Six teams in the Alaska high school hockey’s North Star Conference will begin their quest for supremacy within the week, but some of them might have an easier time of doing it.
Recent years in the conference have seen a clear delineation in power, and it doesn’t appear to be changing soon. Last year, it was Wasilla and Colony grabbing the two state berths available in the conference, with the Knights beating the Warriors 5-3 in the NSC title game in early February. Earlier in the region tournament, SoHi and Kenai were dropped after the first day, while Homer was clobbered by Wasilla in the semifinals by a five-goal margin.
The Valley teams picked up the top three seeds in the region tournament, combining to form a 20-8-2 record in conference play, while Peninsula squads were 8-20-2. Overall, Peninsula teams went 3-15 against their Valley rivals to the north over the season.
Soldotna coach Derek Urban believes that Wasilla may be headed toward a down year, but still points to Palmer and Colony as the favorites to battle for the NSC crown.
“Those two always are strong,” Urban said. “I think we stack up well with everyone in the conference, but those two in particular could give us trouble.”
Kenai Central coach Michael Tilly, whose Kardinals squad looks to be setting up for a rebuilding year after losing one of its most valuable players, said it is mostly useless in checking out what the other team has got when the real task is to improve his own side.
“I rarely look outside and see who’s got what,” Tilly said.
All three Peninsula teams will convene for the popular Peninsula Ice Challenge next weekend, a three-day, round-robin tournament at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex that will also include the Service Cougars.
Dec. 3, 4 and 5 will bring the first weekend of conference contests, as SoHi, Homer and Kenai will host Colony, Palmer and Wasilla for three days of action on their home rinks. The Peninsula teams will then travel to the Valley for a three-day weekend on Jan. 14, 15 and 16. The NSC tournament is slated to begin Feb. 4 at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, while the state tourney will begin Feb. 11 in Wasilla.
SoHi will gets its season schedule under way today at 6:30 p.m. with a nonconference matchup against South at the Ben Boeke Ice Arena in Anchorage. The Stars will face Eagle River on Saturday.
After finishing the 2014 season with a 3-6-1 region mark and being eliminated on the first day of the NSC tournament, the Stars are hungry for more, but coach Urban knows the slope is steep.
“We’re not putting the pressure on ourselves,” Urban said. “We have a real young team, and I think we’re going to be very competitive in the region.”
One of the top rising talents for SoHi is sophomore goalie Billy Yoder, who returns after solid debut season with the Stars. In two regular-season contests against the top-seeded Wasilla Warriors last year, Yoder stopped 64 of 70 shots, including a clutch performance in January to help his team beat Wasilla 6-2.
Urban added that Yoder spent time over the summer sharpening his skills, including getting ice time with the Kenai River Brown Bears at the “Summer Ice” program, and said Yoder will play a big role in helping spark the SoHi defense this season.
“It’s been fun, I’ve been watching Billy since he was a Squirt,” Urban said. “He’s played quite a bit with my youngest son, and so it’s great coming in with a year under his belt. The nerves won’t be like they were for him last year.”
The defense and front lines are filled with juniors and sophomores, Urban said, with leading contenders up front including senior forward Calvin Hills, junior Ethan Brown, junior Jace Urban, sophomore Levi Hensley, senior Matthew Daugherty and junior Cory Hanson. Several of those players could fall back on defense with junior Cole Crandel.
“The expectations are to make state, which are every team’s hopes, but I think it’s realistic,” he said. “I think we have a pretty decent blend of good leadership.”
A 2-8-0 year in the NSC left the Kards sixth in the region in 2014. Kenai hasn’t been to state since 2010.
Kenai coach Michael Tilly said he will not be burdening the team with unrealistically high expectations.
“We didn’t do that last year, either,” Tilly said. “Because of the league being so fluid with graduation and kids going out of state, it seems like it’s never going to be the same kids twice.”
Last year, five Kenai players went Outside to compete in junior hockey leagues. This season, two players will be missing, while a third that could be on the roster decided to return for another year of junior league play.
Both Dalton Dosko and Cody Arbelovsky, a pair of senior forwards made up a sizable chunk of Kenai’s offense in the previous two years, are gone. Dosko joined former Kenai teammate Ross Hanson on the AAA Pikes Peak (Colorado) Miners, while Arbelovsky is competing with the Eugene (Oregon) Generals in the Tier III North Pacific Hockey League.
While it is satisfying to see some of his players take the next step toward a successful career in the sport, Tilly said it also hurts his current squad.
“Our numbers are down, we have about two lines right now,” he said. “It’s going to be a bit of a challenge, because I think you need at least three (offensive) lines at this level, and if you’re lucky, maybe four.”
Another key loss was the graduation of senior goalie Nate O’Lena, who Tilly said has been giving his time in the early weeks of the season to tune up incoming goalie Ryan Williams, a junior.
“I thought Nate was one of the most talented goalies in the state (in 2014),” Tilly said. “He kept us in a lot of games.”
Last year, the results were obvious on weekends in which O’Lena saw 100 shots or more on goal.
With Williams in goal for 2015, Tilly said he hopes to see solid play out of defenseman Jacob O’Brien, Matt Hagel, and forwards Ian Mercado, Tristan Bulot and Tyler Lingafelt, all players that saw valuable ice time last year.
Homer will open its season Thursday against Kenai in the Peninsula Ice Challenge, and will continue with games against SoHi and Service on its opening weekend of play.
The Mariners finished last year 3-6-1 and fifth in the NSC standings, tied with SoHi for best of the Peninsula teams, then beat the Stars 2-1 in the region tournament quarterfinals in overtime. Homer’s season came to an end in the semifinals with a 7-2 loss to Wasilla.