It’s time to lay the cards on the table.
With the winter that wasn’t, plus glistening green turf fields dotting the Northern Lights Conference, soccer coaches had a ton of freedom to experiment during the relatively long regular season.
Postgame interviews frequently included statements like, “But we were resting her,” or, “We were trying him out in a new position.”
But when the NLC tournament starts today at Palmer High School, with a few games slated for Colony, experimentation ends.
Lose today, and the season is done.
“Thursday is the season, and everything else has been the preseason,” said Soldotna boys coach Darryl Byerley. “Your season record matters for seeding, but everybody has been jockeying to figure out where each kid belongs on the field.”
Those winning today advance to Friday’s semifinals. A spot in Saturday’s championship guarantees a spot in state, but semifinal losers must play in Saturday’s third-place games to earn their state berths.
The following is a closer look at each of the first-round games involving Peninsula teams:
No. 1 Southern Division Soldotna girls vs. No. 4 Northern Division Palmer
The Stars, who have won five of the last seven conference titles and have been to state in six of the past seven years, play Northern Division No. 4 Palmer at 11 a.m. at Palmer.
Soldotna (13-0-1 overall, 4-0-1 Southern Division) topped Palmer 8-1 this season, taking a 5-0 lead 11 minutes into the game.
But a scoreless tie with Kenai on Saturday has put a sense of urgency into Soldotna.
“You should have heard the number of comments from parents about being glad that wakeup call came at that juncture instead of this week,” Soldotna coach Jimmy Love said.
Love said the Kenai game served as a reminder his team must play at 100 percent all the time, and must play a game that involves passing to feet or to space, and not playing long balls over the top.
Last season, the Stars romped through the conference tourney, outscoring the opposition 16-0.
No. 1S Kenai boys vs. No. 4N Palmer boys
The Kards (7-4-2, 4-0-1) topped Palmer 4-0 in the regular season. Kenai will be seeking its first state berth since 2008.
“They have some speed up front, so if you get caught possessing the ball in back and you lose it, they’ll burn you with that speed,” Kenai coach Joel Reemtsma said. “On our side, we have to be crisp with passing. That’s how we broke them down eventually.”
To break the state drought, Reemtsma said he will rely heavily on senior captains Wren Norwood at goalie and Austin McKee in the midfield.
The coach also would like freshman Zack Tuttle to keep finding the back of the net, but he knows others will likely have to score for Kenai to make state.
Reemtsma said a final, key piece of the puzzle has been what freshmen Kevin Ramos and Luke Baiser have been able to bring at outside midfield.
No. 2S Kenai girls vs. No. 3N Grace Christian
The Kardinals, who have been to state two of the past three years and last won the conference in 2009, received a boost of confidence by playing Soldotna to the scoreless tie Saturday.
Blanking Soldotna’s powerful attack showed Kenai could use the formula it used to win in 2009, when the Kards posted three straight shutouts.
“The kids are healthy and peaking at the right time as a team,” Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said. “They’re learning their duties and roles on the team, and that can be a hard thing to get across.”
Kenai defeated Grace 2-0 in the regular season.
Verkuilen said he will count on the juniors and seniors that have been to state to guide the team this season.
Some of those experienced players are Heidi Perkins with 12 goals, Hannah Drury with 11 goals and Cori Holmes with 10 goals. The backbone of the defense, goalie Alli Steinbeck and sweeper Kylie Morse, also has been to state.
“All those kids have been there, and they know now is not the time to let down,” Verkuilen said.
No. 2S Soldotna boys vs. No. 3N Grace Christian
The Stars went 11-4 this season, but two of those losses came last weekend — a Friday 2-1 setback to Grace and a Saturday 2-0 defeat to Kenai.
Byerley said the Stars are ready for the rematch with the Grizzlies.
“It had been a particularly long day laying out in the sun before the match,” Byerley said. “We’ll make sure they’re more rested for a one-and-done game.”
Byerley said he is not sure about the status of striker Ty Fenton.
Fenton was brought down hard in the second half of the Kenai game and did not return.
“The defensive line has to be there, but we will continue to play as we have in the manner that got us to 11-4, with possession-style ball,” Byerley said. “We have to work on finishing a little stronger than we have the last couple games.”
But even in getting shut out against Kenai, Byerley said the Stars had a couple shots that would have been goals on most goalies, just not Norwood.
No. 3S Homer girls vs. No. 2N Colony
The Mariners are seeking their first berth to state since 2007, when the squad made its third appearance in four years.
Homer went 5-9-2 and 3-2-0 this season, including a 2-0 loss to Colony.
No. 3S Homer boys vs. No. 2N Wasilla
One of the two top NLC boys programs in recent years won’t make it out of the first round.
The Wasilla boys have won the conference title in three of the past four years, while Homer notched a third-place finish in state last season and a fourth in 2012.
The regular season, where Homer finished 5-5-3 and 3-2-0, didn’t provide many clues, as the two sides tied 3-3.
“I’m optimistic,” Homer coach Warren Waldorf said. “I watched the film this afternoon from that game, 30 minutes or so of it, and I think we match up pretty good with them.”
Waldorf said the Mariners are not deep. He said that Homer will put all of its starters on the field for the first time this season Thursday.
Now that they are all healthy, the coach said the players must stay that way.
“We have to stay healthy for the match,” he said. “If we do, we’ll be at the top of our game.”
Waldorf said central defender Drew Brown and center midfielder Kenneth Schneider will be key, as will fellow seniors Filip Reutov, a midfielder, and Quinn Bloom, a wing.
The coach also said goalkeeper Eric Hill has been coming on strong and must remain steady during the tournament.
No. 4S Nikiski girls vs. No. 1N Wasilla
Friday, the Bulldogs lost 10-0 to Wasilla, so a lot must change in less than a week for Nikiski to pull off the upset.
But coach Troy Zimmerman is encouraged that his team came back Saturday and responded with a 2-1 loss at Grace.
“I’ve tried to drive home the point to my girls that every time we’ve played a team a second time we’ve improved,” Zimmerman said. “The focus is on letting them know that when they’re playing their best soccer, they can compete.”
Nikiski has never won a first-round game at the conference tournament. The Bulldogs would love nothing more than to send off senior Rachel Thompson with a historic win.
“You always want to try and get the team to play for something bigger than themselves,” Zimmerman said. “They’re playing to put an exclamation point on somebody’s career — somebody like Rachel who has put so much into Nikiski soccer.”
Thompson is equally dangerous in the field or at goalkeeper.
Regardless of where Thompson plays, Zimmerman said freshman Rylee Jackson will have to be productive up front, and defenders Hallie Riddall and Hannah Love will have to be solid in back.