Last season, soccer teams were looking at a forecast of temperatures in the 40s and possible rain and snow for the Northern Lights Conference soccer tournament.
What a difference a year makes.
This year, the forecast is for sunny skies and highs in the 60s on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The tourney will be contested on the artificial turf fields at Colony and Wasilla high schools.
“There won’t be the equalizing factor of bad weather or field conditions,” Soldotna boys coach Jeff Siemers said. “This will be the first regional tournament on all-turf fields.”
Siemers said the turf should benefit the faster, higher-skilled teams.
In other words, let the best team win.
Teams must win today to keep their seasons alive. On Friday, a win nets a state berth and a championship appearance. A loss sets up a Saturday third-place match in which only the winner gets a state berth.
Here is a closer look at today’s games:
Soldotna girls vs. Palmer, 11 a.m. at Colony
The Stars finished 12-0 overall to earn the top seed out of the Southern Division. SoHi has won the conference three of the past four years and has been to state five of the past six years.
Kenai is the only team to get within two goals of SoHi, which has allowed just two goals all season. The Kards lost 3-1 and 1-0 to SoHi this season. SoHi topped Palmer 6-0.
But coach Jimmy Love knows all of that means absolutely nothing.
“All the records go out the window,” he said. “They mean absolutely nothing.”
Love said a 1-0 victory over Kenai on Saturday, in which SoHi didn’t score until the final minute, could serve as a wakeup call.
“That’s the result of not playing our A game,” Love said. “I’ve said from day one that if we don’t come and play our A game, it’s anybody’s game.”
Love is very confident in a defense anchored by goalie Katelynn Kerkvliet. But teams can’t win without scoring, and that’s what almost cost the Stars against the Kards.
“I don’t care if it’s Hope Solo in net,” Love said. “We have to find a way to finish.”
Love said the key is to play as a team, and not use solely individual effort to get goals. Kylee Wolfe leads the Stars with 15 goals and 11 assists, while Julie Litchfield has five goals and 13 assists, Olivia Conradi has nine goals and nine assists, Alyssa Wolfe has 12 goals and three assists, and Skylar Shaw has three goals and eight assists.
Homer boys vs. Palmer, 1 p.m. at Wasilla
The Mariners earned the top seed from the south by finishing 10-1-0, including a 1-0 victory over the Moose.
Homer’s lone loss is to Colony, and coach Warren Waldorf is not conceding the tournament to the Knights.
“Colony is the ubiquitous choice,” he wrote in an email. “Personally, I like Homer.”
While Waldorf would not be surprised to see Nos. 1 and 2 seeds battling it out in Friday’s semis, he knows no game is easy.
“I hope to be watching a great battle between Homer and Colony late Saturday afternoon, but getting past Palmer, then Wasilla or Soldotna to get there is a great challenge for us,” he wrote.
Homer has a strong defense in front of goalie Brian Rowe, and Waldorf wrote that getting more than one kickoff against Homer is not easy. The team then finishes enough chances to compile its sterling record.
Waldorf said key players in the success have been John Walsworth, Flynn Bloom, Filip Reutov, Drew Brown, Quinn Daugharty and Kenneth Schneider.
After missing state last season, Waldorf is hoping to get back to the form that resulted in a fourth-place finish in 2012.
“If we’re all healthy, I don’t see why our next loss can’t be pushed off until next year,” he wrote.
Kenai girls vs. Colony, 3 p.m. at Colony
The Kards finished 6-3-1 to earn the second seed out of the south. Kenai toppled Colony, the No. 3 seed from the north and the defending conference champ, 5-0 this season.
Kenai is seeking a sixth trip to state during head coach Dan Verkuilen’s tenure. The task will be made tougher by the absence of four starters. Allie Ostrander will be running track, while Cori Holmes, Cassie Holmes and Hannah Drury are battling injury.
But Kenai gained confidence from sticking with Soldotna on Saturday.
“We’ll just be pulling up more freshmen and sophomores,” Verkuilen said. “I think they’ll step up.”
One area where the Kards remain healthy is defense, with Allie Steinbeck in goal and Kylie Morse, Caitlin Steinbeck, Heidi Perkins and Jamie Bagley protecting her.
Verkuilen is fully expecting the trip to state to come down to a few key moments where the Kards finish or they don’t.
“Over 17 years, that’s how it is,” he said. “Especially in round one, everybody is playing with guts if they care. There’s a lot of great effort and that’s why we’ve been practicing penalty kicks, because you see a lot of overtime, double overtime and penalty shots.”
Kenai boys vs. Grace, 5 p.m. at Colony
The Kards are flying high after ending their season at 6-3-1 overall to capture the No. 2 seed from the south.
Kenai, which has not been to state since 2008, defeated Grace 3-0 earlier in the season. Kards head coach John Morton said Grace was missing players in that game due to SAT testing.
“I still think we have a good shot at winning, but this is not going to be an easy game,” he said.
Since a disappointing loss the Wasilla, Morton said his squad has been on the upswing and is peaking for regions. He said the Kards are heavy on seniors, which is good, but the problem is those athletes have to graduate Wednesday night and play today.
TJ Wagoner is Kenai’s big scorer, and Morton said he needs to do just that in the tourney. Center midfielders Trevor Shirnberg, Nate Narlock and Austin McKee also must control the action.
Homer girls vs. Palmer, 1 p.m. at Wasilla
The Mariners finished 4-3-2 overall to take the No. 3 seed out of the south and draw No. 2 seed Grace. Homer lost to Grace earlier in the year.
Last season, Homer, which is chasing its first state berth since 2007, also met Grace in the first round and lost.
Soldotna boys vs. Wasilla, 5 p.m. at Wasilla
The Stars, who finished 5-5-2 for the third spot in the south, face a tough first-round matchup if they hope to earn a chance at a second-straight state bid.
SoHi lost 5-2 to the Warriors early in the season. The possession in the game was a lot more even than the final score.
“It’s just a matter of taking advantage of our opportunities and finishing,” Soldotna coach Jeff Siemers said.
The good news for the Stars is that Kayne North is back healthy after battling injury this season. Ty Fenton, SoHi’s best scorer, also was hurt during the Wasilla game but is now healthy.
Siemers said midfielders, such as Dylan Kuntz and Charalambos Asimakopoulos, must hold up against Wasilla to keep the Warriors speedy forwards from getting a free run at the defense.
“I think we can play with any team in the region,” Siemers said. “It’s a matter of having confidence and playing all 80 minutes.”
Nikiski girls vs. Wasilla, 3 p.m. at Wasilla
The Bulldogs, No. 4 at 1-8-2, are playing their best soccer heading into the matchup with the top-seeded Warriors.
After topping Skyview 2-0 on Friday, Nikiski kept No. 2 Grace scoreless until 20 minutes remained in a 2-0 loss.
The Bulldogs are seeking their first-ever win in a first-round game at the conference tournament.
“We have a lot of excitement going into regions,” Nikiski coach Mandy Adair said. “We’re rolling off that Grace game.
“We understand now what we need to do against teams that possess the ball and move it quickly.”
The Bulldogs have one of the top goalies in the state in Rachel Thompson. Adair also said Hannah Love will be vital at sweeper, and Katie Costello will provide leadership.
“These girls want to make every team that beats us have to fight,” Adair said. “They want to prove they can play with the big dogs.
“They’re always hungry come region time wanting that first win.”
Nikiski boys vs. Colony, 1 p.m. at Colony
The Bulldogs, at 4-6-1 overall, face a tough task as a No. 4 seed going against top seed Colony. The Knights have just one loss and one tie in 22 games.
Coburn said his team, coming from a school of less than 250, looks forward to battling schools of over 1,000 students.
“Just getting to regions is a big deal to us,” Coburn said. “We’re play in the 4A arena. We don’t get to do that in any other sport.”
The coach said the recipe for upset is to play good defense and weather Colony’s attacks, then sneak in a goal at some point.
He said captains Garrett Feller, Jesse Eide, Michael Stangel and Christian Riddall are important because Nikiski plays four seniors and three juniors, with the rest being underclassmen.