Stars hockey ready for state challenge

If the Soldotna Stars have any reason to believe they can win a state hockey championship, it’s because of their clutch ability in high intensity situations.

If the Soldotna Stars have any doubt of making it to the state championship game, it’s because of the Kenai Peninsula’s history of state runs.

No Kenai Peninsula team has ever won its first-round game at the state hockey tournament, which is a trend the Stars would like to change. SoHi will get a chance starting today at 2:30 p.m. against the Chugiak Mustangs at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla, the first day of the Alaska School Activities Association state hockey tournament.

If there’s any year to put a stop to that first-round losing trend, this might as well be the one, especially as it’s the last one for SoHi coach Aaron Swanson.

Swanson will be ending his 11-year run as the Soldotna head hockey coach after this weekend in order to spend more time with his family. Additionally, assistant coach Pat Nolden will also be calling it quits after 29 years with the SoHi hockey and football teams.

“It’s just at a point in life that I need a break for a while,” Swanson said.

Nolden has been a part of four conference-winning teams at Soldotna, and has been voted Coach of the Year on four occasions.

Both Nolden and Swanson coached the 2009 Soldotna hockey squad to the North Star Conference championship, and they repeated the feat last Saturday in a thrilling title game. It took four overtime periods to decide the winner between the Stars and Wasilla Warriors. Friday’s semifinal game against Colony went to two overtimes, and in Thursday’s first-round game against Palmer, overtime was narrowly avoided on a last-second, game-winning goal.

“We took some time for celebration after the win on Saturday, because that doesn’t happen very often,” Swanson said. “We let the kids enjoy that a bit, but then we got back to work in practice.”

Since winning the NSC title Saturday, Soldotna has been spending each day of practice focusing on what the Stars do best. Swanson said at this point in the season, there’s no reason to deviate from what they are used to.

“It’s a matter of focusing on our game regardless of our opponent,” Swanson said. “We’ll play within our system, the way we always play, and not modify anything about it.

“At state, all the teams are very good, and we’re going in with the expectation that we need to play our game, which is from the net out.”

Starting with the core defensive lineup is goalie Cody Harvey and defensemen Jacob O’Lena and Preston Weeks. The offensive masterminds include Ty Fenton, Kenny Griffin, Nick Wrobel, Justice Miller and Hunter Lott.

“We have a special group of kids,” Swanson said. “It was described to me by someone, that we don’t have the most talented team at state or even in our history in high school, but they play hard and play with heart.

“We have guys that have been around the program for a while and on the same token there are guys that don’t have their name mentioned much.”

The Stars’ first challenge will be the Chugiak Mustangs, which coincidentally is Swanson’s alma mater. Chugiak (6-7-1 in the Cook Inlet Conference) is the third seed from its conference.

No matter the outcome, Soldotna will play either South Anchorage or Lathrop on Friday. If the Stars win, game time is at 5:30 p.m., and if they lose, game time is 8 a.m., and even if SoHi can break with tradition to make it to the semifinal round, Swanson said the achievement will be treated like any victory.

“Getting wins on any level in the state tournament is a big accomplishment,” he said. “We just need to start with the first one.”

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