Football season is just around the corner for those that are aching to see some action on the turf.
Of course, since it is the spring season, the type of football anyone will be seeing is the kind that involves the feet, not the hands.
High school football squads — or should we say, futbol? — are chomping at the bit to get the season underway, which should be much sooner than last year’s cold and wet season, one in which many games had to be rescheduled or canceled due to weather.
Being cooped up in a gym for most of the early part of the season isn’t doing them any favors, either. Most Anchorage and Valley teams have already been competing for real in recent weeks. Those teams are looking at about 20 games on the calendar this year.
Prep teams on the Kenai Peninsula, on the other hand, will only get about 10 games this year. Kenai girls coach Dan Verkuilen said his team might have only eight regular season games this year.
“Last year, we were just lucky to have an open field for our first home game,” Verkuilen said. “This has been nice, this is probably the farthest we’ve been along with weather.”
As much good as the recent sun has done for the fields, a few pesky snowfalls in the past week have continued to erase much of the progress.
“Everything was going great until I woke up this morning,” quipped Soldotna girls coach Jimmy Love.
Soldotna boys coach Jeff Siemers added, “We’ve been able to get about two weeks outside, so it’s been cold, but we’re outside.”
Homer girls coach Mickey Todd was happy to relay that his group has been able to get outside on the Mariners’ new turf for a week now. Perhaps the early start can pay dividends for the Homer teams further down the road.
“That’s sounds OK!” Todd said about the headstart his team has enjoyed. “I think this is the first time we’ve been outside the gym before our first game.”
One of the key differences in prep soccer that you won’t see in other sports — some teams don’t even make it to the conference tourney. In Region III play, four teams from the Southern Division get a spot in the Northern Lights Conference tournament.
In such a short season, every game is crucial to win, and schools cannot afford to get off to a slow start.
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula teams:
Last year’s third-place finish at state was the best that the SoHi girls have earned at the state tournament since the competition was organized statewide in 2000.
The Stars finished 10-0-1 overall in the regular season and 5-0 in the Southern Division, earning them the top seed in the Northern Lights Conference tournament.
However, SoHi was upset by Colony 2-1 in the championship game, breaking a string of three consecutive NLC crowns, but finished the year on a high note by defeating the Knights 3-2 in the state third-place game.
“My goal is to get to the championship game,” said coach Jimmy Love. “When we first started this journey about five or six years ago, we had a pattern of getting to regions and doing well, and we wanted to get to state.
“Now we no longer want just to get there, now the goal is to finish state.”
The Stars proved their strength in the semifinals at state when they held the powerhouse Dimond Lynx scoreless in the first half, before losing 2-0. Dimond went on to win the championship on the backs of sisters Aaliyah and Ariela Lewis.
“When you can go against Dimond and the Lewis twins, and nearly shut them down, I think we realized that we can hold our own,” Love said. “That was a coaching philosophy there.”
With many of Soldotna’s leading stars returning for their senior and junior years, Love believes a run at the state championship is possible.
“You have to be realistic, but I really think we have the numbers, players, and the skill,” he said. “I never want to predict what regions is going to be, but it’s a goal for the next three or four years to advance to state.”
The Stars return two 2013 All-Tournament team members — Alex Ashe and Taryn McCubbins, both juniors who are formidable midfielders — and senior Katelynn Kerkvliet, who has proven herself to be a dynamic goaltender.
The midfield will also be chock full of experienced upperclassmen such as Kylee Wolfe, Julie Litchfield and Kelci Benson, while the defensive line will feature a rotation of Delaney Love, Skylar Shawe, Olivia Conradi and freshman Bailey Rosin.
“I’ll leave the front line open, because we’re still not sure what it’ll look like,” Love said. “We’re still filling in those spots.”
Love mentioned a few starters from last year are dealing with injuries that could linger the entire season, but the current crop of seniors hold more than enough leadership and depth to push the team through to another successful year.
“We don’t have that big senior class that has left just yet like (other schools),” he said. “This is going to be their year.”
The Stars are scheduled to open their season with a match against Colony on the road, April 25, followed by a date with Palmer the next day. Soldotna’s first home game is against Wasilla the following weekend.
The Soldotna boys were the top seed at last year’s NLC tournament with a 4-5-1 season record — 3-1 in the south — and earned their first state tournament bid since 2009. At state, the boys ultimately finishing tied for seventh place with two straight losses, including an agonizing shootout loss to Wasilla that ended their season.
“That seems to be the usual goal, to make it to state and do well,” said coach Jeff Siemers. “It was too bad we played to a shootout against Wasilla, but anytime you get that extra week, it’s good to extend the season.
“The majority of these guys tasted that and they know what it’s like.”
Manning the helm of the Soldotna boys team for a 13th straight year, Siemers will be tasked with bringing his squad another state run without the talent of Cameron Grothe and Cory Carver, two integral parts of last year’s machine.
“We have eight seniors on the roster and some good juniors that saw time on varsity,” Siemers said. “So we have a solid core of players, and each player has a different dynamic. I think our guys are up to it.”
Luckily, Kayne North will be back for his senior year in goal. North proved to be the difference in last May’s NLC tournament third-place game, stopping 18 shots en route to the shutout against Homer, which was the difference between a trip to state and the end of the season.
Joining North on the defensive line is senior Keely Abendroth and junior Ricky Nelson. In the midfield are juniors Asimakopoulos Charalambos, Dylan Ackerman and Ty Fenton. Fenton is back after battling injuries a year ago.
Like the girls team, the first game for the Soldotna boys lands on the last weekend of April against the preseason favorite Colony Knights.
“Last year Colony made it to the state finals, and they’re bringing a lot of guys back,” Siemers said. “I think it’s going to carry over to this year.”
The Kenai girls have had a long offseason to think about getting another chance to go to state.
After going into last year’s NLC tournament as a hot shot to make it to state for the second year in a row, the Kards were ousted by Grace Christian in a tightly contested 1-0 semifinal match. The team entered the NLC tourney with a 4-1 conference record (5-2-1 overall).
“We had the strength to make it to state last year,” said coach Dan Verkuilen, who is returning for his 16th year on the job. “I love these years as a coach. We have a good core, leaders are strong, but it’s one of those things, we have good energy but young energy.
Kenai lost a large core of seniors from a year ago, including midfield threats such as Jenna Calhoun, Ericka Reynolds and Chelsea Springer, defenders like Cassie Ross and Sarah Rawson, and most notably, goalie Sydney Taylor.
“This year we have no burdens as far as college searches,” Verkuilen joked. “But we have a good group, and they’re willing to learn. It’ll definitely be one of those years of us trying to put things together.”
The lone senior on the squad this year is Caitie Steinbeck, a defensive stalwart who will be backed by sophomores Kylie Morse and Cori Holmes.
Verkuilen said he is thinking of putting freshman Laura Creighton as goaltender, but that position could rotate between her and sophomore Ali Steinbeck, who served as a backup goalie in 2013.
The midfield attacking unit will feature juniors Allie Ostrander, Heidi Perkins and Jamie Bagley.
Of the 30 or so players that have showed up to compete for Kenai, Verkuilen said 27 of them are freshman and sophomores.
The Kenai girls will be seeing their first action of the season on the final weekend of April against Palmer and Colony, followed by their first home game against Soldotna on April 29.
The Kenai boys have waited much longer than the girls to gain a state berth. It’s been six years since the Kardinal boys have made the trip.
Last season, the Kenai boys finished at 2-1-1 in the division and 4-3-2 overall, and were the third seed from the southern division at the NLC tourney.
“Every year we start by setting goals, and of course we want to go to regions,” said Kenai coach John Morton. “This year we’re thinking a little differently about it. It’s about what’s next.
“Right now we want to just come away with two wins in our first weekend, or at least a win and a tie.”
Morton believes Colony to be one of the top boys team in the state, saying that the Knights not only bring a ton of talent to the forefront, but are boosted by a very deep roster.
“Last year, we never quite had the defensive strength we needed to keep up,” Morton said. “We’re trying to sort them out this year.”
Morton, who is coaching Kenai for the third consecutive year, said if his defensive group can develop more, his squad could be tough to beat.
Heading that defense is goalie Wren Norwood, a junior who consistently held up well a year ago, and is expected to produce more brilliant work in the net this year.
Up front, T.J. Wagoner, Nathan Narlock, Nolan Scarlett and Trevor Shirnberg headline an experienced attacking line. Freshman Max Dye could also turn heads, according to Morton.
“Most of these guys on varsity have been playing together since little kids,” Morton said.
“We’re a pretty experienced team,” Morton said. “We have about enough seniors to field our own team.”
Like the Kenai girls, the boys will face Palmer and Colony on April 25 and 26. Before that, however, the Kenai teams are hopeful of a scrimmage against Nikiski next Tuesday.
The final season kicks off for the soccer teams at Skyview, before the school closes its doors for good, and what better time to take on a new coach than the final year?
Actually, the coaching will be a combined effort. Father and son tandem Ben and Jake Eveland will share duties, with the elder Eveland, Ben, sorting out schedules, budgets and discipline, while the younger Eveland, Jake, focuses on team development.
“We both love the sport,” said Ben. “(Jake) really relates to the school and the kids a lot.”
Jake is a 2005 Skyview graduate and played the sport in high school and at the University of South Dakota, and has spent the last two years as an assistant at Nikiski.
“The big thing is I wanted to come in, especially since it’s the last year, and represent them well,” Jake said.
2005 — Jake’s senior year — was the most recent trip to the state tournament the Skyview boys have taken, so taking one last trip to state would certainly be a good way to bow out.
“We wanna make it to the region tournament first,” Jake said. “It’s been awhile.”
Ben brings a lot of leadership experience, having coached track and football teams for many years on the Peninsula. He was also the athletic director at Skyview for one year in 2001, and was a coach at Kenai Central as far back as 1980.
“These kids have just been great,” Ben said. “It’s one of the best teams I’ve ever coached in any sport. You tell them to run, they just run.”
Jake said nearly 20 students currently make up the Skyview boys roster. Leading the charge are the three returning captains; senior goalie Bailey Jones, senior Khelbie Miller and junior Austin Craig.
With Jones holding steadfast in net and Miller and Craig spreading out the front of the field, Eveland believes his team can contend for multiple wins.
“It’s their leadership,” Eveland said. “A lot of these kids know this is the last year, they want to be represented well. They know their positions, and a lot of them know the sport.”
After opening its season at home April 24 against Wasilla, Skyview will take a trip to Kodiak for games on the final weekend of the month.
Skyview girls coach David Carpenter enters his 18th year coaching the Panthers, and said he is ready to go out with an athletic group of girls.
“I gotta say, I give a ton of credit to the SST (Speed, Strength and Training) program,” Carpenter said. “It’s had an impact on us, both for the boys and girls.”
With Carpenter at the helm, the Skyview girls have missed the Region III tournament only twice, including last year. The longtime coach said that bothered him.
“I told the girls that back in the day, we would play the Valley schools and beat them, and I mean really beat them,” Carpenter said. “These girls can play a physical match, so I hope it means we can stay in games.”
Carpenter also mentioned that weeks of practice in the gym may have finally forced him and the team to a boiling point, and he let them know it during practice one day last week.
“I threw a temper tantrum and took some time off and told them to come back with better attitudes,” Carpenter said. “They came back ready to play, and now they’re going at it. They’re a feisty bunch of kids.”
Two impact players on this year’s squad are returning as juniors. Cierra Mahan, who Carpenter said was an All-Region player as a freshman, returns after taking 2013 off to throw the shot put for the Skyview track team, and Taylor Wilson. Both girls came up through the developmental comp program.
“I think (Mahan) is one of the top scorers in our region, I mean she’s got a tremendous leg,” Carpenter said. “Both those girls are going to do a lot this year.”
Carpenter mentioned that Mahan will likely be getting time as a goaltender as well.
“We’re probably going to be mimicking Nikiski and put Cierra in goal when we need her there,” Carpenter said, referring to Nikiski’s Rachel Thompson. “She’s going to take that role, because we can use her as a goalie and a midfielder.”
Both the boys and girls teams from the North Road lost a core of seniors that were detrimental to last year, but both coaches are confident that the athleticism of the current crop of Nikiski footballers will help to carry the teams.
Last year, the Nikiski girls made the NLC tournament as the fourth seed with a 2-2 conference record (4-4 overall).
“We have some pretty solid returners,” said girls coach Mandy Adair. “We’re going to have to rely on the strength and knowledge of our juniors.”
Two key losses to graduation are Taylor Calderwood and Bailey Buchholz, a pair of midfielders that consistently were able to find the back of the net. The Bulldogs are returning four starters and sport nine juniors but only one senior; Emily Lynch.
“She’s definitely a strong player for us,” Adair said. “She’s been in the program for four years, and has had some time to learn the way we run.”
Junior Rachel Thompson will again double as goalie and midfielder, but Adair said she is still looking for a backup goalie for the times Thompson is out in the middle.
“She’s a ball hawk, and I think she’s the goalie in our region,” Adair said. “We’re going to need some young players to step up in center mid. They need to learn on the fly.”
Junior Laura Hufford and sophomore Hannah Love return to reinforce the defense, and up front, junior Nataliyah Davis will provide some extra flair for the attacking unit.
Going into her eighth year as coach, Adair said her goal is to get her team further into the region tournament and onto the state stage.
“I’ve never done that,” Adair said. “We’re going to have to put in a lot of extra work and it’s about how bad we want it.”
The Nikiski boys are sporting an even younger look, as a few crucial seniors graduated from last year’s squad.
The boys made it to the region tournament last season as the fourth seed from the southern division, but were overmatched against the top seeded Colony boys.
“Most of these kids are multiple-sport athletes, and some are four-sport athletes,” said coach Jim Coburn. “But we’re a lot younger than we have been the last couple years.”
Leading the charge for the boys are seniors Jesse Eide, Michael Stangel and Garrett Feller, and junior Christian Riddall. All four players were a part of Nikiski’s small-school championship winning football team in the fall.
“You can’t ask for a better group of kids,” Coburn said. “Other than that, let’s hope we get better towards the end of the year.”
Coburn is faced with the task of finding a replacement for Lincoln Johnson, last year’s dynamic senior goalie who provided much of the leadership in 2013.
“Lincoln was a pretty special athlete, so those are big shoes to fill,” Coburn said. “He was probably one of the best leaders I’ve coached.”
Coburn said at this point, it looks like Sullivan Jackson will be starting in goal.
Juniors Nico Castro and Brady Malston, and sophomores Nathan Carstens, Hunter Holloway, Sam Tauriainen and Javon Pamplin add depth to the midfield.
The Bulldogs open their season with an April 18 match at Houston, followed by a road trip to Seward on April 25.
Warren Waldorf returns to coach the Homer boys team that have been contenders for two years running. In 2012, the Mariners finished second at the NLC tournament and competed well at the state tournament to grab a fourth-place finish.
Last year, the boys missed out on a state berth with a 1-0 loss to Soldotna in the NLC tournament third-place game.
“We always try to seed ourselves into regions, and try to be competitive,” Waldorf said. “We try to go .500 (this season), and aim to be there in the last five minutes of the region tournament game.
Waldorf, who is not one to mince words, said he is still drawing up the roster and positions that his players will be in.
“I’m not imaginative,” he said.
The seventh-year head coach did say that much of his team this year is composed of Homer’s basketball squad that was able to be competitive with the larger schools. Players like juniors Drew Brown, Kenneth Schneider and senior Quinn Daugharty will add athleticism and depth. Waldorf said Brown and Schneider can conceivably play every position on the field.
John Walsworth and Filip Reutov will also return from the 2012 state team, and in place of graduated goalie Grant Arseneau will be Brian Rowe.
“I think we’re a pretty good team,” Waldorf said. “We’ll give everyone a run for their money.”
Unlike the Homer girls team, Waldorf said he’s been keeping his squad in the gym due to the colder weather.
“It’s too cold for me,” he said. “Both our fields are mostly bare, but the upper field is too soft to play on.”
The Homer girls will be coached by Mickey Todd for another year, and Todd said his team has drawn 39 girls out to play this season, which is an improvement.
“Our goal is to be really competitive, and on any given day to beat anyone,” Todd said. “We want to be competitive day in and day out, and not get blown out one day and blow out the next.”
The five seniors that will all get varsity minutes this year include Mady Gerard, Zoia Basargin, Maggie Koplin, Rachel Doan and Hannah Baird. Doan will start the year in goal, according to Todd.
Todd said a trip to Juneau was originally on the schedule to start the year, but it has since been cancelled, which leaves Homer with four straight home games to begin with.
“I’d just like to play anyone,” he said. “The games with Soldotna are going to stick out for us, we’d like to beat them, and Kenai always plays us tough too, so it’ll be interesting.”
2008 was the last time the Homer girls qualified for state, so naturally that is one of the goals of the team.
“We’re only as strong as our weakest player,” Todd said. “With injuries, grades, illness, it always seems health issues are a problem in a short season, so our strength is in numbers, and we’re just trying to make sure everyone understands what we’re doing.”
The Mariners begin their season April 25 with a home game against Wasilla.