The colors blue and red have taken over the nation in this election year, as the Democratic and Republican candidates fight for America’s vote for the next president of the United States.
In the soccer landscape in the state of Alaska, the colors red and blue hold a much different meaning.
The red of the Kenai Central Kardinals and the blue of the Soldotna Stars has been seen more often each year as the girls soccer teams have dueled for supremacy on the Kenai Peninsula. The two local teams have clashed in each of the past two Northern Lights Conference championship games, SoHi coming away the winner in 2014 and Kenai in 2015.
SoHi has reigned as region champions five of the last eight years, including three straight from 2010 to 2012, in addition to triumphs in 2008 and 2014. In the intervening years, the Stars got to the region title game every season except 2009, the only year they missed out on state.
Since 2010, the Soldotna girls have racked up a staggering 62-2-3 record in regular-season play.
Both teams finished atop the NLC standings with identical 4-0-1 campaigns last year in conference play, with the Stars receiving the tiebreaker. Kenai and SoHi both steamrolled through the competition in 2015 en route to a combined 23-1-3 record in the regular season.
“I think over the last eight years or so, we have been the lucky recipient of some phenomenal players that have bolstered our program,” said Soldotna head coach Jimmy Love. “Maybe we did the right thing and put them in the right spots, but it’s all the girls.”
The Stars’ only obstacle? Finishing it off at state. Prior to finishing sixth at the season-ending tournament last May, SoHi had reeled off three straight finishes of third at state.
“That seems to be the crux of our game,” Love admitted.
The Kards have also come to play in recent years. In 2015, Kenai finally staked its name to the NLC crown with a 3-2 championship win over SoHi, giving the Kards their first region title since 2009 and a combined seventh title out of eight years for Kenai and Soldotna.
The region title last May was the finishing touch of a talented squad several years in the making, and gave the Kards their second straight state appearance.
“We’re hoping for our seniors to show a lot of leadership this year,” said longtime Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen, whose squad is packing seven starting seniors.
The NLC tournament will be held at Kenai on May 20 and 21, and with three teams headed on to state, the odds of another double appearance at state for the red and blue are looking good.
The question remains. Who else will challenge the Stars and Kards in the Northern Lights Conference?
After finishing 14-3-2 overall last year en route to a fifth-place state finish, the Kenai girls are looking for more.
With three state trips in the previous four years, the potential is there. The Kards have gotten to the semifinal round at state for two straight years, but have had trouble finishing against top-notch competition. In 2015, Kenai escaped the first day with a dramatic win over Juneau that had to go to penalty kicks to decide a winner, but stumbled with losses to West Valley and Service.
“With the seniors on the team, (we’re) hoping they feel the urgency of their final seasons,” Verkuilen said.
Verkuilen is working this season with a smaller team, down a few kids to a full roster of 25. The game schedule has gone the other direction, as 17 contests make up the 2016 slate. The Kardinals played 10 times last year in the regular season.
Only two seniors graduated from last year’s team, but both played key roles. Midfielder and team captain Heidi Perkins was a state all-tournament member, and defender Jamie Bagley anchored the defense and assisted on the game-winning goal in the NLC championship game. Verkuilen said the absence of those two on the field will be a process of trial and error in discovering if Kenai can maintain its dominance.
“We’ll find out,” he said with a smile.
Fortunately, two of the three players that were named to the state all-tournament team are back. Sweeper Kylie Morse and goalkeeper Alli Steinbeck return for their senior seasons. Morse already has a college commitment nailed down with Edmonds Community College near Seattle.
Joining Morse and Steinbeck as co-captains on the team is midfielder Cori Holmes.
Seniors Hannah Drury, Darby Milburn, Sarah Every and Jacey Ross make up the remaining senior class. Milburn also has a collegiate commitment with Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Oregon.
Junior forward Lara Creighton leads the way as one of the most potent strikers, while sophomore Brenna Eubank will provide outside help. Juniors Mikaela Pitsch and Samantha Morse will be key on defense.
In over a decade of coaching with the Stars, Love said the solid rivalry with Kenai has not died in intensity.
“It’ll be interesting,” Love said about the battle he expects to face. “It always comes down to which two teams show up.”
Last spring, the SoHi girls finished at 16-3-1 overall and grabbed sixth place at the state tournament, snapping a three-year string of third-place finishes.
As a senior, Miranda Wolfe was named to the state all-tournament team, and Wolfe and defenders Alex Ashe and Taryn McCubbins were named to the all-conference team.
The bad news is that all three stars are gone. Wolfe, Ashe and standout Nikiski goalkeeper Rachel Thompson compete at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington. Other crucial pieces that graduated include defensive specialist Bailey Rosin and frontliners Taylor Wilson and Skylar Shaw.
Love refused to call 2016 a rebuilding year, instead opting for a different name.
“I’d say it’s a restructuring year,” he said. “We’re moving people around, playing different positions than they have in the past.
“You can’t really replace people, you just move them around. It’s hard to replace a Miranda Wolfe.”
With the exception of a few days of snow, Love said the Stars have been able to get outside for practice since day 1 of the season in mid-March. With the luxurious turfs at Kenai and SoHi giving teams the option of early practices, another state run is in the cards.
“Our goal is to come out and play our game, not our opponent’s game,” Love cautioned. “If we do that, we should finish up near the front of the South Division.”
Love said the current roster consists of 40 players.
Leading the charge up front will be a mix of players, including seniors Alyssa Wolfe and Reagan Schoessler, sophomore Whitney Wortham, junior Avery Smith and sophomore Jaela Hubbard. Junior Abi Tuttle and sophomore Ella Stenga will anchor a solid midfield.
“We’re so heavy in our midfield that I’m not overly concerned there,” Love said.
The defensive line is stocked with sophomores Talon Hagen and Hannah Wells and junior Torri Hensley.
Sophomore Maddie Kindred returns as goalkeeper, and Love said with a full season under her belt after replacing 2014 SoHi grad Katelynn Kerkvliet, Kindred will only be better.
“I’m thinking she’s grasping what we’re talking about,” Love said. “She’s up to that challenge. I think sophomore year is where they turn that corner.”
Getting by with a smaller pool of students to pick from has served the Bulldogs just fine in recent years. As one of the smallest schools in the Northern Lights Conference, Nikiski has been able to make it to the region tournament three of the last four years with a roster size of around 30 players.
Troy Zimmerman, in his second year with the team and in his 18th as a teacher, said early snowmelt has helped the NIkiski soccer field dry out before the month of March was done. Nikiski does not have an artificial turf field.
“Part of it is our grit and our conditioning,” Zimmerman added. “It’s the fundamental skills we have to hone to be competitive.”
Zimmerman also said having his wife by his side as an assistant coach has paid dividends, as another female mind has helped him to think like a teenage girl. Zimmerman said the squad has gotten together outside of practice for team-bonding activities.
“I learned that my wife Linda is a valuable asset,” he said. “She provides quite a few insights for me, things that men might have a tendency to overlook with a girls team.”
The biggest loss to Nikiski was the graduation of talented senior Rachel Thompson last spring. Thompson, who is now playing in college in Washington, was a versatile player who often split time between goalkeeper and midfielder.
Thompson’s loss has led to junior Brianna Vollertsen taking over the starting goalie position.
“(Thompson) did a really great job in mentoring Brianna,” Zimmerman said. “Through that mentorship, I feel very comfortable in having Brianna in that position.”
The good news is that Zimmerman has five returning seniors, and four of them are regular starters.
Up front are sophomore captains Rylee Jackson and Melanie Sexton, seniors Chloe Braun and Zykiah Cooney, juniors Molly Cason and Alexis Schmidt and sophomore Verity Feltman.
The defensive line consists of Hannah Love, Avery Kornstad, Kelsey Zoda and Daisy Schwenke. Zimmerman will also be using utility players Deidra Lamping and Desmeranda (known as Dessy) Napoka.
Longtime Homer girls coach Mickey Todd is leaving the program in favor of incoming coach Mike Tozzo.
Tozzo is a Ninilchik teacher that has previous experience as a player at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, and said the goal for the Mariners is to put together a winning season.
“After that, we’d like to get back to the region tourney,” Tozzo stated. “My only job is to get them playing competitively.”
The 34-year-old Tozzo has five years of coaching experience, but none of them with soccer.
However, coaching gigs in cross-country running, track and field and volleyball have left Tozzo with ideas with guide a girls soccer team.
“I challenged the girls to not give up all year and they’ve taken that to heart,” he said. “They’re doing well so far in regards to spacing and communication (on the field).”
Tozzo said the Homer midfield is the “best on the peninsula,” and praised the determination of his defensive line in the early season.
Leading the team is four-year starting goalkeeper Sam Draves, who shut out Kenai Central for one half of a season-opening matchup Wednesday.
“Sam provides a lot of stability for us, and she has a high soccer IQ,” Tozzo said following Wednesday’s loss. “She’ll take us as far as she wishes.”
In front of Draves stands a defense consisting of sophomore Alyssa Cole, freshman Brenna McCarron and returning junior Megan Pitzman. Leading the charge up front is senior Rachel Ellert and junior Uliana Reutov.