Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion Kenai Central midfielder Zack Tuttle (23) heads the ball amid a group of Colony defenders Saturday, May 21, at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai. The Kenai boys won the Northern Lights Conference championship with a 3-1 victory over Colony.

Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion Kenai Central midfielder Zack Tuttle (23) heads the ball amid a group of Colony defenders Saturday, May 21, at Ed Hollier Field in Kenai. The Kenai boys won the Northern Lights Conference championship with a 3-1 victory over Colony.

State soccer preview: Can Kenai teams, SoHi boys, make peninsula history?

Despite the limitations of school size and lack of access to a year-round playing surface, Kenai Peninsula schools will try to keep making their presence felt when the state soccer tournament kicks off Thursday at Service and Eagle River high schools.

The Soldotna boys and Kenai Central girls and boys will try and expand on the four third places and a fourth place the peninsula has claimed since 2012.

The Alaska School Activities Association first sanctioned the state tournament in 2000. In the first 12 years, only the Skyview boys at third in 2004 and the SoHi boys at fourth in 2007 and 2008 were able to break into the top four.

Then the Stars girls broke through with three straight thirds starting in 2012, and the Homer boys took fourth in 2012 and third in 2014.

One peninsula school that has not yet visited the top four is Kenai. The Kards will try and reach those heights as the boys make their seventh appearance at state and the girls make an eighth trip.

The Kenai boys (15-2-1) are riding high after defeating two-time state champ Colony 3-1 on Saturday for the Northern Lights Conference title.

Last year at state, the Kards got the first state victory in the program’s history in finishing fifth. That victory came against Homer, a team Kenai defeated twice and tied once before state.

Thursday at 6 p.m. at Eagle River, Kenai drew the Knights, who topped Kenai 1-0 in the regular season.

“It’s the second year in a row our first draw at state was somebody we’ve already beaten,” said Kenai coach Joel Reemtsma, an all-state honoree on Kenai’s first state team in 2000. “That’s got to be considered good fortune.

“No slight to Colony. They are a good team. But we feel like we are better.”

As much as Reemtsma would like to lead his alma mater to a first top-four placement, he sees no reason to stop there.

“We’ve been putting state champs on the board for two years now,” he said. “That’s what we are aiming for.

“It’s not like it’s all a waste if we don’t win a championship. We love the game and we’d love to win a few games at state, but ultimately we’re looking at the big prize.”

This Kardinals team saw what big-time Anchorage soccer is all about in a 2-0 loss to South earlier this season where the Wolverines scored on a couple of Kenai defensive miscues.

“Our defense has been consistently good, but it’s gotten even better,” Reemtsma said. “That was showcased in the Colony game.

“They were putting on a lot of pressure and, no doubt, they were in our end for a long time, but our guys weren’t making mistakes.”

Max Dye and Braydon Goodman lead the defense in the center, while Tristan Landry has been steady in net. Reemtsma added Joe Brighton and Riley McKee, spelled by Rykker Riddall, have had to contain high-powered forwards on the outside.

With forward Zack Tuttle creating and scoring goals, Reemtsma said if players like Luke Beiser, Damien Redder, Ean Atchley and Kevin Ramos play to their potential, the Kards have a shot of going where they want to go.

Like the boys, it all starts at goalie and center defense for the Kenai girls (13-3-2). The Kards face Service at 4 p.m. at Service. The Cougars dealt Kenai a 6-0 loss in the third-place game last year.

Sweeper and senior Kylie Morse has been all-state the last two years as the Kards nabbed a pair of fifth-place finishes. Morse will play next season at Edmonds Community College near Seattle.

“She’s definitely a Division I quality player if she chose to do that,” Kenai girls coach Dan Verkuilen said. “She’s healthy and excited about the tournament, as are all the seniors.”

Among that group is goalie Alli Steinbeck, another all-state performer last season. Other seniors making a third straight trip to state are Cori Holmes, Sarah Every, Hannah Drury, Jacey Ross and Darby Milburn.

“It’s really great they’ve been able to make state three years in a row,” said Verkuilen, making a third straight trip to state for the first time. “Now I know they don’t want to go home after two days.

“We understand who we are up against in Service. We know the quality of the competition.”

Kenai lost to South 2-1 earlier this season, and the two-time defending state champ Wolverines didn’t even make state this season.

Verkuilen said the Kards need offensive pressure to hang with the big teams, and thinks the speed and athleticism of forwards Sam Morse, Hayley Maw, Lara Creighton and Olivia Brewer can provide that pressure.

“Having the opportunity to have 470 kids in a school playing against schools of 1,500 to 2,000 kids kind of reminds me of ‘Hoosiers,’” Verkuilen said. “If we can hang around long enough and get a good break, anything can happen.”

The Soldotna boys, making their first state appearance since 2013, face West at 2 p.m. at Eagle River.

The Stars (14-5) lost to the Eagles 3-0 earlier this season, but it came on a Saturday after playing Kenai on Thursday and South on Friday.

“We’re excited and the boys are excited,” Soldotna coach Darryl Byerley said. “When we played them, that was our fourth game that week.

“If we play them fresh, who knows?”

Despite dropping an overtime contest to Colony in the NLC semis, Byerley said his team is playing with intensity, possessing the ball and finishing.

“If we continue to play the way we did against Colony, even though we came up short, I think we’ve got a good shot,” Byerley said.

He said midfielders Johnny Smithwick, Eli Sheridan and Dylan Kuntz will be crucial in holding possession.

Defenders also will have to step up after second-team all-conference central defender Tommy Flores left for the Marines.

“We’re very proud of Tommy and his commitment to our country,” Byerley said. “We have other capable players that can step right in and fill the role.”

As the finishing chances become less frequent against quality competition, Byerley said Eric Mayoral and Timmy Smithwick need to make good on chances up front.

“I’d be tickled to death to see Kenai again, and I’d like it to be in the winners bracket,” Byerley said. “I think those two teams will represent the progress the peninsula has made.”

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