said that the players who were meeting and playing together for the first time had to find one another’s rhythm. This season, with generally lower stakes than the second season of the year that will start up next spring, has been a good time to grow that dynamic.

Aidarenee Lipps was practicing Smash on Thursday while she waited for a Mario Kart competition. She’s new to the Stars esports team this season. She said that esports is exciting because it offers a team sport dynamic in a space that she’s more interested in than traditional sports.

Lipps plays both Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which she described as being of two very different styles. In Smash, a fighting game, she has to read her opponent, learn moves and land combos.

In comparison, the racing game Mario Kart is simple.

“You’re driving,” she said.

Just use items and try to reach the finish line first.

Still scrimmaging against a computer-controlled opponent in Smash as she spoke, Lipps said that the mechanical skill and team dynamics of esports aren’t dissimilar to any traditional sport.

“This game gets my adrenaline up,” she said.

Jax Nash is another new player for the Stars this season, who competes in all three games — Smash, Rocket League and Mario Kart. He pointed to Rocket League as his favorite game and the reason he joined the program.

“It’s a great opportunity to learn and experience, with other people, my favorite thing to do,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Lipps, who said she’s always been into competitive games, but that she didn’t know other people who played — at least, certainly not at that competitive level. That community and the chance to play the games she wants with other like-minded peers is the main draw of the program.

Growing esports at SoHi is a matter of logistics, Kaponus-Angleton said. The team actually plays at Skyview Middle School, in his classroom where computers and monitors are set up. Transporting students from SoHi to Skyview can be a challenge, but there’s also no comparable space or equipment at SoHi.

Recently, Kaponus-Angleton established a club program for middle school players at Skyview, creating an opportunity for them to start getting exposed to esports and hopefully create a pathway into high school competition. Also on Kaponus-Angleton’s mind is more community engagement and involvement.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Kenai Central High School 1’s Dayne Focose and Kaizen Fuller took a 3-1 win over Chief Ivan Blunka School on Wednesday to climb to 7-1 and second in the state behind only Lathrop High School. The Kardinals will be in the playoffs.

Coach Matthew Cross explained in an email that Focose and Fuller won despite being down a player for illness, and the one point they lost was a forced forfeit because they lacked their third.

Nikiski Middle-High School’s Braden Brigham and Lincoln and Levi Kimbell were scheduled to play Service High School, but Service forfeited. They’re 6-2 and fourth in the state, also clinching a playoff berth.

Kenai 2’s Boyd Lehmberg, Landon Dubber and Kai Adkins took a 3-1 victory over Lathrop, the top-ranked team in the state and formerly undefeated. The Kards are fifth in the state and will be going to playoffs.

Cross said the second squad has seen some shifting players like Lehmberg moving up from team 3. With this finalized roster entering the playoffs, Cross expects them to perform better than their fifth-place ranking suggests.

Kenai 3 — Raymond Wilkie, Alex Collet and Vincent Hensley — fell 3-1 to Sitka High School 3. They’re ranked eighth in the state, but Cross said that PlayVS “typically” limits schools to two teams in a playoff bracket, so if a top eight proceeds to playoffs, Kenai 3 will likely have to cede their spot.

“They had a great season, and did well,” Cross wrote.

Soldotna High School 2’s Nash, Aanson Clark and Graehm LeFevre swept Sitka 4 to climb to ninth in the state. Kaponus-Angleton said he thought it unlikely that they would be included in the playoffs, expecting a top eight bracket. If Kenai 3 isn’t able to compete, it seems like SoHi would squeeze into that final slot, but it won’t be clear until PlayVS completes brackets in the coming weeks.

Rocket League

SoHi’s LeFevre, Nash and Clark swept Rutland Senior Secondary School on Thursday to end the regular season 6-2 and sixth in the California Region. They’ll be in the playoffs.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

Kenai Central took two back-to-back sweeps Thursday, making up a game delayed for the winter storm last week against Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science and then taking on Nikiski. They’re 6-2 and third in the Coastal Region, set for a run at the playoffs.

After falling to Kenai, Nikiski sits at 4-4 and ninth in the region. Per PlayVS rules, the region’s playoffs will likely be a top eight, seeing Nikiski narrowly eliminated.

SoHi was swept by second-ranked President William McKinley High School and closes the regular season 5-3 and fifth, having already clinched a playoff berth last week.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

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