The blind draw that sets the brackets for the state high school soccer tournament always has a number of interesting quirks, and this year’s entrants from the Kenai Peninsula are a fine exhibit for three of them.
Group of death — The random process can load up a side of the bracket to ridiculous extremes, and that happened this year in the girls tournament.
Service, Dimond and South Anchorage, which collectively have won every state title since 2008, are in the same side of the bracket as Soldotna, which has finished third in the state the past three years.
Group of opportunity — The flip side of the group of death. The Kenai girls, on the opposite side of the bracket from Soldotna, are in a group that features just one school that has won state since the Alaska School Activities Association starting sanctioning the event in 2000.
You again — Teams that can’t avoid each other in regular season and region tournament play often are drawn together again by randomness. The Kenai and Homer boys will play for a fourth time this season in state’s first round.
Soldotna girls coach Jimmy Love has often expressed a desire to test his program against the state’s best — whether it be in the regular season or at state.
The Stars (15-1-1) didn’t get their wish in the regular season, but are guaranteed to meet two of the state’s blue bloods on the first two days of the tournament.
Soldotna, making a sixth-straight state trip and seventh in eight years, starts by taking on Service at 1 p.m. today at Bartlett. If nonsanctioned tournaments are included, Service has taken 17 state titles since 1982.
“We really got a good bracket,” Love said. “We’ve got the top teams in the state. I think it will be a really big test to see what we are capable of.”
Having finished third the past three years, SoHi wants a state title. That, naturally, means ducking the state’s top teams is not possible.
“I’d be an idiot to say I wouldn’t like to be in the top half,” Love said. “But at some point we’re going to have to beat those teams if we want to go through and win a state title.”
Love said Service is a very fast team, and likes to play to feet or to space just like the Stars do.
SoHi was dominant in the regular season until tying Kenai 0-0 in the season finale. The Kards then topped SoHi 3-2 in overtime for the Northern Lights Conference crown.
“Obviously, we were disappointed, not just because we lost to Kenai but because we lost a region title well within our grasp,” Love said. “We can’t dwell on the past. We have to figure out what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again the next game.”
Love said SoHi did not play hard for the entire game against Kenai, and lost too many 50-50 balls. Communication and team passing also were not consistent.
But perhaps the biggest news coming out of that game, as pertains to today, is senior defender Taryn McCubbins received a red card and will be out against Service.
“It’s just an added wrinkle to an already challenging game,” Love said. “With Service, we have to match speed with speed. I’m not sold on one specific plan yet.”
Love said his team should be over the mental hurdle of competing with Anchorage teams thanks to past state performances. But the flip side is Anchorage squads know what to expect from the Stars.
“We will not be able to sneak in and get a win and have the other team saying, ‘Who would have thought they had anything?’” Love said.
The Kenai girls (13-1-2) start their third state appearance in four years with a 1 p.m. game today at Eagle River vs. Juneau-Douglas. The Crimson Bears won a state title in 2004.
Friday, the winner of Wasilla and West Valley, two programs without state titles, awaits the Kenai-Juneau winner.
“It’s a pretty sweet draw,” Kenai girls coach Dan Verkuilen said. “Not that any of these teams are weak, but looking at the opposite side, it’s definitely not a bad draw.”
Homer played Juneau and lost 4-0, while the Kards dealt the Mariners a pair of 3-0 setbacks this season.
Verkuilen said Homer coach Mickey Todd said Juneau moves the ball well and is strong in the midfield.
“It sounds like it could be a good matchup,” Verkuilen said.
But after taking a first NLC title since 2009, Verkuilen likes where his team is right now.
“The biggest thing at the region tournament was the no-give-up attitude,” he said. “They came to play every game.
“They were down a point in all three of those games, but they didn’t give up. They continued to push.”
The coach said everybody on the team has accepted a role, even if that is bursting on the field for just four or five minutes to provide energy.
The Kardinals have a defense led by Kylie Morse, an all-state sweeper last season, and goalie Alli Steinbeck, a player Verkuilen believes should be all-state.
Verkuilen said the outside defenders, led by senior Jamie Bagley, have done a good job keeping threats out of the middle.
Heidi Perkins and Hannah Drury have been a steady presence at midfield, while Sarah Every, Jacey Ross and Cassi Holmes put in the work on the outside.
Cori Holmes and Lara Creighton have hit their stride at forward, with Holmes and Perkins switching off as needed.
“It totally is a team this year,” Verkuilen said. “We have a couple excellent players and a lot of hard-working, good players.”
The Kenai boys (9-5-2) and Homer boys (7-6-3) will meet for the fourth time this season, with the previous meetings ending in a scoreless draw, a 2-1 Kenai victory and a 2-1 Kenai victory in overtime.
“I had a funny feeling it was going to happen,” first-year Kenai coach Joel Reemtsma said. “Knowing state is a blind draw, there was a one in seven chance, and I thought it would be ironic.
“Here it is.”
When the two squads kick off at 3 p.m. today at Bartlett, familiarity will be a small price to pay for knowing that powerhouses South Anchorage and Colony face each other tonight at Eagle River at 7 p.m.
“It’s tough to beat a team three times, but on the other hand we’ve beaten them twice and know we can do it,” Reemtsma said. “They’ve had some good chances, but I think we’ve had more.”
Homer coach Warren Waldorf also is feeling good as his program tries to build on a third-place finish at state last season and a fourth-place showing in 2012.
“The first times we played Kenai we never really had our strongest lineup,” Waldorf said. “All the kids think they’ve got their work cut out for them on Thursday.
“It will likely be another nail-biter, right down to the end. If it gets finished in regulation, I’d be surprised.”
Kenai, making its first state appearance since 2008, will be seeking its first state victory. The program has been to state five times, going 0-10, with five of those losses coming in overtime, including a current four-game streak of overtime losses.
Reemtsma, an all-tournament player at state for the Kards in 2000, has been sure to fill in his players on the program’s history.
The coach said a talk given by Wally Ward, a former Kenai player and assistant, on a road trip this season was one of the turning points for the team.
“The boys know where the program has been and where it would like to go,” Reemtsma said. “It’s an exciting opportunity to make history.”
The father of the Kenai program is David Landry, who showed up at the team’s banquet before regions with a vest bearing patches from each of the Kards’ state appearances. He passed the vest to Reemtsma and said he hoped to add a patch. Reemtsma said he was happy to.
Both Landry and Reemtsma are goalies, and the position has always been a strong point for the program.
That is the case again with senior co-captain Wren Norwood manning the net.
“We’re going to be facing some high-powered sides,” Reemtsma said. “Wren is going to have to make some saves, no question.”
Norwood is part of a senior class that includes Nate Saavedra, Austin McKee, Keenan Segura and Jake Eubank that gets to make a first trip to state.
The team has mixed that experience with the five freshmen, led by goal scorer Zack Tuttle, that earned starts in the NLC tournament.
“We’re very pleased to get this experience for some of the young guys,” Reemtsma said. “At the same time, the seniors are really excited to have this chance in their high school career to prove they are one of the top teams.”
The Mariners have proved to be one of the top teams in the state in two of the past three years, an incredible feat for a school with just over 400 students.
“2012 was pretty special,” Waldorf said. “I always thought it would be the peak of the program for a while.”
The Mariners had a pair of foreign exchange students — Lennart Von Schlichting and Vegard Unhjem — net hat tricks at state, and also had the services of Robin Glosser, who recently just missed making the U-23 Portland Timbers.
But Waldorf was able to get some of his young players time during that tournament run. They impressed then, and have impressed since, narrowly missing state in 2013 before taking third last season despite using just 13 players during the tournament.
“When I look at these kids, I look at every position and see a lot of speed on the field, a good amount of skill and a lot of intelligence,” Waldorf said. “Four of these kids started on the basketball team. Throw a ball on the field, and they’ll figure out what to do with it.”
In the third-place game victory over Grace, Waldorf moved Flynn Bloom to defense and he teamed with Drew Brown in the 2-1 win.
With Filip Reutov and Dawson Roberts in the midfield and Kenneth Schneider and Charles Rohr up front, Waldorf said the Mariners will be able to give the Kards a better test.
“We’ll have to get a little lucky and see the ball bounce off the post here or there, but I think we’re pretty fortunate with the draw,” Waldorf said.