Not much has changed over the offseason for hockey teams in the North Star Conference.
The teams are still the same — Soldotna, Kenai Central, Homer, Wasilla, Palmer and Colony. There are no conference realignments or major shakeups that could affect how a team approaches the season.
Upon closer inspection, though, there are changes. The North Star Conference tournament that decides the two teams that will go to state in February will take place in Homer this year, for instance.
And, of course, new faces will be seen on the ice as always, as last year’s senior class is all but a cherished memory.
Kenai and Homer have already taken to the ice in an endowment game on Tuesday night at the renamed Soldotna Regional Sports Complex (Kenai won 5-2), but the real fun starts today in the Peninsula Ice Challenge tournament, which welcomes the Service Cougars and West Valley Wolfpack in a three-game series that pits everyone against each other.
Soldotna opens the tournament with a 5 p.m. matchup today with Service at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. On Friday, the Stars move on to West Valley for a 7:15 p.m. tilt, and will finish off with a game against Kenai on Saturday, again at 7:15 p.m.
The Stars are a team that lost a good chunk of starting seniors from last year’s squad — guys such as Dalton Pearson, Matty Silta, Jonas Perletti and Jarrett Urban, all of whom contributed in big ways to the team’s scoring.
“This year, it’s a new game,” said SoHi coach Aaron Swanson. “We graduated a lot of kids, and the younger kids are now older kids, so they’re going to get chances. The freshmen and sophomores are going to get opportunities, so this is one of those years that is going to be a learning process.”
Last season in the state tournament, Soldotna lost to Lathrop 3-0 in the fourth-place game, relegating the Stars to a sixth-place finish. The last time SoHi went to the state tournament before that was 2009, when the Stars placed seventh.
This year, Swanson said he expects the 2014 senior class to lead the team. Forwards Jake Wrobel and Hunter Lott are two of them that return to the front line, and junior Ty Fenton, Coel Nelson and Stephen Endsley should add some depth. Fenton didn’t play last year due to injury, so it will be interesting to see how he fits in, said Swanson.
Senior Jake O’Lena, sophomore Kenny Griffin and junior Justice Miller will provide support on defense, and in goal, senior Cody Harvey returns.
“We’d sure like to get back to state,” Swanson said. “We feel like we’re in the mix, and there’s a lot of parity in the league, so any team can win on any given night.”
Swanson said he and the team are looking forward to the conference games — the bulk of which come in December.
“Those are the key games for us,” he said. “You never really know what you’re going to get when you play Anchorage teams or other teams outside the conference, so those conference games are the ones that really count the most for us.”
Swanson also mentioned that some of his players found some extra height and muscle over the hockey offseason, which should go a long way in finding that extra edge out on the ice.
“It’ll be a lot of fun, it’s going to be a challenge for sure,” Swanson said.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
2010 marks the last time Kenai qualified for the state tournament. But an early season win over Homer on Tuesday bolstered the team’s hopes, said coach Pete Iverson.
After a 2012 season that saw the Kards go 2-7-1 in conference play, Kenai is hoping for better things this year.
“I’m hoping we’ll do better this year, I’m hoping that we’re competitive,” Iverson said. “Some of the other teams lost seniors, and I’m looking forward to another competitive season with good parity.”
Kenai begins their its Peninsula Ice Challenge tournament play with a 7:15 p.m. game against West Valley today at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. The Kards move on to Service at 5 p.m. on Friday, before wrapping up with a showdown with Soldotna at 7:15 p.m. on Saturday.
“The Soldotna game this Saturday, that’s always a good matchup,” Iverson said.
Iverson added that, “Wasilla is always tough, and last year with Palmer, we had two overtime games with them.”
The good news for Kenai is that most of their top players from last year are returning. It’s a list that includes seniors TJ Wagoner, Nathan Zorbas, Caleb Caldwell and goalie Justin Alvey, junior Jake Eubank and sophomores Dalton Dosko and Michael Tilly. The top line is Eubank, Dosko and Caldwell.
Adding to the mix, there are freshmen Ross Hanson and Baxter Cox, both of whom proved to be effective on Tuesday against Homer. Hanson scored two goals in his debut game, with the first one coming off an assist from Cox.
“It’s really exciting, they work the puck well, and hopefully that line just continues to do well and create goals,” Iverson said. “They played together last year and they were pretty effective, so for now, I think they’ll be together for a while. We might put some other kids in to try other stuff, but we’ll see.”
Alvey might have to give up some time in goal for Nate O’Lena, a transfer from SoHi, who should make for an interesting battle for top goaltending duties.
“I’m really excited to have him,” Iverson said. “He’s a solid goaltender, and between him and Alvey, we’re going to have some good goaltending, and that’s very exciting. I don’t know if he’ll be starting next game, but for a coach, that’s great to have two goalies pushing each other. They’re going to make each other better.
“These guys play together a lot with their KPHA team, and they went to the national tournament last year. A lot of these guys come from that team and so they bring a lot of camaraderie and team play, so it’s just things that I take advantage of and build on.”
A new face makes an appearance in a familiar position at Homer this year.
John Carlin takes over for Buck Laukitis as head coach of the team, and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because he coached Soldotna in the late 1990s, and brought two NSC crowns home. He also was the head coach of the fourth-place finishing Stars at the 4A state tournament in 1998.
“I haven’t been with them in years past, so it’s not like I’m building off of what they already know,” Carlin said. “I’m introducing some new systems and new expectations and we just kind of got to work that stuff off.”
Since his SoHi days, Carlin said he’s been in and out of the Peninsula hockey scene, including coaching stints at the youth level and girls teams.
Homer lost to Kenai 5-2 in an endowment game Tuesday in Soldotna, but Carlin said the season is only looking up from here on out.
“We’re a young club, not that deep, but we’re going to keep digging and we’re going to be a better club,” he said. “We need to work on our positioning, and there’s a lot of systems that we’re giving these guys right now. There’s a lot for them to absorb.”
The last time Homer nabbed a spot at state, it was 2005, when they finished second in the Greatland state championship game (for small schools), losing 4-1 to Houston. A year earlier, in 2004, the Mariners took fifth place at state.
Carlin said he believes this year’s squad has the talent necessary to make a run at the Region III NSC championship, but they need to clean up a few things first.
“We’ve got to play better positioning, got to win races to the puck, play the body more,” he said. “Just tune in a little more. I can get people that are out of position to playing position at the end of the season. I can polish up our power play and our (penalty kill) and get our systems on line.”
Homer will also be hosting the conference tournament in February, which Carlin said is good for his team and all Peninsula teams.
Homer will be traveling up to Soldotna again Tuesday for its official season-opening game, taking on the Stars at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex at 6:30 p.m.