The Soldotna and Homer hockey teams do not have to look hard for motivation this season.
As prep hockey drops into action today through Saturday with the Peninsula Ice Challenge, both the Stars and Mariners know they were thisclose to glory last season.
Soldotna went 9-1 to win the Railbelt Conference and wrap up the No. 1 seed in the Division II state tournament. After rolling to a 10-0 victory over Delta in the first round, the Stars lost 4-3 to Palmer in overtime in the semifinals.
The Stars, who would end up fifth at state, had a 3-0 lead in the first period, but Palmer managed to come back and force overtime for the fourth straight time in the Palmer-SoHi series.
“We definitely didn’t finish the way we wanted to,” Soldotna head coach Indy Walton said. “I wish we could do that over again.
“We had a team that was plagued by a lot of sickness at the end, myself included, and we were not at our best.”
The Moose were not done doling out 2019-20 inspiration for peninsula squads. In the state final, Homer, a No. 3 seed making its first appearance at state, worked back from a 4-1 deficit in the third period to take a 5-4 lead with 63 seconds left in the game.
But Palmer would score with 34.4 seconds left in regulation, then score again in overtime to take a second state hockey title.
“Last year we kind of had heartbreak at the end of the year,” Homer coach Steve Nevak said. “The juniors didn’t shed a tear. They just walked up to me and said it won’t happen again.
“They were disappointed and angry and know the feeling of being so close, so they want it bad this year. They’ve got great focus to start the season.”
The Railbelt Conference includes Soldotna, Kenai Central and Homer, as well as Juneau, Palmer and Houston. The conference gets three berths to state, and there also are two at-large berths given out.
The Kardinals missed out on a state berth last season, with Scott Shelden taking over as head coach this year. Shelden played hockey for Kenai Central before graduating in 1988.
He has been heavily involved in the sport since then, mostly with the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association. Shelden did spend a few years at the high school level in the late 1990s, assisting John Carlin at Soldotna.
Shelden said it is impossible to know how his team stacks up with no games played yet, but he knows the attitude he wants Kenai to display.
“We want to hang a banner,” Shelden said. “I’m not trying to be cocky. I have no idea where we’re at, but we’re going to act like we’re going to win every game.”
While it would take a massive turnaround from last season to hang a banner, both Nevak and Walton know of Shelden’s work in youth hockey and say that Shelden should not be underestimated.
“I’m excited about Kenai,” Nevak said. “I’ve coached with the new coaching staff there. I think you’ll see Kenai as an up-and-coming program in the next few years.”
In the Peninsula Ice Challenge, Soldotna plays the Dimond JV at 7:15 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex today, while Kenai plays Delta at 7:30 p.m. at the Kenai Multi-Purpose Facility. Friday, SoHi plays Delta at 7:15 p.m. at the SRSC, while Kenai faces Dimond JV at 7:30 p.m. in Kenai. Saturday, Delta and Dimond JV play at 2 p.m. at Kenai, while Soldotna and Kenai play at 4:30 p.m. at Kenai.
Homer opens up at Delta Junction on Nov. 7.
The following is a closer look at the peninsula’s hockey teams:
Nevak enters his second year as head coach with 21 kids in the program. Matt Stineff and Mike Spencer are the assistant coaches. What the program lacks in quantity, it makes up in quality due to the youth program.
Nevak said he moved to Homer 10 years ago and started coaching a group that included five seniors that are expected to be the foundation for this year’s team, and also were the top five point getters for last year’s team.
Senior forward Ethan Pitzman was the conference’s player of the year last season. Senior defenseman Isaiah Nevak and senior forward Tyler Gilliland were first-team all-conference.
Senior Austin Shafford, a defenseman, and Alden Ross, a forward, round out the group.
“The senior class is very strong, and we’ve got four outstanding freshmen to help fill the void of losing eight seniors,” Nevak said.
Junior Phinny Weston also returns. He played as a freshman before playing hockey in the Lower 48 last season.
Nevak also is excited about a sophomore class led by forwards Kazden Stineff and Matfey Reutov, and goalie Keegan Strong. Freshman forward Toby Nevak and freshman defenseman Jett Allen show the talent pipeline from the youth program is alive and well.
“We’re three lines deep,” Nevak said. “We’re ready to go. But what I’ve been telling the boys is all the games still need to be played.”
Kenai Central Kardinals
Shelden has 33 kids in the program and also has assembled a coaching staff with which he is clicking.
Ben Langham had already coached with Shelden for five years, while Jenna Redford, who played Division I hockey, has previous experience coaching with Shelden and with Kenai Central. Jake Brand coached with Kenai last season and hasn’t previously coached with Shelden, but Shelden said Brand is a great fit.
The staff has a great mix of youth and experience with which to work, with nine seniors, nine juniors and 13 freshmen.
“We’re trying to challenge them,” Shelden said of his players. “So far we’ve been together roughly two weeks and the coaches and myself could not be happier with the effort and commitment.
“We’ve yet to get into games, so we’re anxious to get going.”
With no games contested, Shelden did not want to mention a lot of players yet, saying that senior forwards Nate Beiser, Zach Burnett and Jordan Knutsen all will play a big role.
There are five goalies on the roster, with junior Jackson Cross and freshman Tommy Baker set to dress this weekend.
Senior Jordyn Stock and sophomore Jacob Begich were second-team all-conference last season. Shelden added that seniors Travis Verkuilen and Miles Marston also will play a key role on the team.
Walton, who is assisted by Ben Christianson and Matt Thompson, enters his third year with 37 players in the program.
The coach said he is impressed with his seniors in more than a hockey sense.
“We’ve got a lot of talent back and I’m proud of where the team has come in the last three years,” Walton said. “I’m excited to see all these kids grow up and mature and move on to more important things in life.
“The kids are making good decisions about life. It’s good to see that.”
Returning first-team all-conference player Galen Brantley III has college football scholarship opportunities, and fellow first-teamer Wyatt Medcoff also has opportunities in college sports. Senior forward Journey Miller has Division III hockey scholarship opportunities.
Senior first-teamer Corbin Wirz also returns in net, but Soldotna did lose Lucas Kline and JD Schmelzenbach to junior hockey.
There is still plenty of talent. Walton said forward Gavin Haakenson, goalie Josh Tree and forward Dylan Walton, all juniors, play on the Alaska Oilers U16AA team, currently ranked No. 1 in the nation. Tree was second-team all-conference last season.
Sophomore defenseman Trent Powell and sophomore forward Brier Brooks play on U16AAA for Team Alaska.
Senior forward Alex Montague led SoHi in assists last season, while senior forward David Aley uses his speed and balance to create problems for the opposition. Freshman forward Silas Larsen and freshman defenseman Aiden Burcham add even more talent to the mix.
Walton said the team has a very challenging schedule this year, with only seven home games.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us financially,” he said. “Early in the year, one of our focuses has been on fundraising.”