The complexity is gone from the conference tournament for the Kenai Peninsula’s soccer teams. The drama? Not so much.
When the Alaska School Activities Association split soccer into two divisions before this season, the old Northern Lights Conference was destroyed. All six peninsula schools — Homer, Soldotna, Kenai, Voznesenka, Nikiski and Seward — were put in Division II, or small schools. Those six now make up the Peninsula Conference, with Voznesenka sitting out this tournament due to religious obligations.
The old Northern Lights Conference involved an elimination day on the first day of the tournament, followed by four teams scrambling for three state spots. When the Peninsula Conference tournament opens today at Soldotna High School, the task for the schools will be simple.
The squads from Nikiski and Seward must win games today and Friday to make state. The sides from Kenai, Homer and Soldotna don’t play until Friday. Win Friday, and they make state. Lose, and all that’s left is Saturday’s third-place game.
“That’s a nice way to go — go forward or go out,” Homer coach Warren Waldorf said. “Or go to the third-fourth place game. Whoever plays in that game will be disappointed.”
But predictability has not come with simplicity. That’s because of the four games that are set in stone, the teams have split in the regular season.
Meanwhile, the top-seeded Kenai boys and Soldotna girls wait for the winners of Thursday’s Nikiski-Seward games for a Friday semifinal that will determine a state berth. That girls semi is at 5 p.m., while the boys play at 7 p.m.
The Kenai boys, who are 13-1-1 overall and 7-0-1 in the league, enjoyed comfortable wins over Seward and Nikiski in the regular season, while battling with Homer and Soldotna. The top seed makes a fourth straight state berth much more possible.
“We started talking about it from the first day of practice,” Kenai coach Joel Reemtsma said. “All right, guys, we won the No. 1 seed the last three years in the region. This year, it will be even more important.”
Reemtsma started coaching when the current group of seniors were freshmen, and after all Luke Beiser, Braydon Goodman, Riley McKee, Kevin Ramos, Rykker Riddall and Zack Tuttle have accomplished with the coach, the group has its sights set on a conference crown.
“It’s tough for seniors because they’re dealing with graduation and so many things, but these guys want it bad,” Reemtsma said.
The senior group has won the last two Northern Lights Conference championships. As freshmen, they claimed the first state soccer victory in Kenai history. As sophomores, they finished second at state — a high-water mark for the peninsula. Last year, they were third at state.
Reemtsma said he uses the first season game as a preseason game, and that’s the only game Kenai has lost in each of the last two regular seasons. This senior group also has not been beaten by a peninsula team since they were freshmen.
“It’s pretty amazing looking back on what these guys have accomplished,” Reemtsma said.
Soldotna coach Jimmy Love has had his program on a similar lofty perch in the past, and with a 9-0-1 record in the conference this year, he is looking to get back to that status.
After a run of six straight state appearances, the Stars haven’t qualified since 2015.
“After a couple of years of not going, that’d be big for me and it’d be big for the girls,” Love said. “But this isn’t just about state. This is about bringing a region championship back to the school.”
The Stars are in a position to do just that because they have been able to overcome injuries. Even with three starters out at once recently, the squad hasn’t missed a beat. All but one starter has a chance of being back for regions.
“So far, the girls have stepped up and covered those spots well,” Love said.
But the coach knows this is no time to get complacent.
“The whole reason they have a region tournament is to have a game where anything can happen,” Love said. “If you don’t come ready to play, you can be surprised.”
Here is a look at the slated games:
No. 2 Homer boys vs. No. 3 Soldotna, 3 p.m. Friday
The Mariners, 5-2-1 in conference, topped the Stars 5-1 way back on April 10 before suffering a 4-2 loss to the Stars, 5-3 in league, on May 3.
Waldorf, searching for a fifth state berth in seven years, said not much can be read into that 5-1 victory.
“As far as I know, it was one of their first games outside,” he said. “I think it was kind of a fluke.”
The coach likes the fact that both teams come into the rubber match totally fresh.
“I think it’ll be a good game,” he said. “Whoever wins deserves to go to state and we’ll do our best to win that game.”
Soldotna coach Darryl Byerley, who led his team to state in 2016, respects the Mariners.
“We’re the underdog,” he said. “We’re the No. 3 seed. It will take a full 80 minutes to get it done.”
The coach added that 80 minutes should be some entertaining soccer.
“Kenai, Homer and us are all lucky to have a number of soccer players, not just athletes,” Byerley said. “All three have good soccer players that will make it a challenge for folks.”
One player Byerley said he probably will not have due to injury is dangerous striker Alex Montague.
No. 2 Homer girls vs. No. 3 Kenai, 1 p.m. Friday
The Mariners, 7-2-1 in league, defeated the Kardinals 1-0 on April 24 on a Kenai own goal, while the Kards, 7-3 in league, came back to nip Homer 2-1 on May 8.
“Homer’s a good squad and we have good games with them,” said Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen, who is searching for a fifth straight appearance at state. “The kids are getting healthy so it should be another good one.”
Verkuilen said the exception is senior midfielder and captain Annebelle Schneiders, who will be out due to injury.
The coach said his young team has developed a lot this season. He said the defense is solid, and the key will be players like Olivia Brewer and Liz Hanson finding the back of the net.
“Scoring goals is an important issue,” Verkuilen said. “I don’t think we need a lot of them. It’d be nice to strike early and carry it.”
Homer coach Mike Tozzo said the Mariners must win 50-50 balls and put constant pressure on Kenai’s goal with shots to return to state for the first time since 2007.
“Everybody’s fresh,” Tozzo said. “I told the girls there can’t be any down time. They’ve got to battle for 80 minutes.”
The coach said midfielders will be particularly crucial.
“The halfbacks have to control the pace of the game,” Tozzo said. “When they’re distributing the ball, we have success. When they’re making bad passes, more often than not we’re not successful.”
No. 4 Seward boys vs. No. 5 Nikiski, 5 p.m. today
Both teams finished 1-7 in the league, scoring 3-0 victories on the other side’s home field.
Nikiski finished the season with a flourish, taking down Seward and then Palmer 4-0.
“I know we can beat them if we show up and play the way we did the last two games,” Nikiski coach Harrison Deveer said. “But it’s soccer. It’ll come down to who wants it more.”
The coach said key players in the match will be George Napoka on defense, Michael Mysing in the midfield, Luck Broussard up front and Michael Eiter in goal. He also is looking for Gavin White to step up and play a big role up front.
Seward coach Dustin Phillips said this is a great opportunity for his team. Phillips has been at the school 12 years and said the Seahawks have been to regions once.
“I’m excited for this new format,” Phillips said. “It’ll be fun to be over there and just be around other teams in that environment.
“With a tournament like that, it’ll be interesting to see how the boys react the first time around.”
He said senior captains Simon Estes and Case Estes will lead the charge.
Phillips said the key will be converting on chances.
“The second time we played them, they stepped up and put their chances away,” the coach said. “We didn’t finish our chances like in the first game.”
No. 4 Nikiski girls vs. No. 5 Seward, 3 p.m. today
Both teams finished 3-7 in conference play, splitting games against each other, with Nikiski winning the most recent contest 3-1 on May 8.
“The girls want it bad,” Nikiski coach Linda Zimmerman said. “I can’t do anything other than what I’ve done in practice. They have to dig down and play the best game they’ve played all year.”
Key for the Bulldogs will be Jordyn Stock and America Jeffreys up front, Aspen Hooper in the midfield, Melanie Sexton at defense, and Tika Zimmerman at defense and midfield.