Homer will host a conference soccer tournament for the first time when the Peninsula Conference sets up shop today, Friday and Saturday.
The Mariners will be in the midst of the drama on the pristine green turf field perched above Kachemak Bay and backdropped by the glacier-dripping Kenai Mountains.
With only five teams each for the girls and boys, and two state berths to dish out for each gender, the tournament gets right down to business.
Today, for both the girls and boys, No. 4 seed Nikiski (2-6 in league) and No. 5 seed Seward (0-8 in league) play for a spot in Friday’s semifinals.
The winner of Friday’s semifinals get automatic bids to state. Losers are at the mercy of the Alaska School Activities Association, which will dole out two at-large berths to state.
The Mariners girls and boys have plenty of dramatic history with their Friday opponents.
The No. 2 seed Homer girls (5-1-2) can sew up their first state berth since 2007 by defeating No. 3 Kenai Central (5-1-2) at 4 p.m. The Kards are a big obstacle, having gone to state five straight years and six of seven. Kenai also defeated Homer 1-0 last season in an identical semifinal. This season, Homer beat Kenai 1-0 and played the Kards to a scoreless draw.
“We weren’t healthy when we played them last time,” Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said of the 1-0 loss. “We’ll be playing our game with our legs more underneath us this time. We just didn’t have our normal aggressiveness to the ball.”
Verkuilen said the loser of the game has a great shot of getting an at-large berth to state, but also has a great shot of meeting Juneau-Douglas and its 13 seniors early.
“I told the girls that if they’re really interested in going deep at state, they’ve got to win the regional tournament,” Verkuilen said. “We don’t want to be on the same side of the bracket as Juneau.”
The Kenai coach will depend of experience and defense to get it done. Midfielder-forward Olivia Brewer is the senior captain, while the stingy defense is made up of goalie Kailey Hamilton and defenders Alissa Maw, Anya Danielson, Damaris Severson and Jenna Streiff.
Homer coach Mike Tozzo said the Mariners are fully aware they have the opportunity to not only knock off Kenai, but advance to state for the first time since 2007.
“This game means a lot to the program,” he said. “This means a lot to the seniors involved who have never gotten past the conference tournament. And of course, they’re playing in front of their home crowd.”
Tozzo also would love to avoid the Crimson Bears, who Tozzo called the best team in the state regardless of division. But for now, all the focus is on Friday.
“These teams are evenly matched,” he said. “Both of the games could have gone either way.”
Tozzo said the goal is to create ball pressure within two touches, so everybody will be important. Specifically, Ali McCarron must be great in goal, while Jessica Sonnen, Eve Brau and Brenna McCarron must control the midfield, and Sela Weisser and Kappa Reutov must capitalize on scoring opportunities.
The No. 2 seed Homer boys (5-2-1) can clinch a sixth state berth in eight years by defeating Soldotna at 6 p.m. The Stars haven’t been to state since 2016, largely because the Mariners have topped Soldotna in win-or-go-home games at the conference tourney the last two seasons.
This season, Soldotna defeated Homer 3-0 on April 9 before Homer notched a 3-0 win on May 11. The May 11 game happened after SoHi lost a key group of players due to disciplinary reasons.
“They’re still putting a solid team on the field,” Homer coach Warren Waldorf said of the Stars. “They’ll be well rested and have a plan to bring their best game.”
Waldorf didn’t know what to expect from his team this season after losing a key group of seniors, some of whom went on to play college soccer. But the Mariners have a nearly identical record and goal differential this season.
“I think this team is coming together sooner,” Waldorf said.
Junior Daniel Reutov has 18 goals and 10 assists this season and could become the second-leading scorer in program history by the end of this season. Clayton Beachy has made a successful transition to goalie and can rely on a solid back line.
SoHi assistant Erik Dolphin also said his back line is solid, relatively unscathed by the lost players. Levi Rosin is a rock in the midfield, while Cameron Johnson, Aidan Willets and Kobe Miller remain at defense and Hunter Woodward remains in net.
The Stars also are now able to showcase impressive young talent like Maleda Denbrock, Quinn Cox and Ryder Giessler. Dolphin said the problem is the current lineup has had little time to jell.
“This one has a little more weight because of the history of these teams,” Dolphin said. “I definitely think we have enough to win the game, but it won’t be an easy road.
“We’ve had to move guys around to fill holes and change tactics. But we’re all in to win this one game.”
The tourney opens today with the Nikiski and Seward girls at 4 p.m. The Bulldogs notched 4-0 and 5-1 victories over the Seahawks this season.
“My girls are excited and pretty pumped up for regions,” Nikiski coach Linda Zimmerman said. “We’re hoping to come out of there and progress on.”
Zimmerman said all the Bulldogs must play well, with emphasis on Abby Bystedt in goal, Jordyn Stock and America Jeffreys up front, and Tika Zimmerman and Emma Wik in the midfield.
If the Nikiski girls advance to play SoHi in the noon Friday semifinal, 2-0 and 8-0 losses to the Stars this season show a first state berth is at least within reach.
“We all feel it would be awesome,” Zimmerman said. “We want to play smart soccer and do whatever we can in those games to put it into action.”
The Bulldogs will need their best, because Jimmy Love plans on having the defending conference champs focused on a seventh state berth in nine seasons.
With SoHi, Homer and Kenai all finishing 5-1-2 in conference, the Stars took the top seed by topping Thunder Mountain twice. Homer played the Falcons to a victory and tie, while Kenai tied the Southeast side.
Love said the Stars have had better results this season against Nikiski, compared to against Kenai or Homer. But that’s no reason to rest easy.
“You can’t dial it down from your highest level,” Love said. “You have to come with your best game or prepare for a one-game tournament.”
Love also said the Stars are coming for more than a state berth, craving a repeat conference title and better seeding at state.
“I’m just ballparking when I venture to say Juneau-Douglas will be the No. 1 seed,” said Love, whose team lost 4-0 to the Crimson Bears this season. “You don’t want to end up on their side of the bracket.”
The Seward and Nikiski boys play at 6 p.m. today. Nikiski owns 4-0 and 2-1 victories over the Seahawks this season.
“What we did in the regular season doesn’t count anymore — it’s a new tournament,” Nikiski coach Harrison Deveer said. “We have to bring our A game. It’s the only way we can beat them.”
Dynamic forward Pedro Souza, who has played just two full games this season, should be back for the tournament. Jace Kornstad and Justin Harris will be important in the defensive midfield, while Gavin White, Michael Mysing and goalie Mike Eiter will play pivotal roles. Deveer also will count heavily on Jim Lamping and Cody Handley on defense, as well as a third defensive starter to be announced.
The winner gets the top-seeded Kardinals, who finished 7-0-1 in the league, with the only blemish being a tie to Homer.
“I feel like, for the first time ever, we actually have a chance to go through to state,” said Deveer, in his third year at the helm. “It’s going to be a tough one. At least it’s an achievable goal. Last year, it wasn’t.”
Kenai, which has won three straight conference titles and last year’s Division II state crown, lost a ton of talent from last season, including four first-team all-conference players. Joel Reemtsma also stepped down as head coach, but new coach Shane Lopez and the rest of the Kardinals have made sure the program has rolled on.
The last thing Lopez wants is for that roll to end at the feet of the Bulldogs or Seahawks.
“Both of those teams have put in goals on lots of teams,” Lopez said. “We can’t take anything for granted.”
The coach said Kenai’s experienced seniors — Damien Redder, Tomas Levy-Canedo, Connor Felchle, Travis McKinley and Adam Trujillo — have plenty of big-game experience.
“It’s been incredible to be a part of their growth and development,” Lopez said of the seniors. “I’m looking forward to one last postseason run with those guys.”
Peninsula Conference Soccer Tournament
Game 1 — Nikiski vs. Seward, 4 p.m.
Game 2 — Soldotna vs. Game 1 winner, noon
Game 3 — Kenai vs. Homer, 4 p.m.
3rd-place game — Game 2 loser vs. Game 3 loser, 10 a.m.
Championship — Game 2 winner vs. Game 3 winner, 2 p.m.
Game 1 — Nikiski vs. Seward, 6 p.m.
Game 2 — Kenai vs. Game 1 winner, 2 p.m.
Game 3 — Homer vs. Soldotna, 6 p.m.
3rd-place game — Game 2 loser vs. Game 3 loser, noon
Championship — Game 2 winner vs. Game 3 winner, 4 p.m.