Six schools play girls soccer in the Peninsula Conference, which was created before the 2018 season with the split of soccer into two divisions.
Even when competing against the big schools prior to the split, Kenai Central has been to five straight state tournaments, and six of seven. Soldotna has been to six of eight.
Of the other four Peninsula Conference schools, Homer has not gone to state since 2007. Nikiski, Seward and Voznesenka have never been to state.
So the biggest obstacle to the conference’s two automatic berths to state is no mystery.
“If I had to guess, I’d be pretty confident it’s going to come down to who can pull out a win against Kenai or SoHi,” Homer head coach Mike Tozzo said. “I don’t think it’s any secret, looking at the past 10 years in conference, that’s who you need to beat.
“I don’t make it any secret. My players all know that.”
Spicing things up this season is the addition of two at-large berths to the eight-team state tournament. The Alaska School Activities Association will determine the at-large berths based on head-to-head competition, competition with common opponents and where a team finished in the conference.
Sounds like something that should not be counted upon to save a season, right?
“The bottom line is we’ve still got to beat Kenai or SoHi,” Tozzo said. “If we put ourselves in third place we put ourselves at the mercy of ASAA.”
Other coaches in the conference have the same read as Tozzo. The at-large berth is nice because it gives more opportunity, but it should not be seen as an excuse not to play up to the standard Kenai and Soldotna have set. The Stars toppled the Kardinals in the conference’s first title game last season.
“It definitely provides the opportunity for those schools to build some confidence and have something to work toward,” Seward head coach Coty Beck said. “That’s not to say our girls don’t have that opportunity already.
“It’s more of a confidence thing with numbers. It’s a progression where these girls will gain more confidence and understand they can play at a high level.”
The following is a closer look at the teams:
In his fourth year as head coach, Tozzo has 31 out for the program. The Mariners have been on their turf since before spring break.
Homer was close to state last year, losing to Kenai in the conference semis.
“That 1-0 loss stung,” Tozzo said. “We had the team to do it and we didn’t quite get there.
“I told the girls we’re at the top of the hill, we just have to go down the other side. Getting over that hump has to happen sooner or later. They’re motivated and working hard.”
Tozzo has been coaching the girls at the middle school for two years and sees that continuity paying off.
Homer lost two to graduation, but they were conference first-teamers Raisa Basargin and Andie Sonnen.
First-teamer and goalie Ali McCarron returns to start for a fourth season. Her sister, midfielder Brenna McCarron, also has started four years. Junior second-teamer Daisy Kettle, a defender, also returns.
More experience comes from junior midfielder Eve Brau, junior defender Alyssum Veldtstra, senior defender Kimberly Lynn, senior defender Summer McGuire and senior utility player Sienna Carey.
The Mariners also have plenty of young talent led by sophomore midfielder Jess Sonnen, sophomore striker Laura Inama, and freshmen strikers/midfielders Kappa Reutov and Sela Weisser.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Dan Verkuilen has been coaching the team since 1999 and has seen player numbers shoot up to 31 after being in the 20s the last few years.
He said one reason for the program’s success is continuity. Verkuilen also coaches the girls at Kenai Middle School so players have him for six years by the time they graduate.
“Right or wrong, they learn my system and get comfortable with that,” Verkuilen said. “The seniors have played with me for six years. We understand each other, and that helps out a lot.”
The program also has a nice work ethic.
“We run pretty no-nonsense practices and ask a lot out of each other,” he said. “It’s been a blessing. It’s a good, blue collar program.
“The kids work hard, buy into the system, and by the end of the season I’m getting the best they’ve got. That’s all I can ask.”
Thanks to the city of Kenai blowing off the field, the Kards have been outside for two weeks. The team lost three starters from last year, including conference MVP Brenna Eubank.
The captains for now are senior midfielder and forward Olivia Brewer and junior captain, sweeper and first-team all-conference player Alissa Maw.
Also returning are senior midfielder Savaya Bieber, junior goalie Kailey Hamilton, junior stopper and midfielder Anya Danielson, junior defender Damaris Severson, sophomore defender and midfielder Taylor Pierce, sophomore midfielder Rachael Pitsch, junior midfielder Abigail Schneiders and sophomore forward and midfielder Bethany Morris.
Junior Alyssa Bucho and sophomores Karley Harden and Julia Hanson also will give the team a boost.
Verkuilen said the team’s biggest problem last season was scoring goals. He said the Kardinals must work on that again this season. Right now Verkuilen is tinkering with players in various positions with an eye on peaking for another state run.
“I see us in the middle of the pack on straight-out talent,” he said. “I’m hoping by the end of the season, with our returners bringing up the younger kids, I’m hoping we’re in that mix for state.”
Head coach Linda Zimmerman begins her third year with about 25 athletes in the program. Nikiski got a ton of snow this winter and has no turf field, so the Bulldogs have been limited to a few practices on the Kenai Central turf thus far, plus a junior varsity scrimmage on the Homer turf.
Zimmerman said the only thing that gives the field a chance of being playable anytime soon is that L and J Enterprises Excavating Inc. came and plowed off the field.
The coach said her players don’t play soccer year-round, but they do have a chemistry that spans across sports.
“A lot of these girls play multiple sports together,” Zimmerman said. “That’s what jells them together. They have a trust among one another and they know what their teammate is going to do.
“Through programs at our rec center, a lot have been playing together since they were 5 or 6 years old in different sports.”
The Bulldogs return an experienced group that will give the team a good base on which to build. Junior forward Jordyn Stock made first-team all-conference, while senior goalie Abby Bystedt made second-team all-conference.
Nikiski also gets seasoned players in senior midfielder Emma Wik, junior forward America Jeffreys and junior midfielder/defender Tika Zimmerman.
“Nothing is impossible,” coach Zimmerman said. “I know other schools lost key senior players, so you can’t rule out some of these smaller schools.”
More firepower will come from sophomore defender and midfielder Cailin Yeager and junior forward Tawnisha Freeman.
In his second year as head coach, Beck has about 18 players out for the team.
Seward did not get a lot of snow in town this winter, so Beck said his squad was able to get on the elementary field relatively early. He added that the high school field could be good to go in another week or so.
Last summer, Beck and boys coach Dustin Phillips did a youth program to try and get interest in soccer elevated and to give youth basic skills they can burnish as they get older.
Beck believes Seward can compete with the Kenais and Soldotnas of the world.
“I grew up here,” Beck said. “I think the mentality of small-schools sports are skewed where we think we’re just a small town in Seward and we can’t expect to make it to the big time.
“I hate that attitude. With every game comes an opportunity for success to build and get out of that mentality.”
The Seahawks have a returning senior, three returning juniors and four returning sophomores.
Senior Meghan Mullaly is back at center back after recovering from knee surgery. Returning from the junior class are defender and midfielder Madilyn Moore, left back Madison Athey and midfielder and wing Naomi Ifflander.
The returning sophomores are attacking midfielder Sequoia Sieverts, goalkeeper Makaira Williams, defender Kylie Mullaly and midfielder and wing Angel Purigay.
Beck also likes the athleticism of newcomers Riley Von Borstel, a senior, and Shelly Sewell, a sophomore.
A nice group of freshmen also bring lots of energy and enthusiasm. Those freshmen are Belladonna Darby, Wren Dougherty, Mikya Wallace, Sailor Terry, Gaia Casagranda and Annika Nilsson.
“Regardless of the outcome, I want them to have confidence going into each game that we can play with the other team,” Beck said. “I want them to have fun, but more than that, I want them to have their hard work pay off.”
Love had been head coach for about 12 years now and has numbers of the program sitting at almost 40. The Stars have been outside on their turf field for almost two weeks.
This early in the season, Love is focused on his squad and not other teams in the conference.
“You really don’t know what to expect or what other teams have,” he said. “My philosophy is to go out and play our game, and play our game to the best of our ability.
“If we do that, we have the ability to beat our opponents here. The team goal is to win the conference title and go on to state and see what we can do up there.”
The Stars lost a pair of first-teamers in goalie Maddie Kindred and sweeper Whitney Wortham, in addition to a pair of other seniors.
Love said there are always young players in the pipeline to fill roles, but the loss of Kindred especially hurts because, for some reason, the coach said he doesn’t get a lot of trained goalkeepers coming to Soldotna.
Other than that, Soldotna is deep after fielding a young team last year and sustaining injuries that forced a lot of players into action.
“That’s going to be a challenge for me this year,” Love said. “We’re running anywhere from 19 to 20 to maybe 21 players, and I can only play 11. It’s going to be a tough decision.”
First-team junior midfielder Journey Miller and second-team midfielder Ryann Cannava return to a solid attack, as does junior forward Meijan Leaf and senior forward Haley Buckbee.
The back line will be solid with seniors Hannah Delker and Sierra Longfellow and junior Kianna Holland. Boosting the midfield will be junior Cameron Blackwell and sophomore Sierra Kuntz.
Promising newcomers are sophomore transfer Lily Coon and sophomore Drysta Crosby-Schneider.
“When you look at it on paper it looks and sounds great,” Love said. “What we have on paper and what we bring to the game are two totally different conversations.
“It’ll be interesting to see what we put together on the field.”
The Cougars have been sanctioned by ASAA since 2015 to play girls soccer, though principal Michael Wojciak pointed out the school seldom plays varsity games, opting for a lot of scrimmages with junior varsity teams.
After assisting former coach Frosia Polushkin for two years, Fenya Kalugin has stepped up to take the head coaching position. Kalugin said there are 12 on the team this season.
With low numbers, Kalugin said the Cougars aren’t hunting a state berth and would be happy with winning a few games. The squad will see how the season plays out before deciding whether or not to play in the conference tournament.
“It’s an opportunity for the girls to have a little fun outside of just school and play,” Kalugin said.
The coach added that the fellow programs of the peninsula have been great to them.
“They’re always complimenting us saying how impressive we are running the entire game and not giving up until the game is over,” Kalugin said. “They look around and we’re cheerful and happy to be able to play.”
Senior Faena Basargin has been playing goalie for all four years and Kalugin said she has developed into an amazing goalie. Freshman Inna Basargin, a first cousin of Faena, also is impressive. Kalugin said this will be a good opportunity to pass the goaltending torch from one cousin to another.
The coach also said sophomore Maria Reutov does a great job on defense with her quickness and powerful kicks to clear the ball out of dangerous areas.