In any given year, coaches and athletes of spring sports will typically find themselves having to literally dig out a winter’s worth of snow to clear a field for suitable practice conditions. Hey, no one said living in Alaska was easy.
So imagine the surprised faces of soccer coaches when they were able to get their teams out on dry grass on the very first practice day of the season during spring break.
It’s been a dream start to the high school spring season for all sports, and soccer teams have enjoyed it just as much as others have. The mild temperatures combined with the addition of new turf fields at Kenai Central, Soldotna and Homer have translated to the earliest outside work for teams ever.
Kenai boys coach Joel Reemtsma, who was a goalie coach last year, could hardly contain his joy when asked about the early days outside.
“It’s been unreal, just such a blessing to get out and play outside,” Reemtsma said. “I think we’ve spent only two days in the gym, and the rest of it out.”
Soldotna girls coach Jimmy Love said his squad has been outside since March 16.
“I’ve been coaching for 11 years, and we’ve never been outside in March,” Love said. “If it had not been as cooperative, I think we would’ve been back where we were.”
The Nikiski boys, unlike other local teams, do not have the luxury of an artificial turf field, but coach Jim Coburn said that hasn’t stopped the Bulldogs. Coburn has been coaching soccer for as long as many of his players have been alive, and this year has also been the earliest the Bulldogs have gotten time outside, even on a natural grass field.
Like Coburn, Homer girls coach Mickey Todd said the opportunity to get time on an outside turf field has been critical for his team.
“It’s so weird, because I’ve never had to coach on grass within the first five weeks of the season,” Todd explained. “It’s completely different, I’m like, what am I gonna do?”
All coaches agree that the additional practices on real playing conditions can only be a boon for the competitiveness of local teams.
“I do think it’s a huge benefit,” Love said. Love saw his Stars squad come up just short of a berth in last year’s state championship game, falling in overtime to South in the semifinal round. This year, he hopes the gap has closed.
“It’s one step further, and something we can improve with,” he said.
The Northern Lights Conference received a bit of a shakeup this year. Gone from the conference is Skyview High School. The Panthers played their final season in 2014 before the school closed and subsequently reopened as a middle school last fall. Both Skyview boys and girls squads missed the cut for the 2014 NLC tournament.
In their place, the Kodiak Bears have entered as challengers. Kodiak has never fielded high school soccer teams, but after Skyview left, the time was right to enter the equation.
In their season-opening two games with the Bears, the Kenai girls earned a sweep with a combined total of 29 goals over two games, while the Kenai boys did the same with a combined score of 14-0, so growing pains are being felt for Kodiak, but most coaches are happy to be playing a new opponent, even if it means taking the daylong ferry ride to the island.
“It just makes it more fun for the rest of us,” said SoHi boys coach Darryl Byerley.
“It’ll be a little bit of a logistical hurdle getting there, but on the other hand, it’s a great trip for team unity and bonding,” added Reemtsma.
Todd said he was saddened to see Skyview make its exit, but sees Kodiak’s arrival as a growth for the sport.
“When Skyview came into our region in the mid-90s, they were extremely competitive, so (their loss) just hurts us,” he said. “It would’ve been fun to have Skyview and Kodiak … but soccer is a more popular sport now.”
Three state berths are up for grabs from the Northern Lights Conference tournament, to be held May 22 and 23 in Palmer. The state tournament is slated for May 28, 29 and 30 at Bartlett and Eagle River high schools.
The following is a closer look at Peninsula teams:
The SoHi girls begin 2015 as the reigning NLC champions, a title the Stars earned with a 5-0 win over Peninsula rival Kenai last May.
SoHi went on to finish third at the state tournament a week later, suffering a brutal overtime semifinal loss to eventual state champion South, then meeting Kenai again in the third-place match. It’s left the Stars even hungrier to tally the Peninsula’s first ever state soccer crown.
“We hope to be in the (state) championship game,” Love said about the team goals. “We were so very close last year, but it was still a good positive season. My talking to them is about progressively getting better and peaking at the right time.”
With a schedule consisting of at least 12 games, Love said there is a solid 40 players on the varsity and JV rosters, a healthy number for a team looking to make strides toward a championship.
The Stars graduated several talented seniors, including state All-Tournament goalkeeper Katelynn Kerkvliet, along with several key midfielders, namely Kelci Benson, Julie Litchfield and Kylee Wolfe.
But Love has managed to reconstruct the core of the team with a few returners that played secondary roles last year.
“I’m fairly confident they can come in and fill those voids,” Love said. “I think the girls can do that. We’re just missing those players that everybody knows, but we have some new girls that are coming up, and that’s what we’re grooming for.”
Love said freshman Maddie Kindred has been tabbed as the starting goalie, but as far as the remaining field spots, it is still a rotating door to see who will fit where. Love mentioned that after suffering a season-ending injury last year, Miranda Wolfe returns as one of the top attackers.
The Soldotna boys squad is getting a new coach this year in Darryl Byerley, a longtime SoHi assistant that was included on the Jeff Siemers-led teams of the previous few seasons.
Byerley said his current roster is at 32 players, and said he is excited with the prospect of a Stars team that includes a few additions from Skyview.
“We have a nice distribution between all four classes of players,” Byerley said. “We have some quality senior leadership that will provide guidance for the rest of the team, and an even lineup of talent the rest of the way.”
Byerley said Soldotna’s goalkeeper will be senior Bailey Jones, who was with Skyview last year. Jones is tasked with filling the large shoes of Kayne North, who graduated in 2014.
“I think he can fill the shoes quite capably of prior keepers,” Byerley said. “I don’t feel any trepidation whatsoever.”
SoHi missed out on state last year after a first-day drubbing in the NLC tournament to Wasilla. In the last eight seasons, Soldotna has been stuck in the unfortunate trend of losing the first day of the state tournament on four different occasions, including three in a row against the Dimond Lynx in 2008, 2009 and 2013.
Byerley said he would like to reverse that trend.
Kenai girls coach Dan Verkuilen lost only one senior from last year — defensive specialist Caitlin Steinbeck — but three other players also did not return.
But with 30 players out for the team, on pace with recent years, he does not expect a falloff.
“I expect a competitive team,” Verkuilen said. “We lost three players last year that were starters, so that was kind of unexpected. It was a lot of speed lost.”
A number of incoming freshmen will help alleviate some of the losses, but Verkuilen said he will be looking at returning senior Heidi Perkins and junior Cori Holmes to lead the team as captains, as well as juniors Hannah Drury and Sarah Every and sophomores Lara Creighton and Cassie Holmes to bring the speed and power up front. On defense, junior Kylie Morse, senior Jamie Bagley and sophomore Rebecca Miller will help out standout goalie, junior Alli Steinbeck.
“It might take a half season to figure out the right mix, but that’s kind of the fun part of the game,” Verkuilen said.
With no less than 12 games on the schedule, the Kards begin their official opening conference game with Nikiski on Tuesday.
The Kenai boys return a year after narrowly missing the cut to state in 2014. The Kards lost an overtime semifinal match to eventual state champs Colony in the region tournament, then dropped the last-chance third-place game to Homer.
Kenai boys coach Joel Reemtsma, last year’s girls goalie coach, said he plans on taking the Kards to the big dance this year after taking over for John Morton.
“We’re always hungry, but it’s definitely something we’re aiming for,” Reemtsma said.
Reemtsma, who is a coaching director for the Kenai Peninsula soccer club, is a 2000 Kenai graduate, and played the game in college as a goalie at Cedarville University in Ohio. Reemtsma has previous experience coaching many of the current crop of kids at the junior levels. He said the goal of winning a state title is something that is feasible with the current group, and it begins with winning the region championship.
“We know the odds are long, but they’re not zero,” he said.
With a 14-game schedule and 24 players out for the team this year, Kenai will have to find enough athletes to get the job done, after losing several starters to graduation last year.
One of the key figures returning this year is senior goalkeeper Wren Norwood. Reemtsma said Norwood had knee surgery in the fall and was just cleared recently to play.
“Wren is so focused and dedicated,” Reemtsma said. “His determination and intensity is really something the guys look up to.”
Reemtsma also tabbed junior captain Ean Atchley and senior midfielder Austin McKee as leading players to watch out for, with role players including sophomore Max Dye and senior Jake Eubank.
Reemtsma will be starting four freshman as well in Brady Goodman, Kevin Ramos, Luke Beiser and Zach Tuttle.
“We did lose a lot of firepower, but we’ve got a very talented freshman class coming in,” he said. “I would not count us out.”
Returning to coach the Nikiski boys is longtime head coach Jim Coburn, who sees his Bulldogs squad in a transition year.
Nikiski made the cut to the NLC tournament last year, but was faced with the daunting task of upsetting eventual state champion Colony. The Knights ended the Bulldogs’ season in the first round with a 9-2 win.
“Like any sport, it’s one game at a time,” Coburn said. “The ultimate goal is to make it to regions, and get a spot in state. But you’ve got to start with regions, you’ve got to win some games.”
Coburn said he believes the team to beat in then NLC southern division is Homer. The Mariners topped the Bulldogs 6-2 Tuesday in a nonconference contest.
With 32 players on the tentative roster, Coburn added that Nikiski is in a transition year, with a talented senior class leading a number of younger players. Returning is four-year team captain Christian Riddall, who will be joined by fellow seniors Brady Malston, Sullivan Jackson, Nico Castro, Dylan Jackson and Calvin Carpenter. Sullivan Jackson will be getting the most time in net as goalie.
“(Riddall) is the glue that holds the team together,” Coburn said.
Nikiski also features a strong junior class consisting of Sam Tauriainen, Logan Griffel, Nathan Carstens, Hunter Holloway, Ryder Payment, Javon Pamplin and Cade Anderson. Rykker Rydall and Luck Broussard highlight the incoming freshmen class.
“When you’re starting underclassmen at that level, it’s big,” Coburn said.
Like the boys, the Nikiski girls are hoping to make it past the first round of the NLC tournament. A year ago, the Bulldogs saw their season end with a 3-0 loss to Wasilla.
With Mandy Adair stepping down from head-coaching duties, Troy Zimmerman has stepped up from a middle school coaching position and put his 12 years of Nikiski experience to use. Zimmerman’s wife, Linda, will be helping as an assistant coach.
“If we can put two halves of soccer together and do everything we know we can do and do it well, we can compete very well,” Zimmerman said.
Returning to the team is senior Rachel Thompson, who has split field time as a goalie and leading attacker for the Bulldogs in the past. After trailing Homer 3-0 at halftime last Tuesday, Zimmerman said he put Thompson out front, and she was able to help tighten the game to a 4-3 loss.
Joining Thompson in goal this season will be sophomore Brianna Vollertson. Zimmerman said junior Hannah Love will lead the Nikiski defense, and leading the midfield game will be junior Chloe Braun.
“Those girls are always consistent and reliable,” Zimmerman said.
Two large freshmen and sophomore classes will fill out the remaining roster spots, which Zimmerman said will hopefully help the Bulldogs compete for a spot at state.
“A lot of the girls wanna change their mentality around and try to bring a positive winning outlook,” he said. “In addition to learning more and enjoying sport, it’s about trying to become more competitive with teams within the conference.”
The Homer boys will be attempting to grab a third state spot in a four-year span, after finishing fourth in 2012 and tying for third last year with South.
Warren Waldorf returns as the head coach, but is now guiding a younger squad after graduating a number of key seniors, including goalie Brian Rowe. Waldorf said senior Eric Hill will be getting the most time in as netminder this year. After that, he is not quite sure what the finished product will look like, especially with a team that has eight seniors and eight freshmen, which he called an “interesting mix.”
“(Friday) was the first indication, but we never have an idea until we play,” Waldorf said.
Waldorf started three freshman — Simon Dye, Charles Rohr and Charlie Menke — in Tuesday’s game with Nikiski, with all three earning goals in the 6-2 win. By the end of the game, five freshmen were on the field.
Waldorf still expects to get the most out of Kenneth Schneider, Flynn Bloom, Drew Brown and Filip Reutov, all returning seniors that have state experience.
Waldorf said he still believes Colony to be the top dog in the NLC, and any chance at a state championship could go through the Knights.
“Just getting through regions is a tall order,” Waldorf said.
The Homer girls are attempting to break an eight-year dry spell. After finishing seventh at the 2007 state soccer tournament, the Mariners haven’t been back since.
But with the new turf field available since day one, coach Mickey Todd said this might be the year to snap the streak.
“My team is going to be competitive,” he said. “From day one, our goal has been to make it to the state tournament.”
Todd, who has coached the Homer girls to three region titles in his time, said his team features a good mix of juniors and sophomores, but will be led by seniors Aspen Daigle and Jane Rohr. Junior Sam Draves will be getting the most time in goal for the Mariners.
Todd said the 18 games Homer has on its schedule this season is twice the number from 2014. With the new turf field, Todd said the Mariners were able to schedule more games earlier in the season, including Tuesday’s 4-3 win over Nikiski. Homer began its year with a loss and a tie against Juneau and a loss to Thunder Mountain.
“We’ve tacked on a few more after last weekend, too,” Todd said. “You only get better if you play better competition.”
The Seahawks are on the rise with increasing numbers.
Two years ago, Seward wasn’t able to even field a boys team. Now, the squad is sitting at a healthy 19 on the roster. The girls team is up to 16 this year.
Seward boys coach Dustin Phillips credits that to the growing success of the middle school teams. Combined with the earlier spring season, the Seahawks have a competitive group.
“We’ve had a lot more experience out on the big field, instead of being cooped up in the gym,” Phillips said. “We want to improve every game and be more competitive with the conference teams.”
The Seahawks are slated to play eight regular-season games. After a 2-1 loss to Soldotna and 2-0 loss to Homer in Friday’s 20-minute scrimmages at SoHi, Phillips assessed the results and said the team goal is to make the cut to the NLC tournament.
Phillips tabbed sophomore Kjell Nielson as starting goalie, and junior Alex Estes as a returning captain in the midfield.
The lone senior on the team is second-year player Jesus Sanchez.
Seward girls coach James Wayne is new to the program. Wayne hails from Connecticut but spent a year teaching in Bethel. Wayne is taking over the head coach position from Kelly Smith.
The Seahawks ended last year with only one win and one draw on their record, and Wayne said he expects improvements for the team as the season goes along.
“This is a great group, they’ve improved dramatically already,” Wayne said. “I’m happy to be coaching them.”
The lone senior on the team is captain Carrie Anderson, who was unfortunately injured during Friday’s jamboree scrimmages. Wayne said he will be looking for her to lead the group this year, and will also be looking for solid goalkeeping from Randi Tolson.