Homer goalie Hunter Warren fends off a shot by Soldotna’s Galen Brantley III Jan. 15, 2019, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Homer goalie Hunter Warren fends off a shot by Soldotna’s Galen Brantley III Jan. 15, 2019, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

SoHi, Homer prepared for DII state hockey tourney

Both peninsula programs competing in the Division II state hockey championships this weekend have never won a state title, but it could all change Saturday night.

The Soldotna Stars are the No. 1 seed this weekend at the Div. II tournament, just one year after finishing in last place in their conference, while the Homer Mariners are seeded third in the eight-team field. The tournament runs today, Friday and Saturday at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla.

SoHi opens the tournament today at 12 p.m. against the No. 8 seeded Delta Huskies, while Homer starts at 2:30 p.m. against No. 6 seed Glennallen.

SoHi has never won a state hockey title, while Homer has never even appeared in a state tournament in its school history. It sets up for a potentially momentous occasion this weekend.

“I guess we’ll find out,” said Soldotna head coach Indy Walton about what’s at stake this weekend. “I’m not a betting guy, I have faith in my team that they’ll play their best efforts, but the competition is going to do the same, but anyone can win it.

“It’s up for grabs.”

Before 2018, all Kenai Peninsula hockey teams battled with the big schools statewide to get into the big dance, a road made difficult with schools twice or three times the size of Soldotna, Homer and Kenai Central. When peninsula teams did qualify to state, it usually didn’t turn out well. In the big schools tournament, no peninsula team had ever won its first-round game.

When the announcement came that a second division would be created to decide a smaller school state champion, the door opened for history to change on the peninsula.

Homer head coach Steve Nevak, in his first year manning the helm after several campaigns as an assistant, is happy that his Mariners get to play their first ever postseason contest, but said the team has bigger goals than simply qualifying for state.

“We just had to make the show,” Nevak said. “The kids say, yeah, they kind of knew at the beginning of year that it’d be huge if we didn’t go to the state tournament … but it’s not a big deal.”

A state championship would also mean an automatic berth in the following weekend’s Div. I state hockey tournament.

So who might be celebrating Saturday night with the Alaska School Activities Association First National Cup?

As the top seed, Walton’s Stars are one of the targets for the other seven teams. Walton said SoHi reached its goal of clinching a top three seed for the tourney, which helped put them in the most advantageous spot possible, with some of the toughest competition on the other side of the bracket in Homer and Juneau.

“I think there’s a good four, five teams that could win this thing,” Walton said. “We’ve played Palmer really tight, Homer has gone both directions, Juneau was really tight, and North Pole made it tight with their goalie.

“I think it’s anyone’s tournament.”

The Stars enter the weekend on the heels of a remarkable turnaround from 2017, when the team recorded a 1-9 conference record. This year’s squad captured the Railbelt Conference title at 9-1, but Walton said the huge turnaround by SoHi hasn’t been as miraculous as it seems.

“We were climbing the hill from the beginning of the season last year to now,” he explained. “We’ve been building and growing, so I wouldn’t say we flipped it over, we’ve just been climbing the hill. The early part of that hill was rough, and here we are at the end of the hill winning games.”

In hindsight, two wins over Juneau on consecutive days in mid-December loom large for SoHi this year. Walton said those two victories (3-0 and 1-0) provided much of the cushion the Stars had in helping them win the conference and top state seed.

Juneau, which is stacked with a large and talented senior class that understands the game, has been tabbed by both Walton and Nevak as one of the best teams at state. The Crimson Bears defeated Homer two weeks ago with scores of 4-3 and 7-3, putting the rest of the state on notice of the kind of offensive firepower they hold.

Walton said a potential Friday semifinal between Homer and Juneau will be must-see.

“That’s going to be a battle, that possible Juneau and Homer game,” he said. “That could be the championship game … if we play the winner of that game, I hope they don’t have any gas in their tank.”

Walton said Thursday’s first-round matchup with Delta is a bit of mystery, having not played a school that lies so far north, but believes in all phases of the SoHi game to get the job done and advance.

Part of that game includes a trio of goaltenders in returning talent Corbin Wirz and McKenzie Powell and Kenai transfer Josh Tree, who Walton said has boosted the competitiveness of all three goalies.

“What that has done is just pushed Corbin and Kenzie and it’s pushed Josh as well,” he said. “If you were to ask my team who was the better goaltender, I think you’d find a pretty split decision.”

The stinginess of the Stars defense has also been complimented by its star power up front, which during the course of one road weekend to the Valley had 14 different players score a goal between six varsity and JV games.

Walton said that’s due to SoHi’s practice atmosphere, which is no-nonsense.

“Our practices are pretty intense, I don’t put up with a lot of horseplay,” he said. “We really focus on our weaknesses.”

Perhaps that mentality will lead SoHi to its first state hockey crown.

One of its biggest friendly rivals will have something to say about that. The Homer Mariners enter this weekend looking to erase the harsh memories of last year’s North Star Conference tournament, which ended in a semifinal loss to Wasilla that denied Homer its first state berth ever.

Nevak said in order to make a deep postseason run, the Mariners need to shine on the front line.

“The message I’ve been giving the team is our superstars have to show up,” Nevak said.

Among the star talent Nevak referred to is junior Ethan Pitzman, one of the top skaters on the team, and junior Isaiah Nevak, who racked up five assists on Palmer last weekend. Add to that goalie Hunter Warren as one of the top goaltenders in the conference and the Mariners are ready to do battle.

Coach Nevak said Homer may be without senior forward Lee Lowe due to a broken collarbone and senior wing Ali McCarron to a concussion, but otherwise said the rest of the team is healthy.

“It’s a perfect time to be all healthy,” he said. “That’s probably a first this year.”

Soldotna’s Galen Brantley III keeps the puck away from Kenai Central’s Travis Verkuilen (right) Dec. 20, 2018, evening at the Kenai Multi-Purpose Facility. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna’s Galen Brantley III keeps the puck away from Kenai Central’s Travis Verkuilen (right) Dec. 20, 2018, evening at the Kenai Multi-Purpose Facility. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

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