For the first time since the state cross-country meet on Oct. 10, Kenai Peninsula athletes will get a chance to compete in state competition when the puck drops at the Division II state hockey tournament today at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla.
Kenai Central, Soldotna and Homer all qualified for the eight-team field.
Soldotna plays in the first round at 10 a.m. against Monroe Catholic, while Kenai Central and North Pole tangle at 1 p.m. and Homer and Houston cross swords at 4 p.m.
Due to the new coronavirus pandemic, everybody in the building, including players, will wear masks, while spectators are limited to two to player, up to a limit of 50 per team.
Since teams have not been leaving their district during the regular season for games, this tournament is tough to handicap.
“We haven’t had those October and November tournaments to see teams outside the conference,” Kenai Central head coach Scott Shelden said. “We haven’t played anybody.
“It is an interesting tournament in that regard, but our focus is North Pole.”
The Kardinals got the best of peninsula play during the abbreviated regular season, which began Jan. 22.
Kenai finished 4-2, while Soldotna was 4-3 and Homer was 2-5. One of Homer’s losses to Soldotna officially counts as an exhibition.
Amazingly, that exhibition, a 5-1 victory by the Stars on Jan. 6, is the only game between the peninsula schools decided by more than two goals.
Shelden said the scores between Monroe and North Pole, and Palmer and Houston, have been just as close.
“It’s kind of exciting,” Shelden said. “Nobody knows who the favorite is.”
Homer, Kenai and Soldotna are in their third year of playing at the Division II level. In 2019, Homer was second and Soldotna was fifth at state. Last season, Homer took the title, while Soldotna was second and Kenai was fourth.
“I think the peninsula teams will represent really well,” Soldotna coach Indy Walton said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the peninsula teams ends up winning the tournament again.”
Shelden said this short season has been all about the whole team meshing. He said there’s no reason to change that focus now, despite a disappointing 5-3 loss to Soldotna on Saturday.
“With our vibe, our approach, putting the team first, we’ve had some good things happen,” Shelden said.
Walton said his team has gotten better with each game and practice, but he said such a short season means there are still weaknesses that can be exploited.
“I would say we’re peaking at the right time,” he said.
Walton said the senior scoring line of Dylan Walton, Gavin Haakenson and Silas Larsen will play a big role in the team’s success. The coach said Aiden Burcham and Dylan Dahlgren have been solid at defense, while Ayden See has looked better in each game and practice.
As for Homer, Walton said goalie Keegan Strong makes the Mariners a definite threat to win the tournament. Three of Homer’s five losses came in overtime.
ASAA Division II state hockey tournament
at Curtis Menard Sports Center
Game 1 — Palmer vs. Tri-Valley, 7 p.m.
Game 2 — Monroe Catholic vs. Soldotna, 10 a.m.
Game 3 — Kenai Central vs. North Pole, 1 p.m.
Game 4 — Homer vs. Houston, 4 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 1 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 10 a.m.
Game 7 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 4 p.m.
Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m.
Championship — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 1 p.m.