The five Kenai Peninsula teams that qualified for the Division II state soccer tournament, which will be played today through Saturday in Anchorage, have opponents ranging from Thunder Mountain and Ketchikan in Southeast to North Pole in the Interior.
And, believe it or not, nearly all the local schools have faced their first-round opponents already this season. The exception? The Kenai boys, who oddly enough have not faced Grace Christian of Anchorage, the first-round opponent located closest to the peninsula.
While all this familiarity tempts one to believe the first-round games are predictable, the fact that these nonconference contests between teams that are so far apart are jammed into a short season means the regular season results may be unreliable.
Take the Soldotna girls first-round contest against Palmer. The Stars beat the Moose 6-1 on May 3.
“I don’t know if it was just coaching talk, but my understanding is they had a couple players that didn’t play that game because they were preparing for conference-related stuff rather than nonconference-related stuff,” Soldotna girls Jimmy Love said.
Another example comes from the Kenai girls and their opponent, North Pole. The Kards topped the Patriots 2-1 on April 13.
“These teams will travel down here on these big sweeps and play all these games,” Kenai girls coach Dan Verkuilen said. “You never know how tired they are or if they have all of their players.”
Homer boys coach Warren Waldorf also points out that a lot can change in four weeks of the soccer season as teams go from gyms and snow-rimmed fields in early April to playing four games a week in early May.
With so many games in a short period, some games get overlooked. This won’t happen at state.
“We have to show up and play our absolute best, because everybody there will be doing the same thing,” Love said.
The following is a closer look at the games:
No. 2 Kenai boys vs. No. 7 Grace, 7 p.m. at West
The Kards, the defending state champs, are making a fifth straight appearance at state. While Kenai (10-4-2) didn’t play Grace, Homer topped the Grizzlies 2-1 on April 13.
“Juneau, Thunder Mountain, Kenai and Homer are all within a goal of each other,” Waldorf said. “Ketchikan’s within a goal and we got Grace by a goal. It has the potential to be a hard-fought tournament with low-scoring games.”
Kenai had a run of three-straight conference titles snapped Saturday with a 1-0 loss to Homer in the title game, but coach Shane Lopez still feels good about the way his team is playing.
“We have a lot of guys that have been to this tournament before,” Lopez said. “These guys know how to focus on the game, rather than everything surrounding it.”
Seniors Damien Redder, Tomas Levy-Canedo, Connor Felchle, Travis McKinley and Adam Trujillo all will lead the team. Even juniors like Travis Verkuilen, goalie Braedon Pitsch and Nate Beiser have all seen plenty of championship soccer.
No. 3 Homer boys vs. No. 6 Ketchikan, 5 p.m. at West
The Mariners (12-4-2) and the Kings battled to a 1-all tie on April 18. Homer will play at state for a sixth time in eight years.
Homer did win the first conference title in school history Saturday, and managed to do it without Daniel Reutov, who was injured in the semifinals and has 19 goals and 10 assists this season. Waldorf said Reutov is day to day.
Waldorf likes the resiliency of his team. With just 11 players in the varsity mix, Homer played the second most games in Division II and had the best goal differential at plus-37. The coach said Clayton Beachy has been a revelation at goalie, while Ethan Pitzman and Avram Salzmann are rock solid at center defense.
Dexter Lowe and Austin Shafford have been engines in the midfield, while younger players like Phinny Weston and Eyoab Knapp are coming on strong.
Even Waldorf’s wife, Debbie, is a big fan of this team. Waldorf has been coaching soccer since the 1980s, so his wife has seen more than enough soccer and normally passes on attending games.
“This team is exciting and fun to watch,” Waldorf said. “This is our sixth trip to state in the last eight years, and it’s the first one she’s going to watch. Who knew?”
No. 2 Soldotna girls vs. No. 7 Palmer, 3 p.m. at Eagle River
Making a seventh state trip in the last nine years, Love likes the way his team (13-5-2) is playing heading into the tourney. The Stars defended their Peninsula Conference crown Saturday by topping Homer 4-0.
“I think last weekend was the best for, not just consistency, but overall play,” Love said. “We’ve done really well for a game here or there, but we haven’t played two games back to back that way.”
Freshman Rhys Cannava had seven goals in two games at conference, and Love said players like Meijan Leaf, Ryann Cannava and Journey Miller are doing a great job setting her up.
“Outside midfielders, outside defenders, all those ladies can shoot the ball if the opportunity arises,” Love said. “Although people are looking at one player, we’re deeper than one player.”
Love also has been splitting time between Katie Delker and Margarida Mendoca in goal and is comfortable with that arrangement. SoHi allowed no goals at the conference tournament.
“We don’t want to overlook any opponent,” Love said. “That’s when you get surprised. If you don’t walk into a game with butterflies and nerves because you beat them before, you end up walking off the field on the wrong side of the result.”
No. 3 Homer girls vs. No. 6 Thunder Mountain, 1 p.m. at Eagle River
The Mariners (12-4-4) are making their first trip to state since 2007. They had a scoreless tie with the Falcons on April 20 and defeated them 1-0 on May 10.
“We’ve struggled to score against them and it’s going to take more than one goal at the state tournament to defeat Thunder Mountain,” Homer head coach Mike Tozzo said.
The Mariners will task freshmen Sela Weisser and Kappa Reutov up front with finding the back of the net.
The good news is senior goalie Ali McCarron should be back for the tourney. McCarron left the conference championship with an injury. Even so, Tozzo has been giving Paige Jones a crash course in goalkeeping this week because he learned it’s vital to have a backup with those skills.
The coach added senior Brenna McCarron will have to have the games of her life at center midfield, while defenders Kimberly Lynn and Daisy Kettle must remain aggressive.
“The girls are just ecstatic,” Tozzo said Monday. “We had a great practice today. They had big smiles on their faces. They’re having a blast and if we could make some noise at the state tournament, that’d be fantastic.”
No. 4 Kenai Central girls vs. No. 5 North Pole, 9 a.m. at Eagle River
The Kardinals (6-5-4) are at state for a sixth straight year thanks to an at-large berth.
While Kenai did finish third at conference, the Kards didn’t allow a goal in the tournament.
“Our defense is one of the best in the state,” Verkuilen said. “They’re very tenacious and do a great job on the ball, and have all season.”
The Kards have allowed 14 goals in 15 games. The only team better is Juneau-Douglas, which has allowed four goals in 17 games while scoring 94. That explains why the Crimson Bears are the top seed.
Verkuilen said goalie Kailey Hamilton and the four defenders will have to continue to play well, while Olivia Brewer and Bethany Morris will be key in the midfield.
The coach said the Kards must get over bumps and bruises, and also won’t be able to arrive in Anchorage until Wednesday night despite having the early game. But Verkuilen said the team should be ready.
“Today in practice, you could see they’re finishing with their finals and that there was a renewed energy,” Verkuilen said Monday.
Division II state soccer tournament
Game 1 — Juneau vs. Kodiak, 11 a.m. at Service
Game 2 — Kenai vs. North Pole, 9 a.m. at Eagle River
Game 3 — Homer vs. Thunder Mountain, 1 p.m. at Eagle River
Game 4 — Soldotna vs. Palmer, 3 p.m. at Eagle River
Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 9 a.m. at West
Game 6 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 11 a.m. at West
Game 7 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 9 a.m. at Service
Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 11 a.m. at Service
4th/6th place — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 9:45 a.m. at Eagle River
3rd/5th place — Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 loser, 9:45 at West
Championship — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 2 p.m. at Service
Game 1 — Juneau vs. Palmer, 5 p.m. at Service
Game 2 — Monroe vs. Thunder Mountain, 7 p.m. at Service
Game 3 — Homer vs. Ketchikan, 5 p.m. at West
Game 4 — Kenai vs. Grace, 7 p.m. at West
Game 5 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 1 p.m. at Eagle River
Game 6 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 3 p.m. at Eagle River
Game 7 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 5 p.m. at West
Game 8 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m. at West
4th/6th place — Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 8 a.m. at West
3rd/5th place — Game 7 loser vs. Game 8 loser, 9 a.m. at Service
Championship — Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, noon