Just as the Homer boys and the Kenai Central girls and boys soccer teams have shown a recent ability to punch above their weight when it comes to earning state berths out of the Northern Lights Conference, Kenai Peninsula sides have often played bigger than their size at the state soccer tournament.
The Mariners boys and Kardinals girls and boys are all set to begin play today at the state soccer tournament at Eagle River and Service high schools.
Soldotna, Kodiak, Colony, Palmer and Wasilla all have bigger enrollments than Homer and Kenai, but that hasn’t kept the Kardinals and Mariners from state in recent years.
The Homer boys are going for their fourth time in six years, the Kenai girls are making their fourth straight trip and fifth in six years, and the Kenai boys are headed to Anchorage for the third straight year.
Homer and Kenai are the smallest schools at state this year, but population and indoor surface advantages have not kept peninsula schools from making noise at state.
On the boys side, last year the Kardinals became the first peninsula side to make a final, losing 3-1 to South Anchorage. Homer tied for third in 2014 and finished fourth in 2012.
On the girls side, Soldotna tied for third in 2012 and finished third in 2013 and 2014.
With a 16-1 overall record and nearly all major contributors back from the runner-up finish last season, the Kenai boys are looking to make a major run this season.
The Kardinals open with Juneau-Douglas, a five-time state champion, today at 2 p.m. at Eagle River.
“The reality of it is any of the top six or seven teams, and maybe all eight, are within striking distance,” Kenai coach Joel Reemtsma said. “There’s not going to be an easy game in the tournament.”
With the short soccer season, teams like Juneau-Douglas and Kenai don’t get a chance to play each other, or even much common competition. Reemtsma said that makes the tournament tough to predict.
All Reemtsma can do is compare his team to the past, and he likes what he sees.
“We feel pretty confident, but we’re not thinking anything will be handed to us given we’ve been to the final,” he said. “We feel like we’re a better team than last year, and I think all the guys would agree.
“The primary outlook is confidence and the other is vengeance.”
Reemtsma said Juneau topped Kenai 3-2 in the third-place game at state two years ago. He said Kenai was putting on pressure and had a corner kick when the final whistle blew.
“It’s not vengeance in a dirty sense, it’s vengeance in a good sense,” he said. “We want to get them.”
With so much tough soccer packed into three days, Reemtsma said all 11 players on the field, and up to all 22 on the roster, will be important.
But Kenai has a few difference makers who must be heard from.
“(Zack) Tuttle had nine goals last weekend at the region tournament, which is insane,” Reemtsma said. “Another example is Max Dye scoring from deep and Tristan Landry making great saves, but really everyone is going to have to have great games.”
Kenai’s seniors graduate Wednesday night, but both Reemtsma and girls coach Dan Verkuilen said the recent graduates will fly to Anchorage on Wednesday night to join the team.
The boys have five seniors, while the girls have eight seniors.
Kenai’s seniors have been to state all four seasons and won borough titles in seventh- and eighth-grade, so Verkuilen is hoping to give them a solid sendoff.
“I’m really excited that the senior girls will get this chance,” Verkuilen said. “State is always interesting and fun.
“We don’t know what to expect. Not many people know us, and we don’t know a lot about them.”
This is the ninth time Verkuilen has led the Kardinals (12-6 overall) to state, with their best finish being fifth place.
Kenai opens with Dimond, which last year won its fourth state title, at noon at Eagle River.
Verkuilen said the challenge in facing Anchorage schools is depth, total team speed and the fact that some teams have players that play soccer together year-round.
Like Reemtsma, Verkuilen said dealing with the waves of speed will take everybody. The coach said freshman goalie Kailey Hamilton was up to the task at the conference tournament, and that must continue at state.
“We’re definitely not a team made of superstars,” Verkuilen said. “We have a bunch of hard-working girls, and everybody has to do their job. We just can’t have one or two players take over the game.”
Homer, at 10-4-1 overall, will take on 17-0 West Valley at 6 p.m. at Eagle River.
Coach Warren Waldorf is excited to meet some new competition. Homer last met West Valley in 2009 and lost 2-0, but the game produced great soccer.
Waldorf said former Mariners standout Robin Glosser told him it was the best game of soccer in which he had participated at the time.
“A week and a half ago, I told the team the worst-case scenario is we are one and done (at the NLC tournament) and the best-case scenario is we play five games over the next couple of weeks,” Waldorf said. “That’s what we are going to do.”
Of course, if Homer can win one of its first two games at state, the Mariners will get to play six games.
West Valley defeated Soldotna 3-2 this season, while Homer swept three games from the Stars. West Valley also topped Colony 1-0, while Homer just lost to the Knights 2-0 at the conference tournament, although one of the goals came on a late penalty kick.
“Playing within two goals of them would be a strong effort,” Waldorf said of West Valley. “To find a way to win, we’d have to be a bit lucky and they’d have to be a bit unlucky, but we’ve seen that happen before.”
Like Reemtsma and Verkuilen, Waldorf said everybody on the field must play well. Players like Charles Rohr, who had both goals in a 2-1 victory over Soldotna that sent Homer to state, then must step up and make the difference.
“The kids are in a great mood,” Waldorf said. “There’s no injuries and they’re ready to go out and enjoy it.”