The prep hockey season kicks into full gear today for North Star Conference squads, with Juneau playing Soldotna at 6 p.m. and Kenai Central facing North Pole at 8 p.m. in the first day of the Peninsula Ice Challenge at the Soldotna Sports Center.
The additions of incoming freshman and the absences of graduating seniors almost always leaves its mark on teams, so changes are necessary.
At the end of the season, every team competes in the regional conference tournament, which decides who qualifies for the state competition. In the North Star Conference, the top two teams — or the two participants in the title game — make the trip to state.
The Stars produced a strong regular season conference record of 8-2 last year, good for first in the North Star conference Conference standings, but were left with an empty feeling in the regional conference tournament, losing to Wasilla in their semifinal game.
“We’re excited for the season, even though we graduated some good players, some younger players are back this year that are now sophomores and juniors,” Soldotna coach Aaron Swanson said. “We’re excited about the core of the team.”
Swanson said that some years are a building process, and this year qualifies as that, but it is also only the third week of practice, so it remains to be seen who will be the top dog in the conference.
“We’re just getting a feel with what we’ve got and trying to piece together the guys and finding the combinations,” Swanson said. “It’s a matter of finding the combinations and we’re looking at our older kids and seniors. We’re a team that likes to play well defensively as a group and generate our offense from that, and create a high-powered offensive threat.”
One of the few things that looks to be certain for the team is the goaltender position. Swanson said junior Cody Harvey is back in the net this year.
Swanson said he doesn’t like to predict who will be the top players, but senior forwards Dalton Pearson and Jarrett Urban, junior forward Max Hegge and senior defenseman Matti Silta are all players from a year ago that might be in the mix.
“Of course there’s always room for improvement, but ultimately for us, our goal is to improve throughout the season and try to finish in the top couple of spots and earn a bye for the regional tournament,” Swanson said. “Beyond that, we’d like to compete for the region championship.
“Last year, it was literally any team on any night, so it will be the team that comes out prepared and competes in every game that wins, and the team that makes the least amount of mistakes.”
The Mariners have already seen game time this year, participating in Tuesday’s endowment game in Homer against the Kenai Kardinals, a game that they won 10-3. So, where did all this new offensive firepower come from?
Senior Carson Duggar and Nikit Matveev each had a hat trick in Tuesday’s match, and junior Tommy Bowe added two more. Ulian Kuznin notched his first varsity-level goal, and Kiril Sanarov lit the lamp once as well. Dennis Sanarov also stands as a key player, providing four assists on Tuesday.
“We got good senior leadership, with the Sanarov twins, Alex and Dennis were first-team all-conference picks, and Carson Duggar is going to be strong offensively,” Homer coach Buck Laukitis said. “This is one of the most talented teams I’ve seen for Homer.”
Alex Sanarov played the part of goalie for Homer last year and is tabbed for the spot once again.
Homer lost seven games last year by one goal, which can provide the argument that they are close to a breakout year. Homer beat Colony in the first round of last year’s region tournament 3-0, so it’s a fact that they can step it up when it counts.
“We finished strong last year, and I thought we were capable of doing more,” Laukitis said. “Last season, I was thinking how did we end up losing seven one-goal games?”
Homer will host the End Of The Road Shootout one week from today, starting Nov. 8 and going to Nov. 10. Seven teams are participating, including many past small-schools championship teams, such as Houston and Hutchison, according to Laukitis.
The Kards will surely be feeling the loss of forward Zack Zulkanycz this year, who graduated in the spring, but Kenai head coach Pete Iverson can be content that his talents are being put to use, since Zulkanycz now holds a spot on the Kenai River Brown Bears roster in the North American Hockey League.
“We’re excited about the rebuild. I think we have seven seniors this year, but the team’s got a lot of potential,” Iverson said. “We just need to get it working together.”
According to Iverson, Kyle Olson and Nathan Zorbas could have big seasons. Jake Eubank recorded two goals in Tuesday night’s endowment game against Homer, and TJ Wagoner scored one as well.
“We’re always looking towards regions hoping to place well there, but we have a season ahead of us to improve,” Iverson said. “(Eubank and Wagoner) definitely play well together and made things happen, but we have challenges ahead and the team is pumped to do it.”