Thanks to a warm spring and artificial turf, the Kenai Central girls and boys soccer teams have played a once-unthinkable 10 varsity matches apiece this season at Ed Hollier Field.
Both squads would like to run that total to 13 from today through Saturday at the Northern Lights Conference soccer championships.
The Kardinals girls and boys teams have the top seed from the Southern Division at the tournament, which will send three teams apiece to state.
In the eight games today, the winner advances to the weekend while the loser is done. Those top four girls and boys teams then battle it out with games Friday and Saturday for the coveted top-three slots.
“It’s good the local fans will be able to watch the games and see how Soldotna and us, and Homer and Nikiski, are doing and how much they are improving,” Kenai girls coach Dan Verkuilen said. “But one of the challenges that we don’t have up in the Valley is we don’t have their undivided attention.”
Kardinals boys coach Joel Reemtsma agreed, saying a tournament in the Valley eliminates the possibility of all-night video games or mowing the lawn a few hours before the game.
“We considered just going and staying someplace because the distraction danger is real,” Reemtsma said, adding he decided against that ploy. “But the fan part of it is awesome.
“We’re excited to show what we can do in our own house.”
Beyond a chance to check out the local squads, the NLC is shaping up to provide some compelling tournament soccer for area fans.
In both divisions on the girls side, a tiebreaker was needed to decide the No. 1 seed — with Kenai getting the nod over Soldotna and Wasilla topping Colony.
“It’s one of the only years I can think of where the top four teams have been this close,” said Soldotna girls coach Jimmy Love. “You could line those teams up and I think different teams would win each time.”
The Stars have won five of the last eight conference titles and have been to state in seven of the last eight years. That doesn’t happen by looking past the vital first game.
SoHi (11-3-1 overall) hosts North No. 3 Grace Christian today at 3 p.m. The Stars just beat the Grizzlies 4-0 on Friday.
“We have to possess, we have to pass, we have to shoot and we have to talk,” Love said. “If we do all four for 80 minutes, we’ll win that game.”
The Kenai girls (11-2-2) open with North No. 4 Palmer at 3 p.m. at KCHS. The Kards own a 3-0 victory over the Moose this season.
Verkuilen is counting on seniors Cori Holmes, Sarah Every, Kylie Morse, Hannah Drury, Alli Steinbeck, Jacey Ross and Darby Milburn to lead the effort for a fourth state berth in five years and a second-straight NLC crown.
“They’ve been to a few state tournaments and they know what’s needed to get to state,” Verkuilen said of his seniors. “We’ll look for that leadership to carry through.”
The Homer and Nikiski girls will look to nip matchups of the NLC’s power four in the bud.
The South No. 3 Mariners (10-5) play Colony at 11 a.m. at Kenai. The Knights were dominant in a 7-1 victory over Homer earlier this season.
“We switched things up in the middle of the game and that wasn’t the best move for our girls,” Homer coach Mike Tozzo said. “There was some confusion and we’ve stuck with one game plan the rest of the year.”
The Mariners, looking for a first state berth since 2009, didn’t have Alissa Cole’s defense or Raisa Basargin’s offense in that Colony game. Tozzo said Uliana Reutov, Sam Draves, Brenna McCarron and Cole will need to control the center of the field.
He added Rachel Ellert, Mariah Vantrease, Kaela Jiron and Sydney Lee, as well as goalie Ali McCarron, will have to come up big to earn a state berth.
Nikiski, the South No. 4 with a 5-9 record, faces Wasilla at 11 a.m. at SoHi. The Bulldogs fell to the Warriors 4-0 this season, but trailed 1-0 at the half.
“That’s been our story — we’ve played one good half of soccer against the top teams,” said Nikiski coach Troy Zimmerman, whose team is looking for a first state berth. “Our message has been to make sure you keep up the intensity level and focus for two halves of soccer.”
With goalie Brianna Vollertsen and defenders Melanie Sexton, Daisy Schwenke, Avery Kornstad and Emma Wik, Nikiski has been solid on defense.
But with Deidra Lamping out, Zimmerman said he needs a spark on offense from Rylee Jackson, Zykiah Cooney and Verity Feltman.
The boys tournament also is interesting at the top. The only conference foe South No. 2 Soldotna lost to is Kenai in a pair of games. South No. 1 Kenai lost to Colony and tied South No. 3 Kodiak in conference, while North No. 1 Colony has been struggling with injuries all season, but is getting healthy at the right time.
“We’d really like to see Kenai again, but that’s going to require us to be in one of those Saturday games,” Soldotna coach Darryl Byerley said.
The Kards (12-2-1) face North No. 4 Grace Christian at 5 p.m. at Kenai. The tourney hosts topped the Grizzlies 3-0 this season.
Kenai, which made state for the first time since 2008 last season, is aiming for the NLC title.
“It’s written on the board and we look at it almost every day,” Reemtsma said. “Getting the No. 1 seed is just above that.
“It’s something we are capable of but nobody is handing it to us. Other teams are capable of seizing it too.”
Titles require being solid up the middle. Reemtsma says he has that in goalie Tristan Landry, defenders Max Dye and Braydon Goodman, midfielders Kevin Ramos and Ean Atchley, and high-scoring forward Zack Tuttle.
With that tie against Kodiak, Reemtsma said the Thursday game should have his team’s attention.
“It’s really nice to have an eye opener of a game like that,” he said.
The Stars (12-4) face North No. 3 Palmer at 5 p.m. at SoHi. Soldotna won this year’s first matchup 4-0.
Byerley, whose team last went to state in 2013, is looking to get Saturday’s 4-1 loss to Kenai behind his squad.
“We need to play Soldotna soccer, which is control the ball and possess more than we did last game,” he said. “We also need to finish.”
Timmy Smithwick, Eric Mayoral, Dylan Kuntz and Andrew Hammond have done plenty of finishing this year. With the exception of games against Kenai and South, the coach said the defense, led by Ethan Bott and Tommy Flores, has also controlled games.
In the other two boys games, South No. 3 Kodiak and South No. 4 Homer will look to spring upsets.
Kodiak plays North No. 2 Wasilla at 1 p.m. at Kenai. The Bears already showed they can hold down a top attack in the scoreless tie with Kenai, and an opportunistic offense will not make them an easy out.
The Knights face the Mariners (7-7 overall) at 1 p.m. at Soldotna. Colony owns a 2-0 victory in the first matchup.
Homer has been to state in three of the past four years, and the question is whether this year’s team is too young to make another trip.
Sophomore Simon Dye is already the all-time leading scorer in coach Warren Waldorf’s time with the team, and the coach is fairly sure nobody scored more before his tenure.
Sophomore Charles Rohr also is a scoring machine, while sophomore Oliver Beck and Cameroon foreign exchange student Nouredine Mama complete a formidable midfield.
But Waldorf worries about Colony’s mature attack.
“I’m still trying to look for a way to defend against them effectively,” he said. “I don’t know if I will find a way or not.