State soccer preview: Random draw draws reaction from coaches

The final three days of the Alaska high school soccer campaign will play out in Anchorage this weekend, beginning today with an eight-game slate that features the top eight teams in the state on both the boys and girls side.

The eight teams that represent the field consist of three squads from the Cook Inlet Conference, three from the Northern Lights Conference, one from the Mid-Alaska Conference and one from the Southeast Conference.

Because the individual seedings were set by a random draw, the state matchups have surfaced as randomly, leading to cheers from some teams and groans from others.

Today begins with half of the matches being played at Eagle River High School, with the other half at Anchorage Football Stadium. All Thursday matches featuring Peninsula teams will be played at Eagle River:

Soldotna girls
vs. Lathrop, 1 p.m.

When the state championship bracket was released, the most jarring fact was the lopsided nature of the schedule.

On one side of the bracket lies all four No. 1 seeds — Soldotna (NLC), Lathrop (MAC), Thunder Mountain (SEC) and South (CIC) — meaning that Saturday’s championship game will feature a No. 1 seed versus a No. 2 or No. 3 seed.

The pairings have certainly left a bit of a sour taste in Soldotna coach Jimmy Love’s mouth.

“That’s what you get in a blind draw,” Love said. “It is what it is. I’m sure there’s other coaches on the same side that are thinking the same thing.

“I’ve had conversations about whether it should change, because it doesn’t make sense when the accomplishment of winning regions goes out the window.”

Even with the slew of top seeds filling the top half of the bracket, Love said teams can’t get comfortable with the other four squads on the bottom half.

“We can’t run away from these teams,” Love said. “We feel like South is No. 1 and we’re gonna have to anticipate them. I think we are up to that challenge.

“You know, you’re not losing a whole lot with a Service-Dimond matchup.”

However, Love is going with the attitude of it is what it is, and with the strength that the Stars have shown all year long, the team still stands a good shot at making it through the first day.

Backed by senior goaltender Katelynn Kerkvliet — who has barely seen action in many games this year — the Stars bring an aggressive attacking front line that combined to outscore opponents 16-0 in three games at last week’s Northern Lights Conference tournament.

The sister duo of sophomore Alyssa and senior Kylee Wolfe have provided an offensive punch to the team. Add to the mix senior Julie Litchfield, sophomore Olivia Conradi and senior Kelci Benson — a potent group of midfielders — the Stars make a strong case in the debate of which top seed stands the greatest chance of playing for Saturday’s state crown.

“A couple years ago I gave a lot of credit to the success of the comp program, and now we’re seeing the culmination of that work,” Love said. “The senior class came through the comp program.”

As the top seed from the Fairbanks region, Lathrop claimed a state berth on the back of a 9-0-2 overall season record (6-0-2 conference).

But SoHi owns the advantage with a pristine 15-0 mark (including last week’s NLC tournament). Love acknowledged the perfect record by saying it’s a heavier burden at the conference tournament than it is at the state tournament.

“I don’t go into that with too much on our shoulders,” he said. “With state it’s like starting over again. State is different because you don’t know these guys as well, and you expect it to be strong. At regions, we knew exactly what teams we were dealing with.”

The Stars have not faced Lathrop this year, and so Love said he was left to research what he could about the Malemutes online.

“We looked at comparable opponents, we looked at scores, and all three Valley coaches played them close,” Love said. “It means to me we’re on similar pages. Comparing scores is dangerous, because they could be short on kids during those games.”

Kenai Central girls vs. Wasilla, 5 p.m.

Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said playing on the side of the bracket with no No. 1 seeds will not give Kenai an easy path to the state championship.

“It’s kind of a crapshoot,” Verkuilen said. “One year we were ranked third in state, played Dimond, who was number five, and Dimond went untouched and won state.”

Verkuilen said even though the seeding looks top-heavy, it’s important to remember that Lathrop (Mid-Alaska) and Thunder Mountain (Southeast) hail from conferences that are usually weaker than the powerhouse Northern Lights and Cook Inlet conferences.

“I think SoHi has a good draw with (Lathrop),” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if SoHi beats Lathrop handily and Thunder Mountain gets beat by South.

“When it’s all said and done, the best team will win state.”

The matchup for the Kenai girls looks good on paper, especially since they landed on the bottom half of the bracket, but a date with Wasilla is about as steady as a teeter-totter. It could easily go either way.

“They play a strong game, very similar to ourselves,” Verkuilen said. “Either team could win on any given day, and I expect another close game.”

The Kardinals sewed up their first state spot since 2012 by winning their way to last Saturday’s NLC championship game against Soldotna, which they lost 5-0.

Less than a week after edging the Warriors 2-1 in the NLC tournament semifinals, Kenai will be facing a determined Wasilla team that is surely looking for vengeance.

Wasilla, the No. 3 seed from the NLC, compiled a 12-3 regular season record, but the NLC semifinal loss left them with one last chance to continue their season in the third-place game. The Warriors handled Homer in a 5-2 win to earn their first trip to state since 2011.

Earlier this year, Kenai dealt Wasilla a narrow 1-0 loss.

Today, Kenai will have about as full a roster as they can have. Sophomore Cori Holmes returned to play last week after sitting out a few weeks due to an injury, and junior Allie Ostrander will return to the midfield after competing at last week’s state track and field championships.

“It’s nice to have (Holmes) back, you could tell she’s getting her stride back,” Verkuilen said. “Allie is with us this weekend, so that’ll help in our midfield area.”

Verkuilen noted that midfielder Hannah Drury will likely get reduced minutes on the field this weekend after suffering an ankle injury three weeks ago.

“We had her practicing, not at full speed though,” Verkuilen said.

Three “really good” days of practice was vitally important to keep the team focused, according to Verkuilen.

In goal, Kenai will continue to have sophomore Alli Steinbeck warding off attacks, while up front, Heidi Perkins, Abi Tuttle, Sarah Every and Lara Creighton remain the Kards’ key attackers.

Homer boys
vs. Service, 7 p.m.

One year after missing the state tournament, Homer returns to improve upon the fourth-place finish the 2012 squad produced, the best showing for a Homer boys team at state.

“I wasn’t expecting it so soon,” joked Homer coach Warren Waldorf.

The Mariners’ hopes of a state berth came down to Saturday’s third-place game at the NLC tournament. Homer made sure of a trip to state by beating Kenai 3-0, getting two goals from Max Mangue and one from Quinn Daugharty.

“Homer hasn’t played its best game yet,” Waldorf stated.

The reason Homer was in the tourney third-place match was a 1-0 semifinal loss that came at the hands of eventual NLC champion Wasilla.

If Homer and Wasilla were to meet in Friday’s semifinals, the Mariners will be needing the same effort that resulted in a 3-1 win over Wasilla back on April 25, instead of the effort that resulted in the loss in last Friday’s NLC semifinals.

“It was early on and they were looking past us that day,” Waldorf said about the earlier meeting. “It was on our field and muddy.”

After beating Homer in last week’s semifinals, Wasilla proceeded to topple Colony in Saturday’s championship game, giving them a No. 1 seed at the state tournament. It’s the only No. 1 seed on the top half of the state bracket, and it’s shaping up to be a doozy, as Wasilla was drawn into a rematch with Colony in the first round.

Waldorf said he has no complaints about being on the opposite side of the bracket that holds three top seeds.

“It looks like it worked good for us,” he said. “It’s better than last time. I mean, I still have questions about why Colony got the better seed two years ago.

“Looking at the bracket, we’ll go either left or right, and it’s a fair chance of getting past Service.”

The Service boys ended the regular season with a 10-2-2 record in Cook Inlet Conference play. Waldorf said he has “no idea” about how to approach Service since he hasn’t seen the Cougars in game action yet, but is expecting a challenge from the Anchorage team.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Waldorf said. “Service is probably big, fast and strong.”

With any luck, the Mariners will be able to match the Cougars with size and speed. Homer’s leading scorer, Kenneth Schneider, will be relegated to the sweeper position as he is nursing an ailing hamstring.

Waldorf has consistently complimented Schneider by saying he could play any position on the field, and when Schneider is paired with the line of defense that the Mariners sport, Service could have some real trouble finding the net.

“Our defense is really good,” Waldorf said. “We had the one mistake for Wasilla’s only goal, but looking at it, it’s not bad considering their two key strikers scored 20 goals a piece this year.”

Brian Rowe will once again be manning the goal, according to Waldorf, and the resulting lineup is looking to produce a gigantic battle between the Wasilla front of Stone Krueger and Oleg Lozko and the defensive line of Schneider, Flynn Bloom and John Walsworth.

“It’s cool because I can make adjustments every game,” Waldorf said. “The last three games we’ve had three different defensive alignments.

“If we get to the last game it’ll be because of that defense.”

Up front, Homer features a bevy of attackers such as Drew Brown, Mario Glosser, Sebastian Talamas, Mangue, Daugharty and Jake Worsfold.

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