In the six-team North Star Conference of high school hockey, there has been a clear divide.
The three northern teams — Wasilla, Palmer and Colony — all finished at the top of the NSC standings in 2014-15. Wasilla topped the division with a 7-2-1 record in conference play this year, while Palmer (7-3-0) and Colony (6-3-1) followed behind in the second and third slots, respectively.
Below the three Valley squads, a trio of Peninsula teams filled out the remainder of the conference. The Soldotna Stars finished the regular season with a 3-6-1 mark, equal to Homer, but SoHi took the tiebreaker based on head to head results. Kenai finished last with a 2-8-0 mark.
So, why the disparity between the two regions? Ask the coaches.
“I think the population base has something to do with it,” said Soldotna coach Derek Urban. “And teams statewide have lost players to junior and comp programs down south, but I think both us and Kenai were affected more. We didn’t have the numbers to begin with.”
Kenai coach Michael Tilly can certainly relate to that problem. The Kardinals are missing five potential players this year who are currently playing on outside junior teams, which has left Tilly to compose a team primarily of underclassmen.
“I’m just speculating on behalf of our team, but there’s been a lot of attrition,” Tilly said. “That alone took a pretty big chunk of performance from us. I mean, I’ve got starting freshman on defense and starting freshman on offense.
“But I tell them, it doesn’t say ‘freshman’ on your jersey.”
In a community of about 15,000 in total population, the three Valley teams also have a lot of players to reload with in cases like that. Kenai and Soldotna, two communities that total about 11,500, have a smaller pool to extract players from, which is why local junior programs such as the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association are crucial to the sport’s growth.
This year, Palmer, Wasilla and Colony combined to go 15-3 against SoHi, Kenai and Homer in 18 divisional matchups. But, with the regular schedule over and the chance to earn a ticket to the season-ending state tournament on the line, the season score is reset to zero.
The North Star tournament gets underway today at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla with two first-round matchups. Two state berths are up for grabs, which means that two wins will automatically qualify a team to state. There will also be a skills competition Friday, with events designed to showcase the fastest, strongest and most accurate players in the tournament.
The importance of winning a first-round game is paramount. One loss in the one-and-done tournament spells the end of the line for the losing side.
The following is a breakdown of each game.
Colony (3) vs. Kenai (6), 5 p.m.
After a two-win NSC campaign this season, the Kardinals will have a tough matchup right off the bat today as they pair up with the third-seeded Colony Knights.
The winner will advance to Friday’s semifinal round to play the No. 2 seed Palmer Moose.
The Knights swept the Kards in the division this year with easy wins. On Dec. 4, Colony blanked Kenai 4-0, then produced another shutout, this time with a 5-0 score over the Kards Jan. 15.
“I guess the facts speak for themselves, but I think the way you go into games is we aren’t the same team when we played them last,” coach Tilly said. “We’ve continued to improve, and every opportunity we have to play a game, we’ve shown maturity in the way the game is played.
“If we went by statistics, we’d never play a game.”
In the two games, Colony outshot Kenai by a combined total of 95-18. That type of lopsided offensive production does not leave Kenai senior goalie Nate O’Lena with a lot of leeway.
“The neat thing about Nate is he’s a real competitor,” Tilly said. “He always seems to up his performance in big games. He played phenomenal against Soldotna (last week) but like any goalie he has his highs and lows. But Nate really turns up the wick in big games.”
With a clutch player like O’Lena in goal, Tilly said the focus will be on slowing down a fierce Knights skating show. Tilly said the key to competing against Colony is to slow them down.
“They have a strong skating team, and the way you have to play against a skating team is you have to play the body,” Tilly said.
Kenai’s front line will consist of offensive stalwarts Cody Arbelovsky and Dalton Dosko, with support from Ian Mercado and Levi Mese. Tilly said the biggest thing he will on the lookout for is how his secondary and tertiary lines compete against the Knights.
“They (Colony) know Cody and Dalton, but they don’t know who our second-liners are,” Tilly said. “They’re our middle of the road, meat-and-potatoes guys, those are the guys I’ll be counting on.”
Soldotna (4) vs. Homer (5), 7:15 p.m.
Both the Stars and the Mariners finished with identical conference records, but SoHi gets the nod as the higher seed due to head to head matchups.
The two teams saw each other a lot this year, so lack of familiarity will not be an issue. In five meetings, SoHi went 3-1-1 against Homer this season, including two league games that resulted in a 3-2 win and a scoreless tie against the Mariners.
However, that kind of success has not allowed the Stars to overlook a scrappy Homer squad.
“No we’re still not comfortable with them,” coach Urban said. “They’re a dangerous team.
“But I’d still rather have that record than oh and something against them.”
The winner of today’s matchup moves on to Friday’s semifinals, where the top-seeded Wasilla Warriors await.
SoHi freshman Billy Yoder has become a consistent goaltender for the Stars during the 2014-15 campaign, while also getting support from backups Will Rogers and Corey Hanson. In three starts against Homer this year, Yoder finished with a 2-0-1 mark, and stopped 45 of 47 combined shots in the two conference tilts.
“Oh, it’s gonna be huge,” Urban said. “It’s his first region tournament, as a freshman, but he’s been our workhorse, and hopefully the boys will support him.”
Urban said that Yoder will be getting the start in every game this weekend, adding that there is no reason to keep him out a goalie with a hot hand (or glove).
With a physical team like the Mariners, Urban said he hopes to match that physicality with speed and accurate passing. He also hopes the bigger ice rink in Wasilla will play to SoHi’s advantage, since Homer competes on a slightly smaller rink.
“Homer plays their systems really well, and it boils down to finding the puck here and there,” Urban said. “I think special teams could play a bigger role, and hopefully those go our way.”
Providing the offensive firepower will by Ty Fenton, Justice Miller, Stephen Endsley and Coel Nelson, with defensive support from Trevor Witthus and Kenny Flanders.
Homer’s lone win against Soldotna this year came in November in a non-league contest, a 3-1 win that was highlighted by Mariners goalie Markian Polushkin, who saved all but one of 16 shots on goal that night. Polushkin has proven to be a stubborn netminder for the Mariners, stopping 38 of 41 shots from Soldotna in the two divisional matchups between the two schools this season, including a 25-save shutout on Dec. 19. Riley Swanson has also become an effective backup goalie for Polushkin.
On offense, Homer has seen abundant production this season from Clem Tillion, Dimitry Kuzmin and Kiril Sanarov.