At the end of the 2018-19 Alaska prep hockey season, there will be two state champion teams crowned, but every team will have a shot at the top.
The reshuffling of the high school state hockey scene by the Alaska School Activities Association introduced a concept earlier this year that has been talked about in hockey circles but has never been implemented until now. With two distinct divisions in prep hockey — Division I and Division II — this year’s Division II state champion, which will be determined Feb. 2, 2019, at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla, will continue its season with a spot in the Division I state tournament the following week, essentially being added into the “large-schools” tournament as a wild-card team.
It’s a move that’s being widely applauded from coaches on the peninsula.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Soldotna head coach Indy Walton. “It’s super hard for small schools to compete with the big schools, but the one year you might have the team to compete with them, you might have the opportunity to compete with them. The reward is big.”
“In the big scheme of things, that’s great,” added Homer head coach Steve Nevak. “It gives us something to reach for.”
Nevak was an assistant coach on last year’s breakout Homer team that won 17 games but missed out on playing in the first Division I state tournament in school history on a heartbreaking semifinal loss at the region tournament to Wasilla.
This year, Homer is one of a handful of teams that were dropped into the Division II level due to school population numbers. Nevak said while he disagrees with the change that put Homer in Division II, at least the Mariners have the chance to prove themselves against the best in the state.
“I would love to stay in Division I,” Nevak said. “It’s the best hockey in the state, and we only get better playing the best in the state. Down here, we’re able to produce a lot of talent with our youth programs.”
The old North Star Conference that housed Soldotna, Kenai and Homer for years has been scrapped in favor of the Railbelt Conference, the new home of all three peninsula programs. Additionally, the Railbelt will not determine its season champion with the traditional region tournament.
The three state spots up for grabs will instead be decided by regular season standings, something that Kenai Central head coach Jacob Newton is anxiously waiting to see how it affects the outcome.
“I think it gives us an opportunity to make it to state without necessarily needing the region tournament,” Newton said. “If you take away that playoff tournament and make every game in the conference really important, it’s that much harder to get into that top three.”
The six teams in the Railbelt — SoHi, Kenai, Homer, Juneau, Palmer and Houston — will battle for three state spots, with another two at-large bids available. The other six-team conference in Div. II is the Aurora Conference, which houses Delta Junction, Glennallen/Kenny Lake, Hutchison, Monroe Catholic, North Pole and Tri-Valley. That conference also automatically qualifies three teams to state.
The departure of 2017 head coach Chance Rockett, who left after one year on the job netted him conference Coach of the Year, is unfortunately not the biggest loss for the 2018 Mariners.
Homer graduated a talented core of five seniors that carried the bulk of the Mariners’ scoring output last year, including first-team all-conference members Dimitry Kuzmin and Charlie Menke.
“We couldn’t have picked a better group of seniors as far as leadership qualities in the locker room,” Nevak said. “Losing them is a big hit, but with this next group of seniors, we gain a lot in a different dynamic. We’re not going to have the bulldogged style that Dimitry brought, that quiet leadership that Menke brought, but a style of hockey I’m accustomed to, and they know my different style of playing and my different attitude to working hard.”
Nevak takes over the head position after spending last year as an assistant. The 35-year-old has spent the previous decade coaching at the club level of Homer’s productive hockey scene, and has developed a lot of the current high school talent himself.
The Mariners contended for the NLC title last year but Colony beat them to it with a 9-1-0 mark to lay claim to the top seed. Homer finished 8-2-0 in conference and was 17-5-0 overall, a season highlighted by an 11-game win streak but one which fell short of making its first ever state tournament appearance with a 4-2 semifinal loss to Wasilla in the tourney.
“Through the summer, that’s been the question asked to myself,” Nevak said about the heartbreaking end to 2017. “After that loss, Chance and I went our separate ways and we didn’t want to bring it up. We knew we left something on the table and were absolutely puzzled.”
Nevak said the 2018 Homer contingent has firmly put that tough loss behind them and is looking ahead to more success, including that elusive debut trip to state, and said he likes his team’s chances of postseason success.
“I think we’re in a really good position to bring home our first state championship,” he said.
The Mariners do return a big piece of last year’s talent in senior goaltender Hunter Warren, who was Homer’s third member on the 2017 first-team all-conference list.
Homer also returns senior forward Ali McCarron, who Nevak said was named this year’s team captain, along with junior forwards Ethan Pitzman and Alden Ross. Nevak said his two likeliest starting defensemen will be seniors Tucker Weston and Brenna McCarron.
Nevak said other defenders getting significant time will be junior Isaiah Nevak, Austin Shafford and freshmen Casey Otis and Kazden Stineff.
Newton is back for a second go-around with Kenai, and said he is looking forward to the younger players stepping up and taking control of the team this year.
“We’d like to keep the camaraderie of the team and discipline of the team at the forefront,” he said.
Like Homer, the Kardinals graduated several key talents, including a trio of Kenai stalwarts in Levi Mese, Matt Hagel and Jakeb O’Brien. Mese and Hagel were first-team all-conference players, while O’Brien was a second-teamer.
Another blow to the roster comes with the transfer of last year’s starting goalie Josh Tree moving to the Soldotna program.
Newton said with 30 names on this year’s roster, however, he thinks he has the numbers to rebound from such losses, and pointed to a narrow loss in a JV game earlier this week to the Homer program, a game that Kenai held the Mariners scoreless until the third period.
“I like our chances, just like I liked them last year,” Newton said. “We’ve got the crew and the discipline. We’re planning on going (to state).”
Replacing Tree in goal will be freshman Carson Koppes, Newton said, who will be joined by senior captain Jude Gabriel, junior winger Jordan Knudson and senior defenseman Jacob Keels.
Indy Walton returns for his second season as head coach at Soldotna with 36 players in the program, a big increase from last year’s roster in the low 20s.
“We’re turning some heads and attracting some talent,” Walton said. “People want to come play for us.”
Walton gave a lot of the credit for the participation bump to the SoHi booster club, which he praised for its efforts this year thus far.
Walton said the addition of Tree from Kenai has added depth to an already stacked goaltending crop this year. Tree joins a mix of six goalies in the Stars program, which finished 1-9-0 in conference play during a rebuilding season in 2017.
“It’s a tossup,” Walton said. “We have some good competition.”
Walton said Tree will battle incumbent goaltender Corbin Wirz and Kenzie Powell for the starting goalie spot, along with newcomer Kate Harris.
“They’re pushing each other right now in practice,” Walton said. “We’ve had goalie eliminations that’s tough on them, they’ll see 500 pucks a day. It’s a stressful day but it pushed every one of them.”
Other returning players in front of the blue line include Galen Brantley III, Wyatt Medcoff, Braxton Urban, Alex Montague, Dylan Walton, Gavin Haakenson and Journey Miller. The defensive core includes J.D. Schmelzenbach and Lucas Kline, the latter of which is recovering from an injury.
The Stars finished on a strong kick in 2017, a year that included a highlight upset victory over Anchorage powerhouse Dimond midway through the season, and Walton said he sees the Stars continuing on that upward trajectory.
“We’re not quite where we finished the year last year,” Walton said. “But we’re not too far from it already.”