Prep sports landscape changes for peninsula schools

The statewide prep sports scene has received a shakeup, with the biggest changes coming to soccer, hockey and football.

Nikolaevsk boys basketball coach Steve Klaich, the Region II representative on the Alaska School Activities Association Board of Directors, said some of the changes were finalized in the board meeting on Feb. 18 and 19, while others have been in place for a while.

He added the board took a lot of input from around the state in making the changes.

“I think we’re in a pretty good spot headed into next year,” he said.

Here is a look at the changes:

Hockey — Finalized Feb. 18 and 19, Kenai Peninsula schools Soldotna, Kenai Central and Homer are moving from Division I to Division II for the 2018-19 season.

The move gives peninsula teams a much better chance to compete at state, because a peninsula school has never won a first-round game at the Division I hockey tournament.

Those three peninsula schools will be in the Railbelt Conference with Houston, Palmer and Juneau. The other league is the Aurora Conference with North Pole, Hutchison, Monroe Catholic, Glennallen, Tri Valley and Delta. Those conferences will feed an eight-team state tournament.

Klaich said another intriguing possibility will be discussed at the board meeting in Kotzebue from April 22 to 24. Klaich stressed this is a proposal and not a done deal.

“Whoever wins the Division II tournament could then join the nonqualifiers in Division I and, using criteria, try to get an at-large berth,” Klaich said. “The winner of Division II would be held to the same criteria for an at-large berth.”

Soccer — In a change made last April that will take effect for the upcoming season, Klaich said soccer has gone from one to two divisions. Peninsula schools Kenai, Soldotna, Nikiski, Seward and Voznesenka (which only has a girls team) will go to Division II.

Those peninsula schools will all make up a conference that gets two berths to the state tournament, while two other conferences will contribute two state berths.

“They felt for competition reasons, going to a small-schools and large-schools division was an easy decision,” Klaich said.

A peninsula school has never won a state soccer title. The closest was in 2016, when the Kenai Central boys finished second.

Football — Some changes made at the Feb. 18 and 19 meeting, piled on some changes made in late January of this year, will have the 2018 season looking different.

In that January meeting, Palmer was pulled out of the Northern Lights Conference, leaving Soldotna, Kodiak, Kenai and Eagle River. Thunder Mountain and Juneau-Douglas combined and moved to Division I, while Lathrop and West Valley dropped down to Division II. Lathrop and West Valley are joined by Palmer and North Pole in the Railbelt Conference. The top two in each conference go to the playoffs.

Finalized Feb. 18 and 19, Voznesenka will no longer field a team in Division III, which last season also included Homer, Nikiski, Redington and Seward. Houston will join the Peninsula Conference, while Redington will leave for the Division III Aurora Conference, which also includes Barrow, Eielson, Monroe Catholic and Valdez.

Ketchikan will move down from Division II to also join the Peninsula Conference.

“They weren’t competitive at that level and the requested to the board to change,” Klaich said. “There’s a lot of ripple effects when one school changes.

“At one point there was a proposal for a conference from Ketchikan to Barrow to include the peninsula schools, and that would have been a real travel budget buster. What they ended up with keeps travel costs to a minimum and has the conferences as competitive as possible.”

Basketball — This is the first of many changes caused by Kenai Central being reclassified as a Class 3A school for the 2018-19 school year. The Kardinals received word in February 2017 they would make the move from the largest division to the second-largest division, but how that looks is now in sharper focus.

In basketball, Kenai joins the Class 3A Southcentral Conference. This conference will have a northern division with Anchorage Christian Schools, Grace Christian, Houston and Redington. The southern division has Homer, Nikiski, Seward and Kenai. Each team plays each in-division team twice and each out-of-division team once.

That leaves Colony, Kodiak, Palmer, Soldotna and Wasilla in the Northern Lights Conference.

“In basketball, we looked at a lot of proposals, but other than Kenai moving from 4A to 3A, we went with the status quo,” Klaich said.

Now that the Valley schools must travel here for just one game with Soldotna, though, ASAA will do away with the Winning Percentage Index after this season.

The WPI is used to determine a pair of at-large berths to state and seed the state tournament. Klaich said the problem is 4A opponents only count. A new set of criteria will be determined at the April meeting that includes all classifications.

“The idea is to encourage more play between classification levels,” Klaich said. “Hopefully, that will be more cost effective and help with scheduling.”

Volleyball — The changes here are identical to basketball, with Kenai joining the Class 3A Southcentral Conference and the divisions lining out the same way.

Baseball — Remains one classification, with the main change being Grace Christian will join Wasilla, Soldotna, Palmer, Kodiak, Houston, Homer, Colony and Kenai in the Southcentral Conference. That conference gets two state berths.

Cross-country, boys wrestling, track and field, cross-country skiing — These are individual and meet style sports where Kenai’s change of classification does not necessitate conference realignment.

In cross country, the Kards stay in Region 3 but go to Division II.

In boys wrestling, Kenai goes to the Division II Kachemak Conference, which includes area schools like Homer, Nikiski, Seward and Voznesenka.

In track and field, the Kardinals drop down to Division II in Region 3.

In cross-country skiing, all classifications compete in the same race. But Kenai is now eligible for the first-place award for the top Class 1-2-3A team, and for the three medals for the top Class 1-2-3A finishers.

Swimming, girls wrestling, softball — Although the Kenai girls wrestlers will now qualify for state out of the Kachemak Conference, nothing else changes. At state swimming and girls wrestling, all athletes compete in one classification.

In softball, the Kards continue in the Division II Northern Lights Conference with Homer, Houston, Kodiak and Soldotna.

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