Close games defined the North Star Conference hockey season in 2010-11.
Coaches expect the same this season.
“Last year it was one of those years where anyone could beat anybody,” Soldotna coach Aaron Swanson said, “and I think it’s going to be the same this year.”
The 2011-12 campaign is under way for SoHi, Kenai Central and Homer, and early indications once again point to parity in the NSC. Homer edged Kenai Central 1-0 in an endowment game Tuesday.
Rarely did central Kenai Peninsula schools participate in lopsided conference games a year ago.
SoHi played 10 regular-season contests that were decided by one goal or ended in a tie last season in the NSC, which also includes Palmer, Wasilla and Colony. Seven of Kenai Central’s regular-season NLC contests ended in a tie or were decided by a goal.
Homer also played a slew of close contests, but a sporadic offense prevented the Mariners from winning a conference game.
Mariners coach Buck Laukitis said his squad should be better on the attack in 2011-12, making the NSC even more competitive.
“I’m looking forward and I think it should be a good, competitive season with some good, close games,” Laukitis said. “The thing I would like to see is for our conference to get in that top tier with the Anchorage schools.”
Peninsula coaches agreed it’s important for area schools to remain competitive with schools to the north, which is a challenge because Homer, Kenai Central and SoHi have smaller enrollments than many of their counterparts.
The result was evidenced by the fact no Peninsula schools reached the state tournament last season.
“I hope that our region will always remain competitive,” Kenai Central coach Pete Iverson said. “The challenge for us to win a state championship is we have to beat the large schools in Anchorage. It’s not like football where they have cut it up into smaller groups, so that’s a challenge for us. But it also means our region games are that much more important.”
Here’s a closer look at the upcoming season for SoHi, Homer and Kenai Central:
Last season, opponents couldn’t predict who would start at goaltender for SoHi because the Stars had two reliable options and were comfortable using both.
Now the Stars don’t know who will start in net.
“We’re not really sure who that’s going to be,” Swanson said. “It might be a little bit of a few different guys.”
SoHi is without William Granger and Dawson Pearson, both of whom graduated. The duo combined to start 20 games last season and each finished with a winning record. Granger went 6-3-2 and Pearson went 5-3-1.
Three underclassmen are vying for the No. 1 slot this season, but Swanson has yet to decide who will take the lead.
Sophomores Conner Pearson and Cody Harvey and freshman Nate O’Lana are in the mix, but none of them have substantial varsity experience.
The situation at goal is indicative of where the team stands entering the campaign.
“We’re a really young team with lots of new guys getting new opportunities,” Swanson said. “Our expectation is that we will be a team that builds through the year, and hopefully by the end of the year we will be where we want to be.”
Despite losing their goaltenders and a talented nucleus on offense, the Stars enter 2011 with plenty of talent.
SoHi is without former captains Sean Endsley and Matt Fellman — who combined for 12 goals and 16 assists last season before the Stars were eliminated by Wasilla in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
But the squad welcomes back forwards Shayne Miller, a junior, and Josh Kerkvliet, a senior. Together the duo tallied 12 goals and 19 assists a year ago, with Kerkvliet notching a team-high 11 assists.
Throw in seven more seniors, and Swanson believes the Stars feature a capable group.
SoHi also welcomes back senior defenseman Kevin Stone, senior forward Dagen Walton, junior forwards Dalton Pearson and Jarrett Urban, sophomore forward Max Hegge and junior defenseman Matti Silta.
“We’ve got a nice little core of talent coming back for us that we’re excited about, and some new kids who will get a chance to step up,” Swanson said.
That’s the top priority this season for the Mariners, who didn’t win a conference game in 2010-11 because they couldn’t find the net.
Toss in a little bad luck, and Homer walked off the ice losing a slew of games by one goal a year ago.
“We were solid defensively and we had outstanding goaltending,” Laukitis said. “We just didn’t put the puck in the net.”
Homer returns nearly its entire roster, losing one senior.
All-conference goalie Alex Sanarov is back to roam the net, and star defenseman Dennis Sanarov returns to anchor the back line.
Laukitis expects big season from Eric Rosencrans, who scored the winning goal in a victory over Kenai Central on Tuesday, as well as Kai Simmons, Mark Reutov, Carson Duggar, Tommy Bowe and Kiril Sanarov.
The Mariners also benefit from a cooperative agreement put into place before last season by the Alaska School Activities Association, allowing students at village schools such as Voznesenka and Nikolaevsk to participate in Homer hockey.
Thanks to the agreement Homer for the first time has a junior varsity squad, with 24 players in the program.
Although Laukitis isn’t ready to put the Mariners among the state’s elite, he believes the school is making large strides.
“Hopefully we have turned the corner and we will be competitive,” the coach said. “We’ve got some really talented players, and it’s going to be fun.”
Laukitis, who admitted the coaching staff was too defensive-minded a year ago, said he’s going to open things up on offense and allow his team to make mistakes if that’s what it takes to generate a scoring punch.
He said the defense will be more involved in the attack, too.
“Needless to say, we are working on offense and hoping to build on what we accomplished last year,” Laukitis said.
Rounding out the roster are Ethan Kizzia, Connor McCarron, Konstontin Reutov, Vladimir Kalugin, Mavrick Ivanov, Hannah Baird, Jake Eckert and Caroline DeCreft.
Kenai Central Kardinals
The Kards lost five seniors, but return a core group from last year’s team, which placed fourth in the conference tournament after finishing the regular season .500.
Leading the way are seniors Zack Zulkanycz, Zack Mese, Russell Dukowitz and Travis Semmens, along with senior goalie Keegan Remsen.
Zulkanycz is a talented offensive player, and Mese was second of the 2010-11 squad with 12 points.
Those two will look to fill the void left with the departure of Morgan Cunningham, who tallied 26 points a year ago.
“I’m going to depend on them a lot for whatever line they are on,” Iverson said.
The Kards also feature Matt Morse, a stingy defenseman, as well as six freshmen who Iverson said have a ton of potential.
TJ Wagoner, a sophomore, also is expected to have a good year after logging a strong freshman campaign.
“I’m pretty excited,” Iverson said. “We are going to have good core group of players that are going to support the rest of the team.”
Remsen will play a large role in the team’s success.
Last season the goalie saved more than 90 percent of the shots fired his way, and Iverson said the Kards need another strong year from the netminder.
“We’re going to rely heavily on him,” the coach said.
Iverson added that five or six of his squad’s games were decided by one goal last season and it could be the same this year, meaning the potential is there for a solid postseason run.
“I want to be a contender in the region, of course, and I think we have that potential,” Iverson said. “I think everybody does. I’m looking forward to a very exciting season.”