Kenai Central’s Brenna Eubank winds up for a kick May 19, 2018, in the Peninsula Conference girls soccer championship at Soldotna High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Central’s Brenna Eubank winds up for a kick May 19, 2018, in the Peninsula Conference girls soccer championship at Soldotna High School. (Photo by Joey Klecka/Peninsula Clarion)

Top 2 seeds gain big advantage in state soccer bracket

It’s good to be one of the top two seeds.

That was the immediate conclusion when the brackets were released Monday for the first-ever Division II state soccer tournament, a six-team event taking place today, Friday and Saturday at Eagle River and Service high schools.

Not only do the top two seeds — which include local schools Kenai Central as the No.1 on the boys side and Soldotna as the No. 2 on the girls side — get a first-round bye, but they also will get an opponent coming into a state semifinal on less than 24 hours rest.

The Kenai boys start their tourney Friday at 9 a.m. against the winner of today’s No. 5 Homer-No. 4 Grace Christian match at 1 p.m., while the Stars get started Friday at 3 p.m. against the winner of today’s 7 p.m. match between No. 3 Grace and No. 6 Kenai.

Homer boys coach Warren Waldorf said it will be tough to knock off one of the top two seeds. At the Peninsula Conference tournament last weekend, Homer got into the final with a 2-1, 100-minute, penalty-kick battle with Soldotna, while Kenai beat Seward 6-0 after leading 5-0 just 20 minutes into the game. The Kards finished off the Mariners 3-0 in the final.

“In the game against Soldotna, you could kind of say we were comparing apples to apples,” Homer boys coach Warren Waldorf said. “Both teams had the same amount of rest.

“We get into the next game and you’re not comparing apples to apples, more like apples to oranges. Kenai kind of skated into the finals, while we had a 100-minute marathon the day before.”

The Kenai boys and SoHi girls will take any legal advantage they can get as they chase what would be the first state soccer crown in the Kenai Peninsula’s history. That pursuit became easier before this season, when the Alaska School Activities Association split soccer into Division I and II, or big schools and small schools. All peninsula soccer programs are in Division II.

Thanks in large part to a special group of six seniors, the Kenai boys were already closing in on a state title, no matter the alignment.

In 2015, the Kardinals won the first game in program history at state and finished fifth. In 2016, the Kards became the first peninsula team to make a state final, finishing runner-up. Then last season, Kenai tied for third.

“It’s been up on our board for four years to win the state title,” said Kenai coach Joel Reemtsma, who took over as head coach when the current seniors were freshmen. “That’s been our goal all along.

“It’d be a sweet ending for those seniors and mean a lot to us coaches. We’re all pretty excited, but it’s not our birthright.”

The seniors have been in four conference finals, winning three of them. Reemtsma uses the first game of each season to get all players looks and considers the game preseason. Though the game counts on the records, that’s the only regular-season game the Kards have lost in each of the past two seasons, going 15-1-1 this season.

All this after one parent told Reemtsma, after he got the job in 2015, “I don’t know how we’re going to score any goals. Everyone is gone.”

“After having all those guys a couple of days, I was impressed with their individual level of skill,” the coach said of seniors Luke Beiser, Braydon Goodman, Riley McKee, Kevin Ramos, Rykker Riddall and Zack Tuttle. “I knew if I could keep them healthy and having fun, they’d build the chemistry needed to mesh all that individual talent and go places.”

In order to go to the final, Kenai will have to defeat Homer or Grace. The Kards topped the Mariners 6-2 and 3-0 this season but also tied them 1-1. Kenai notched a 5-0 victory against Grace.

Soldotna coach Jimmy Love, whose team is 11-2-2, also has made plenty of noise in the old format, finishing third at state in 2012 and 2013. He is excited to be back at state for the first time since 2015 just one game from a state final. Soldotna defeated Kenai three times this season and tied Grace.

“They’re excited,” Love said of his team. “They worked hard for a conference victory to secure that No. 2 seed.

“I hope they take that into consideration coming into the state tournament, not overlooking anybody and coming out and doing their job.”

Love said his team is as healthy as can be expected this time of year, except for the loss of Ryann Cannava. He said all hands must be on deck for a run at state.

“I think everybody has got to stand up. I gotta stand up,” Love said. “When they go out there Friday, they have to play one of their best games. Everybody has got to be pulling more weight than normal.”

The Homer boys finished 9-4-1 this season in earning a fifth state berth in seven years. The Mariners defeated the Grizzlies 4-0 way back on April 20.

“They’ve learned a lot since then and we’ve learned a lot since then,” Homer coach Warren Waldorf said. “I don’t like to look past anybody.”

Waldorf said it’s no secret his team would like to get a lead early and be able to rest key players. But that’s easier said than done.

“Scoring goals is not that easy,” he said. “Especially in a big tournament where both teams have the same amount of rest.”

Homer also has a stellar group of seniors in Jordan Beachy, Oliver Beck, Timothy Blakely, Simon Dye, Charlie Menke and Charles Rohr. Waldorf said junior Dexter Lowe and sophomore Austin Shafford also will be key in the midfield.

“I plan on getting the most out of them I can,” Waldorf said of his team. “And they plan on giving it.”

Despite losing a ton of experience from last year’s team, the Kenai girls are returning to state for a fifth straight season. The Kardinals, who are 7-5-1, defeated the Grizzlies 1-0 in early May. Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said the game could have went either way.

The Kardinals have just two seniors on the roster this season. While Brenna Eubank was the most valuable player in the conference, Annabelle Schneiders is out with a knee injury. Kenai also has just two juniors in Savaya Bieber and Olivia Brewer.

Verkuilen said getting such a young team state experience is invaluable.

“It’s been really fun watching them over the season,” he said. “Everyone was commenting in our last game against Soldotna how much we’ve improved.”

Verkuilen said being young leads to mistakes, but he can also see it being an advantage in this tournament if the Kards are able to get past the Grizzlies. The squad may be too young to know they are supposed to be tired the next day.

“It’s a fun time for the kids with school getting out,” Verkuilen said. “You can see their shoulders drop and all the pressure come off.

“They just have to worry about soccer. It’s kind of a celebration to bring the summer in.”

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