In a soccer season where weather has been the big story, Mother Nature appears ready to toy with the Northern Lights Conference soccer tournament, starting today at the Kenai Soccer Complex.
Forecasters are predicting there is a high chance of precipitation today, Friday and Saturday. And with temperatures not being forecasted to get much above 40, even the dreaded “snow” word is being kicked around.
“It’d be nice to see what people have in their tanks, as opposed to just surviving the cold and wet,” Kenai girls coach Dan Verkuilen said. “It sounds like it’s going to be cold and wet, though, so we’re going to have to be ready.”
Such weather would be a perfect coda to a season in which a cold and wet spring has wreaked havoc with the schedule.
“I’ve been coaching a long time, and I can’t remember a spring that’s been this cold and wet, at least while I’ve been coaching,” Nikiski boys coach Jim Coburn said.
While the cold and wet could be a bummer, at least the fields shouldn’t be an issue. Jimmy Love, the Soldotna girls coach, said the tournament was moved to the Kenai Soccer Complex because it was apparent early in the season that the fields of SoHi, the NLC tourney host school, were going to get trashed.
“Those fields haven’t been used,” Love said of the complex fields. “They haven’t been touched since breakup happened, if breakup ever really happened.”
But Love said that just as teams could not use the weather as an excuse when they lost a game to affect their seeding, there will be no excuses at the tournament.
“We can’t focus on the weather,” he said. “That doesn’t matter. We have to be ready to play.”
The top three teams from the girls and boys tournament earn berths to state. Teams that don’t win today are eliminated from contention. The semifinals are Friday, and the third-place and championship games take place Saturday.
The following is a closer look at the games today.
Colony girls vs. Nikiski, 11 a.m.
The Bulldogs, No. 4 from the Southern Division, are in search of their first victory at the NLC tournament.
Nikiski played Colony, No. 1 from the north, early in the year and lost 6-0. It was Nikiski’s second game on a field of the year.
“We’ve definitely improved since then,” Bulldogs coach Mandy Adair said. “We’ve solidified our defense since then, and we’ve moved some girls around to make us have more of an attack.”
Tournaments can often be about goaltending, and Nikiski has that covered with Rachel Thompson.
“If we’re able to sneak in a goal, we can bunker down and play it out for the win,” Adair said.
The coach said her seniors will play a pivotal role in the tournament. Taylor Calderwood has created more attacking since moving to center midfield, Bailey Buchholz is Nikiski’s leading scorer, and Adair said Brittany Sexton is one of the most improved players and will be key coming off the bench.
Nikiski boys vs. Colony, 11 a.m.
The Bulldogs boys, No. 4 from the south, also have yet to win a first-round game at the NLC tourney, and face a big challenge in the Knights.
Jim Coburn said Colony, No. 1 from the north, has knocked off teams like South and West this season.
“I think it will be a tough game,” Coburn said. “Colony is very skilled.”
But the coach also said his team always plays hard, and in soccer, that makes victory possible.
“With soccer, when it comes down to one game, a lot of things can happen,” Coburn said.
Logan Harrison will start in goal, because Lincoln Johnson will be at the state track meet.
“Overall, the entire team must play together, trust one another and play with a lot of energy,” Coburn said.
Homer girls vs. Grace, 1 p.m.
The Mariners, No. 3 from the south, face off for the first time this year with the Grizzlies, No. 2 from the north.
Homer is chasing its first state berth since 2007.
“My philosophy is just that on any given day any team can beat another team,” Homer coach Mickey Todd said. “We’ve done OK against the bigger teams from the north. It’s just an opportunity to extend our season.”
Todd said key players in the tournament will be seniors Hope Hudson, Katie Pitzman and Hanna Mikois; and juniors Mady Gerard, Maggie Koplin and Zoia Basargin. Basargin has played goalie for the last four games.
“I think we’re going to surprise a couple of teams,” Todd said.
Homer boys vs. Grace, 1 p.m.
The Mariners will be looking to follow up on their third-place finish and state berth a year ago at the NLC tourney.
Homer, No. 2 from the south, has not played Grace, No. 3 from the south, this year.
Homer coach Warren Waldorf wrote in an email that Colony and Wasilla are looking like the top two teams in the NLC, but the third state berth is up for grabs.
He wrote his goalie, Grant Arseneau, is the best goalie in the NLC, and will put up a great effort in the tournament.
The defenders in front of Arseneau are Connor McCarron, Filip Reutov, John Walsworth and Flynn Bloom.
Konstantin Reutov, the team captain and a first-team all-conference player last year, patrols the midfield with Carson Duggar.
Up in front, Waldorf said his players are a bit banged up, but eager for tournament play. Those players are Ethan Kizzia, Kenneth Schneider, Drew Brown, Peter Ellert and Manuel Spigno.
Soldotna girls vs. Wasilla, 3 p.m.
The Stars begin their chase of a fourth-straight conference crown.
SoHi, No. 1 from the south, did not lose any games this year, but did tie Colony 1-1. The Stars topped Wasilla, No. 4 from the north, 4-0 on Saturday.
“I think people are tired of seeing the repeat thing,” Love said. “I think anybody would love to see anybody knock Soldotna off the top this year.”
Love said the gap between the Stars and the rest of the NLC has closed since last year.
“You can certainly mention individuals that will be important, but it will come down to a total team effort,” Love said. “If we’re not playing our team game, I don’t think individual efforts alone can help us pull this out.”
Love said Julie Litchfield must be solid at midfield. Kylee Wolfe and Miranda Wolfe also are dangerous players that teams must stop if they hope to stop the Stars.
Love also said goalie Katelynn Kerkvliet has gotten a bit more action this year, and he said she should be ready for whatever comes her way.
Kenai boys vs. Wasilla, 3 p.m.
The Kards, the No. 3 seed from the south, will be seeking their first state berth since 2008.
Kenai and Wasilla, No. 2 from the north, just played Friday, with Wasilla winning 2-0. The Warriors are the defending NLC champs.
“They are a solid team, plus they have some solid playmakers that create opportunities on offense,” Kenai coach John Morton said. “But they also have weaknesses, too.”
Morton said the Kards were able to create good opportunities against Wasilla’s defense, but were not able to finish those opportunities. He said strikers TJ Wagoner, Josh McKee and Simon Sandino must finish those opportunities today.
Morton also said Wasilla will get its opportunities on offense, so the defense, led by goalie Wren Norwood, must step up.
“And I don’t want to downplay the midfield,” Morton said. “That’s where it all happens.”
Kenai girls vs. Palmer, 5 p.m.
The Kardinals, No. 2 from the south, have been to state five times during the tenure of coach Verkuilen, including last season.
Palmer, No. 3 from the north, and Kenai played to a scoreless tie in Kenai’s second game of the year.
“We dominated play, but it was pretty much a matter of putting the ball in the net,” Verkuilen said. “It was kind of an early thing.
“I feel confident that if we play our game we’ll do pretty well.”
Verkuilen said playing games in cold, wet weather has led to more aches and pains this year, but Heidi Perkins is the one key player who might not be ready for the tournament.
Verkuilen said senior forward Jenna Calhoun, who had four goals in one game, will be an important player as the Kards try to get scores on the board.
The coach said Cassie Ross has been solid at stopper, while Paula Ulreich and Allie Ostrander have held things down in the midfield. The defense has given up just five goals this season.
Verkuilen also said a big plus the team has this year is depth, which can be vital in a three-day tournament.
The team also has nine seniors.
“You always come to regionals hoping those seniors step up and show themselves — a desperate push because it could be the end if they don’t push on,” Verkuilen said.
Soldotna boys vs. Palmer, 5 p.m.
The Stars, the No. 1 seed from the south, have not been to state since 2009. Palmer, No. 4 from the north, and SoHi have not played this season.
Siemers said it is hard to say how teams will match up based on records. As an example, he said his team is 4-5-1 overall yet has the top seed.
“We just have to finish,” Siemers said. “We have been out-possessing the other teams and outshooting the other teams, it’s just a matter of finishing.”
Siemers said the defense has been fine this year. Kayne North will come back from a minor injury sustained against Kenai on Monday to start in goal, while Keely Abendroth, Ricky Nelson and Jonas Perletti also play key roles on defense.
Cory Carver has done just fine finishing for SoHi this year. Siemers said that if Cameron Grothe also finds the back of the net in the tournament, that would make it hard for opposing defenses to slow the Stars down.