The battle between the north and the south is reaching a fever pitch in the Northern Lights Conference girls soccer scene.
After running the show for the better part of eight years, the Kenai Central and Soldotna girls squads both enter the 2017 season in a scramble to keep up with their Mat-Su valleys competition after losing key starters to graduation.
After combining to win seven of the last nine conference championships, the Stars and Kardinals are facing a possible shift in the NLC Southern Division. The only titles from north teams since 2007 have been Colony in 2013 and Wasilla last year. The Warriors claimed last year’s NLC crown in a tense penalty-kicks shootout over Kenai.
“The northern teams stay consistent just on sheer numbers,” said Kenai head coach Dan Verkuilen. “Soldotna’s probably going to be the steadiest with their size (among south teams), but I think our quality of kids compares.
“It just gets tougher when you’re dealing with less kids.”
With over a decade of experience with Soldotna, coach Jimmy Love said it is close to impossible to know how strong opponents will be, but expects another year of hard-fought battles with Wasilla, Colony and Palmer.
In his second year in Homer, Mariners head coach Mike Tozzo has quickly figured out who the top dogs in the south are.
“We’ve got to beat SoHi and Kenai,” he said.
The Valley teams have also had the benefit of a full turf field to compete on for two weeks now, as Colony has made big strides in clearing its pitch before the month of March was out.
While bright turf and warm breezes are hallmarks of a spring soccer season, local high school teams haven’t had much of that to enjoy. There’s no doubt that peninsula teams in the NLC have had it easy the past three years, when low-snow winters have eased the transition to spring. This year, the schools are back to holding indoor practices and playing the waiting game as snow slowly melts off the fields around town.
“We actually had a winter this year, and a true breakup,” Love said. “On March 1st, I had no doubt we’d be inside until the end of March, and I was thinking mid-April.”
Thankfully, Love said, the city of Soldotna came through and cleared much of the snow from the SoHi track and turf field, and the warmer temperatures in recent days have facilitated the melting process.
It allowed the Stars to get back on turf in the last week.
“For me, it’s not a whole lot different because I’ve seen this,” Love said, adding the biggest change is for the players.
Kenai hadn’t been on a full turf field until Friday’s boys and girls contests against South Anchorage, but Verkuilen said he expects Kenai’s field to be ready as the Kards’ home opener approaches.
“We were all kicking snow off the day before,” Verkuilen said. “It’ll be dry now.”
Love, Verkuilen and Tozzo all return after coaching last year, while the Nikiski girls will be getting a new head coach in Linda Zimmerman, the wife of previous head coach Troy Zimmerman, who had taken the reins of the Bulldogs for two years.
One program has dropped out altogether, as both Seward varsity teams were forced to miss the season with low numbers, and are only fielding JV squads.
The following is a closer look at each team:
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Recent Kenai girls teams have produced big results. The Kardinals have appeared in the last three NLC championship finals, winning it all in 2015.
But Verkuilen, a longtime youth coach on the peninsula, is facing the challenge of rebuilding a team that lost 10 seniors, seven of them regular starters from last year.
“We’re hoping to put together a strong enough team to make a run at state, but there’ll be growing pains,” he said. “My senior captains know to bring everyone up and nurture the freshmen.
“It’ll definitely be a little awkward at first.”
An 11-win regular-season last spring fueled Kenai to play three games of shutout defense in the NLC tournament, but they ultimately lost in penalty kicks in the championship game against Wasilla. Verkuilen said his senior-laden crew handled the loss well, but the returning players are back to attempt to reclaim their throne.
“The kids were disappointed, but (when) those games go down to PKs, both sides know they gave a good effort,” Verkuilen said. “Some of those seniors had been to state the last three years in a row and they handled it really well. That was a really smart group of kids that were really bright.”
The Kards graduated all three seniors that were named to the NLC All-Tournament first team, a list that included Cori Holmes, Kylie Morse and goalkeeper Alli Steinbeck. Another NLC All-Tournament player on the second team list was Hannah Drury.
The only returning All-Tournament player is forward Lara Creighton, a senior this year.
With 26 total players on the current roster, Verkuilen said he has a lot of younger talent from which to select, but the key this year is to keep the team healthy, most importantly in the early weeks of indoor practice.
“We have young kids that have come in and are hungry to get started,” he said. “We just need to give them the time to build them and give them a role.”
With six new starting players, the Kenai girls are sporting a different look. Creighton will share the senior captain role with midfielder Cassie Holmes and defender Rebecca Miller.
One area the team will have to compensate for is the loss of sophomore Hayley Maw, who injected the front of the field with a burst of speed last year. Maw decided to stick to track and field this spring as a sprinter.
Senior Samantha Morse and junior Annabelle Schneider will form a midfield that also includes seniors Emily Halstead and Shanija Walters, the latter of whom is making the jump from JV.
The defense will start senior Mikaela Pitsch, junior Brenna Eubank and junior Lexi Carrasco.
Replacing Steinbeck in goal is freshman Kailey Hamilton, who Verkuilen said brings a history of goalkeeping from club soccer.
“She’s had experience of playing goalie for quite a few years,” he said. “She’s got a good height to her, she’s fearless, but learning the speed of the game will be a challenge.”
The Kards open their home season Wednesday against Nikiski.
The SoHi girls saw an impressive seven-year string of state appearances snapped last spring after losing to Wasilla in the NLC semifinals and to Colony in the tournament third-place game.
The pair of losses ended a 12-3-3 season for the Stars, who only suffered one regular-season loss. Love said he believes his current squad has the potential to regain their state form.
“I’m optimistic, but we’ll see how things come together,” he said. “We’re taking it one game at a time, and by the end of the season, hopefully we’re in prime position.”
Since 2010, the SoHi girls have amassed an eye-popping regular-season record of 73-5-4. The success drove the Stars to three straight third-place finishes at state from 2012 to 2014. Love said the seven-year streak of state runs spoke a lot to the quality of players he coached.
“They’re the ones on the field and (the coaches) play a role with who to put out there in critical moments,” Love explained. “It was a great streak, but in the end, all good things come to an end, and now we start over.”
This year, Love said much of the SoHi offense will run through senior Abi Tuttle, who signed her letter of intent to play at Lane (Oregon) Community College earlier this year. Tuttle’s quick maneuvering up front has allowed the Stars to thrive in the offensive zone in recent years, and Love said Tuttle will now play her biggest role of her high school career now that former teammates Alyssa Wolfe and Anna Wrobel have graduated. Wolfe and Wrobel were both Northern Lights second team All-Tournament selections last year.
Tuttle was a first team All-Tournament player last year, along with goalkeeper Maddie Kindred, but the bad news is that Kindred will not be playing this spring after she spent time last fall playing for a high school team in Oregon. Love said the state rulebook does not allow players to compete for Outside teams.
With Kindred out of the picture, Love said Ella Stenga will be starting in goal. Stenga recorded several starts last year in place of an injured Kindred.
“She stepped in and did a great job considering circumstances,” he said.
Behind Tuttle, Love said the starting lineup is still in flux, but consists mainly of junior midfielder Whitney Wortham and senior Tori Hensley, and junior Hannah Wells and senior Sarah Federle on defense.
The Stars officially open their season Tuesday at Homer.
Love said longtime assistant coach Mike Tovoli stepped down this year, but Love will still be joined by Cassie Sheridan, John Bramante and Jim Delker.
In her first year as head coach of the Nikiski girls team, Linda Zimmerman has taken over duties from her husband Troy, and the work begins to lead a team that went 5-9 last year to a deep NLC tournament run.
“We want to definitely (win) more games,” Zimmerman said. “We’re working on trying to keep our focus, playing our positions, and doing what they do best.”
The toughest challenge at Nikiski is trying to clear the natural grass field for play. Nikiski’s field is traditionally one of the last in Southcentral to completely clear itself of snow and meltwater puddles, so the Bulldogs late home schedule is a blessing in disguise.
The Bulldogs open their season against Kenai this Wednesday, but will have to wait until May 5 for their first home game, also against Kenai.
“It’s been less than optimal,” Zimmerman said of the team’s indoor practice challenges. “We had someone plow the field Monday or Tuesday, and I had my girls go out to mash up the ice and snow chunks. You can see a lot of grass, but it’s still frozen.”
The Bulldogs lost 8-0 to top-seeded Wasilla on the first day of the NLC tournament last year, and have since graduated four seniors.
This year, Zimmerman said she has about 30 players out for the program, including eight returning starters. Senior Brianna Vollertsen is back a year after being named to the NLC second team All-Tournament list. Vollertsen will lead the Bulldogs defense as goalkeeper.
Up front, Zimmerman said Nikiski features a core of strikers in Deidra Lamping, Verity Feltman and Kelcei Zoda, as well as a midfield consisting of junior Melanie Sexton and Molly Cason. Desmeranda Napoka and senior Avery Kornstad return as starring sweepers.
Second-year coach Mike Tozzo said his Mariners team is looking for another year of improvement following a 10-5 season in 2016. That includes going one win further.
“We want to put ourselves in position to play our best at the region tournament,” Tozzo said. “The only real solid goal I put in front of the girls was, we won 10 games last year, so our goal is to win 11 this year.”
The Mariners ended their 2016 season with a 6-0 loss to Colony on the opening day of the NLC tournament.
Tozzo said the Homer girls program is running with 14 players, so injuries and ineligibility are a real key challenge to avoid this year.
“The main goal is to stay healthy, and get a little better every day,” he said. “We’d like to come out, have fun, string together some passes and put some goals in the back of the net.”
Homer features a young lineup, with only three seniors, including Megan Pitzman, Uliana Reutov and Sam Jacobsen. All three primarily patrol the midfield.
Up front, Tozzo has placed Raisa Basargin and Brenna McCarron on striker duties. McCarron spent time last year on the defensive line.
Junior Andie Sonnen joins the three seniors in the middle, with Rylyn Todd, Kim Lynn, Jamie Parrish and freshman Eve Brau on defense.