Play it again: Familiarity rules 1st round at NLC soccer

Five of the six Kenai Peninsula teams will have freshly familiar foes when the Northern Lights Conference soccer tournament kicks off today at Palmer and Colony high schools.

The Soldotna, Kenai Central and Homer girls will face teams they just played in the last weekend of the regular season, as will the Soldotna and Homer boys. The Kardinals boys are the lone team which will have to reach back to remember their opponent, as Kenai played Palmer all the way back on April 15.

Four of the six Kenai Peninsula schools beat their first-round opponents the first time, while the Kenai and Homer girls will be looking to turn around regular-season losses in the first round.

There are three state berths up for grabs in the girls and boys tournaments, but the first round is crucial. Lose in the first round and the season is done. But lose in Friday’s semifinals, and there still is the possibility of coming back and earning a state berth by winning a third-place game Saturday.

The Soldotna girls, the top seed out of the Southern Division, face North No. 4 Houston at 11 a.m. today at Palmer.

The Stars tied for the top spot in the division with Kenai and Homer with 3-1 records, but out-of-division conference games against common opponents pushed Soldotna to the top. SoHi, looking to return to the state tournament after an absence last year, just beat Houston 7-0 on Friday.

“I’ve been telling the kids, ‘Don’t take anything for granted. This is regions. Everything goes out the window,’” coach Jimmy Love said.

Love only has to point to the Stars’ contests against Kenai this season. The Kards won the first game 7-2, while SoHi came back to win the second 2-1.

Soldotna closed the sea son on a high note, beating Grace 1-0 on Saturday. That game gave them the tiebreaker against Kenai.

“I think we’re in a good spot that bodes well for the girls morale,” Love said. “I hope we perform how we have the last couple of games.”

The Kardinals, No. 2 from the south, will be seeking to kick-start a run to a fourth straight state berth when they face Grace, No. 3 from the north, 3 p.m. at Palmer. The Grizzlies topped the Kardinals 2-1 on Friday.

This group of eight Kenai seniors not only has seen a state berth each year of high school, but also won borough titles as seventh- and eighth-graders.

“It’d be pretty cool to end it with another trip to state,” Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said.

The coach said the key against Grace will be finishing chances. Verkuilen said the Kardinals probably had possession for 70 percent of the game against the Grizzlies, but did not convert opportunities. As those two very different results against Soldotna show, Kenai has had very different results finishing this season from game to game.

Verkuilen said he asked the team this week who had their best game against Grace, and only senior midfielder Cassi Holmes raised her hand.

“I agreed with Cassi, but I made the point to the other 10 girls, ‘Turn it up, and there’s your victory,’” Verkuilen said.

The coach said injured forwards Olivia Brewer and Shelly Sewell will be missed, but he also said he has confidence in freshman Kailey Hamilton to play well in goal for her first conference tournament.

“It’s really that time of year for the seniors to step up,” Verkuilen said. “They have that experience of three state tournaments. It’s nice to bring that experience to the region tournament.”

Homer, No. 3 from the south, takes on Wasilla, No. 2 from the north, at 11 a.m. at Colony. Wasilla just notched a 4-0 victory over Homer on Saturday. The final girls game is North No. 1 Colony against South No. 4 Kodiak, which tied in the regular season for fourth in the Southern Division with Nikiski but got in due to a tiebreaker.

On the boys side, South No. 1 and defending conference champion Kenai opens at 5 p.m. at Palmer against North No. 4 Palmer. The Kardinals buried the Moose 7-0 on April 15. In late April, Kenai took a 5-0 decision against Kodiak before beating the Bears 2-0 the next day, so Kards coach Joel Reemtsma said his team knows the danger of looking past Palmer.

Reemtsma, who has led the Kards to state in each of his first two seasons at the helm, said Day 1 also is important because getting a big lead early means less minutes for starters that may have to play three games in three days.

“Day 1 is do or die,” said the coach, whose team is 13-1 overall. “It’s just not something you want to look past. Even if the odds were only 100 to 1 that a team would beat me, I’d still be on pins and needles on Day 1.”

After returning the bulk of a team that finished runner-up in the state last season, this is the time of the year for which Kenai has been working hard all season.

“I’m excited to see who steps up and has the big goal or the big defensive play,” Reemtsma said. “Each of our players has a little confidence and swagger, but at the same time they all have a nice team chemistry.”

Homer, No. 2 from the South, will be seeking a fourth state berth in six years. The Mariners face North No. 2 Wasilla at 1 p.m. at Palmer.

Homer just defeated Wasilla 6-1 on Saturday, but Kodiak is also instructional for the Mariners. Last week, Homer beat the Bears 6-0 before needing an extra-time goal to tie them 2-2 the next day.

“I think we learned a lesson playing those two games against Kodiak, or at least I hope we did,” Homer coach Warren Waldorf said.

The coach said his squad is healthier than it has been all season, but he also mentioned Wasilla showed what it could do in the second half Saturday.

“My kids mentioned that during the second half, they were playing in our half most of the time,” Waldorf said. “They have all the tools they need to take it to us.

“It’s just a matter of whether we show up to play or not.”

The coach said one big key to the tournament effort will be senior goalie Kenzington Cortez.

“He has to play better than he has all season,” Waldorf said. “He has to make a difference back there.”

Soldotna, No. 3 from the south, starts against Grace, No. 2 from the north, at 1 p.m. at Colony. The Stars just dispatched the Grizzlies 5-4 on Saturday.

After leading 4-2 at half, SoHi let Grace back in the game before prevailing.

“If they come and and they’re ready to play for 80 minutes, they should be fine,” Byerley said. “At the same time, Grace is a fine team. They’re No. 2 from the north for a reason.”

The Stars made state last season, but had a lot of turnover on the roster coming into this season. Byerley said assistant Eric Dolphin has been instrumental in working the young players into a varsity lineup.

“I don’t believe we’ve peaked yet,” Byerley said. “I hope we’re ready to make a run at regions.”

The Stars have proven they can score with anyone, but they also give up their fair share of goals. Byerley is hoping a maturing team will realize how important defense can be.

To that end, he said players like defensive midfielder Addison Downing, attacking midfielder Luke Trammell and center defender Gavin Goggia will be pivotal.

“Those young men worked hard and didn’t necessarily get in the paper but kept their heads down and did the yeoman’s work to get the ball up top so those players could do their thing,” Byerley said.

The final boys game will be North No. 1 Colony against upset specialist Kodiak, No. 4 from the south, at 5 p.m. at Colony.

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