One week removed from their third straight Northern Lights Conference title, the Soldotna girls are preparing to make their fourth trip to the state tournament out of the last five years, and they will be joined by conference rival Kenai.
Both teams faced each other last Saturday at Skyview in the conference championship game. The match was played to a scoreless draw, even after two overtime periods, and was decided by penalty kicks. Soldotna won the shootout 3-2.
“The thrill of the victory was probably over with on Monday, so we need to turn around and direct our attention because we’re all starting anew again,” Soldotna coach Jimmy Love said. “Anyone is just as capable as the other, and it doesn’t matter which region you won, if you’re not ready, you won’t be able to get anywhere.”
Second-seeded Soldotna stands a better chance than last year of making it past today’s opening round, as they face up against Grace Christian, a seventh seed, at 11 a.m. at Chugiak High School. Last year, they lost to defending champ Dimond 4-0 on the first day.
“To me, it didn’t matter who we drew, because before this started, if you’re not thinking about state at the region tournament, you might be selling yourself a little short, and I knew who we drew for the region championship game, but who were we going to draw for state?” Love said. “I was thinking Service, so if you draw anybody other than an Anchorage school for the first round, I think your chances increase.
“I’m not taking anything away from Grace, but I spent a lot of time at regions watching them play, so I feel confident going into the first round, but not over-confident.”
Soldotna will be playing with sophomore Kylee Wolfe, a key midfielder who was sidelined during the Star’s NLC title game last week due to a red card Wolfe received the previous game.
“I really thought having her out would affect the team, but not to the level that it did, so that really surprised me that we weren’t able to channel our energy or our focus the way we should have,” Love said. “Hopefully that won’t be an issue, and we’ll be ready to go on Thursday.”
Love said the team has been resting up and tweaking some aspects of the game that he feels needed to be addressed.
“We’ve just been working on our touches, working on our finishing,” he said. “We’ve been giving up way too many corners and direct kicks, so we’ve been working on that area. We have got to take advantage of opportunities like that, because they don’t come that often, especially against Anchorage schools, and when they do, you definitely want to be on top of your game.”
The one time in recent years that Soldotna did not make it to state, 2009, was also the year that Kenai did, so 2012 marks the first time that both SoHi and Kenai will make appearances at state together, according to online records.
Both coach Love and Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen agree that the friendly rivalry that both schools share is not a particular aspect that they have been focusing on for the state tournament. If both teams should win or lose on Thursday, then they will meet each other for a rematch on Friday.
“It’s just another team at this point, it doesn’t matter,” Love said. “If we have to go through them to get to the next game, so be it.”
Verkuilen said the biggest point of interest for him at the state meet is the chance to measure up against other teams from around the state.
“The girls love playing Soldotna and look forward to it,” Verkuilen said. “The biggest thing about state is the different competition, so that’s just a good rivalry, and they would like another shot at that, but being able to see the other teams from around the state is good.”
After their loss against the Stars last weekend, the sixthseeded Kards are hungry to win their initial game in the first round, in which they will be playing West Valley from Fairbanks, a third seed, at 11 a.m. at Dimond.
“I think our formula is good, and I think they move together well and are aggressive, so I need to keep feeding them mentally, and winning a game at state is exciting, so I hope they can experience that,” Verkuilen said.
Like most schools, Verkuilen said the seniors on the team are just finishing graduating and everyone is wrapping up other events with friends and family. He said the team is now refocusing for a final state run.
“Everyone’s in good spirits, and they’re happy they made it,” he said. “Tomorrow will be nice, we can practice on field, and hopefully be able to focus attention on what’s going on in the soccer world.”
After the loss against Soldotna, Verkuilen noted that even though Kenai is disappointed, they know the odds in a shootout.
“I watched the European World Cup games last weekend and three of the best players in the world missed kicks, so it can happen to anybody at all levels,” Verkuilen said. “You can do that five times in a row and have a different result all five times.”
On the boys side, Homer will be the lone peninsula representative, as the boys team has shown considerable improvement this year, nearly winning last week’s conference championship, only losing to Wasilla 2-1 after a penalty kick with ten minutes to go in the game broke a tie.
Homer coach Warren Waldorf said the team is refocused after the loss the hectic days that have followed it, as seniors have graduated and players are taking care of last-minute details with family.
“We played three good games at the region championships, and we left it all on the field, but it didn’t go our way in the end, and the tank was empty at the end of the Wasilla game,” Waldorf said. “We have nothing to hang our head about. We’re happy, we have a good draw, we’re ready to go, and we intend to show well at state.”
Waldord said the team met Tuesday for an hour, not to practice, but to talk about the gameplan they intend to follow for the next three days.
Homer will be making the trip to state in a long time for the boys, and the improvement the team has made in recent years is significant.
“We have a lot of players who have played together for a long time, and everything’s coming together this year,” Waldorf said. “They’ve worked awfully hard at it the last four years, and you could see it coming for a while.
“Now here we are, and they proved their promise, they’ve proved their potential over the course of the season.”
Homer provides a strong, attacking offensive threat, with frontrunners Robin Glosser, Kyle Wisner, Konstantin Reutov and Andre Lovett, with additional support from Lennart Von Schlichting and Vegard Unhjem, two foreign-exchange students.
Homer, as an eighth seed, will face top seed Dimond today at 5 p.m., and Waldorf knows the steep challenge ahead, but acknowledges it is possible to produce an upset.
“We’ve never played Dimond, so we’ll start with our eleven strongest players, and try to hang around as long as we can,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get a little lucky, and hopefully we’ll keep it close and see what happens in the game. That’s all we can do.”