The Soldotna girls soccer team has carried the banner for the Southern Division of the Northern Lights Conference the last two years.
As the NLC tournament prepares to kick off, the rest of the Southern Division figures it’s time to give the Stars some help.
The SoHi girls, who enter the tournament at 11-0, have won three of the last four conference titles. The Stars also have won the last two conference crowns, and were the only Southern Division team to qualify for state in both of those years.
The top three teams on both the girls and boys sides qualify for state.
The boys of the Southern Division have had a particularly rough time at the tourney the past two years, failing to win a game. The last Southern Division boys team to make state was Soldotna in 2009. That year ended a run of three straight years at state for the Stars.
“It won’t be a sweep for the north on Thursday,” Kenai Central coach John Morton said. “I’d be surprised if it is. Anything can happen, though. Anybody can beat anybody on any given day.”
Nikiski coach Jim Coburn also would be surprised to see a sweep, mainly due to the presence of Homer, which enters the tourney at 9-0-2 overall.
“It’ll be hard for Homer to lose out this year,” Coburn said. “Homer’s as strong as any team we’ve played this year.”
Soldotna coach Jeff Siemers also said he thinks a sweep is less likely this year.
“We’ve definitely had a slump the last couple of years in the south,” Siemers said. “I think we’ll show up better this year than in the last couple of years.”
While the Southern boys have struggled, the Southern girls have not. Kenai won the region title in 2009, meaning the last four crowns have been worn by Southern Division teams.
“I like to think Soldotna and Kenai are pretty strong teams from the south,” Soldotna coach Jimmy Love said. “I think we match up well against the Valley teams. I don’t think it’s coincidence, and I don’t think it’s cyclical.”
Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said that in the last four or five years, girls have started making soccer a primary sport instead of a secondary one.
Verkuilen also said it’s not just Kenai and Soldotna on the rise. He said Nikiski and Skyview are each threats to make their first appearance at state.
“That’s really exciting for me,” he said. “For years, it’s pretty much been Soldotna and us. That doesn’t make us better if we have to compete throughout the season with teams that aren’t as strong as us.”
The flip side of that is Nikiski and Skyview don’t have to travel far to see the best in the conference.
“It’s just a very competitive conference in the south,” Nikiski coach Mandy Adair said. “Everybody is vying to take the top spot from SoHi.”
The following is a closer look at the first-round games:
Grace boys vs. Kenai, 11 a.m. at Soldotna
The Kards, the No. 3 team from the south, face Grace, No. 2 from the north. The two squads played to a scoreless draw in the regular season. It was Kenai’s first home game.
“We played well against them,” Kenai coach John Morton said. “We didn’t finish, and they didn’t finish either.”
Morton said the Kardinals (4-5-1 overall) want to possess the ball more than Grace does in the midfield. He said Kenai, which last went to state in 2008, must avoid breakdowns on defense, and finish on opportunities.
The coach said everybody must play well, but the heat is on defenders Kyle Scarlett, Keegan Remsen and Josh McKee because of Kenai’s defensive formation.
TJ Wagoner, Alex Springer, Evan Atchley and Nathan Narlock will be pivotal in the midfield.
“It was a hard slog there in the middle of the season, and some guys got their heads down a bit,” Morton said. “We’ve got like five seniors on the team, and those guys didn’t give up in those games.”
Homer boys vs. Palmer, 1 p.m. at Skyview
The Mariners are No. 1 out of the south, while Palmer is No. 4 from the north. The teams played to a scoreless draw this year, and Homer also beat Palmer 1-0.
Homer coach Warren Waldorf wrote in an email that the win came on a Saturday after playing Wasilla on a Thursday and Colony on a Friday.
“We’re better now than we were on that Saturday,” Waldorf wrote. “And we’re rested. I expect both teams will show up to play, may the better team win.”
Waldorf wrote that getting a victory will take a great effort from everybody.
“I can’t name one player I’m willing to live without,” he wrote. “Each one of those kids must show up and play the game of his life on Thursday in order for us to advance.”
Soldotna boys vs. Wasilla, 3 p.m. at Skyview
The Stars are No. 2 from the south, while the Warriors are No. 3 from the north.
Wasilla beat SoHi 3-0 this season in a game marked by a brief skirmish that had both teams playing with just 10 players for the last 30 minutes.
Siemers said Cory Carver, who has combined with Cameron Grothe to score 20 goals this season, and Matti Silta did not play in that first Wasilla game.
“It gives our guys a mental edge to know they haven’t seen us at full strength,” Siemers said.
Despite ending the season with two straight losses, Siemers said morale on the team is up.
Colony boys vs. Nikiski, 5 p.m. at Soldotna
The Bulldogs are the No. 4 seed from the south, while the Knights are No. 1 from the north.
Nikiski, which is 3-9-1, has never won in the first round of the conference tourney. The Bulldogs lost to Colony in Nikiski’s first game of the season.
“I look forward to playing them again,” Coburn said. “We’ve met Colony in the first round more than any other team in the tournament. They’re a well-coached team and always have a lot of talent.
“We’ve played them close a couple of years.”
Coburn said his team is healthy for just the second time all year. Even so, he doesn’t expect a ton of scoring chances against the Knights, so his team must make the most out of opportunities.
The coach said goalie Colton Anderson must anchor the defense. The midfield of Doogun Seater, Logan Harrison, Michael Stangel and Christian Riddall also must keep Colony from continuously building an attack.
Soldotna girls vs. Palmer, 11 a.m. at Skyview
The Stars are No. 1 from the south, while the Moose are No. 4 from the north.
SoHi coach Jimmy Love won’t have trouble getting his team’s attention for this one. SoHi came back from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 over Palmer on Friday.
“I’m glad we drew Palmer,” Love said. “It puts more pressure on the girls. They know they can’t show up and skip through their first game.”
The Stars didn’t have forward Taryn McCubbins for the Palmer game, and defender Delaney Love missed most of the contest.
Coach Love said all of SoHi’s starters will be ready to go this time.
The coach said the key to the game will be how SoHi attacks Palmer’s defense. The Moose play with a flat back line, looking to draw the opposition offsides. Soldotna had a tough time getting behind the defense without going offsides Friday.
Love said Julie Litchfield and Kylee Wolfe will probably have the ball at their feet the most and be responsible for directing traffic, but he said everybody is important.
“You’re only as good as your weakest player,” he said. “If we play our game, as a team, I think we’ll be OK at regions.”
Wasilla girls vs. Nikiski, 1 p.m. at Soldotna
The Bulldogs are No. 3 from the south, while Wasilla is No. 2 from the north.
Nikiski, at 5-6-2, has never been to state, and coach Mandy Adair has never won a game at the conference tournament in her five years. Nikiski beat Wasilla 3-2 this year.
“Wasilla is coming into the game and they feel like we got away with one last game,” Adair said. “I’m positive they don’t think we can do it again. We need to come out and prove everybody wrong.”
In the first game, Adair said her team did a good job of finishing opportunities. She also said Wasilla has great ballhandlers in the midfield, and Nikiski did a great job not overcommitting when going for the ball.
Bailey Buchholz and Morgan Tschida give the Bulldogs a strong presence up front that makes quick counterattacks possible. Goalie Rachel Thompson also is tough to beat.
“It’s huge having a goalie in back like Rachel,” Adair said. “She makes saves and she doesn’t give up many rebounds.”
The Bulldogs are healthy and have Taylor Calderwood back from vacation. Adair said defenders Brittany Scott and Sarah Hall will be vital in shutting down Wasilla’s attack, while Koey Dixon must keep Wasilla from dominating the midfield.
Kenai girls vs. Colony, 3 p.m. at Soldotna
The Kards are No. 2 from the south, while the Knights are No. 3 from the north.
Kenai is 6-2-2, with a scoreless draw against Colony on Friday.
Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen knows his team will have to start finishing more opportunities if it wants to get a third conference title or a sixth state berth.
“We’re making opportunities and not giving the other team a lot of opportunities,” Verkuilen said. “But missing opportunities is not the thing you want to do in a tight region game, which can be decided either way by the bounce of the ball.”
At the same time, Verkuilen does not want to make it seem like his team is cursed. The Kards scored six goals in one game this year, and 11 in another.
“Every team has opportunities and misses them,” he said. “That’s why soccer games are 2-1 or 1-1.”
The Kards are healthy, but won’t have Christianna Garcia for the tournament because she is out of town.
The coach said the three key cogs in the machine are the captains — Vanessa Anderson at sweeper, Taylor Ostrander at midfield and Lauren Schams at forward.
“If those three are clicking, along with Sydney (Taylor) in goal, I think we have a good chance of advancing,” Verkuilen said.
Grace girls vs. Skyview, 5 p.m. at Skyview
The Panthers are No. 4 from the south, while Grace is No. 1 from the north.
Of the eight first-round games, this is the only one where the teams will meet for the first time. The Panthers are 2-5-3 overall.
“It’s nice in a way for us,” Skyview coach David Carpenter said. “It’s nice having a little bit of the unknown to us.”
Like all the other coaches, Carpenter sees a bracket rife with possibility. All of the first-round encounters were decided in the regular season by a goal or less. Carpenter said that although his team didn’t play Grace, it did get some confidence from quality performances against Colony and Palmer.
Carpenter said he has heard that Grace is really solid in the midfield, so he might increase the number of midfielders in order to try and stall the attack there.
He also said he will move Sawyer Link back to defense and use Shelbe Holben as a fourth defender, allowing him to rotate defenders and keep them fresh.
The team is healthy, with midfielder Mary Hauptman back. But Carpenter said the Panthers will need a scoring threat.
“I really wish (Nicole) Tromblee would let people know she is a weapon and get more quality shots on goal,” Carpenter said. “She had six goals go in last year, and it’d be nice to see her pick up on that.”