History is staring the Soldotna Stars hockey team straight in the face, and the Stars are staring right back.
The numbers that are facing the Stars in this weekend’s Class 4A state tournament are not pretty, but SoHi has thrived on that formula all season.
After finishing 1-5 against the Valley teams in the regular season, and finishing as the only Peninsula team to record a win in that category, SoHi was seeded fourth out of six teams in last weekend’s North Star Conference tournament, which was to be held on home ice.
Casting aside the doubters, SoHi claimed a first-round win over Homer, which led to a mighty 3-1 upset over the tournament’s top seed, the Palmer Moose, in the semifinals.
Soldotna coach Derek Urban attributes the wins to the team’s resiliency.
“I thought it was probably our most physical weekend of the year,” Urban said. “There was a lot at stake, but everyone brought their A game.”
But this weekend, the Stars will be facing a much bigger opponent — history.
No Kenai Peninsula team has ever made it past the first round, the opening day game that sets up a semifinal clash with the state’s best.
“We’ve had some bumps in the road, and they haven’t given up,” Urban said. “They’ve had the attitude of, when people told them they couldn’t do it, they did it.”
As it stands, Soldotna is 0 for 10 in making it past the first round of the state tournament since 1997, with a best finish of fourth place in 1998. Since then, the Stars have been back to the big dance eight times, none of them with a finish higher than sixth.
Other Peninsula teams have it just as rough. Kenai Central has made it to state six times since 1996, with a best finish of fourth in 2007. Homer has never made the trip to the big-schools tournament.
So what makes Urban confident that this year’s Stars can be the team to buck that trend?
“A lot of our players didn’t know (that losing streak), and we’ve been playing the underdog all year,” he said. “The fact no team’s ever won in the first round, clearly (we) come in as the underdog. We hope that motivates us.”
Urban said the team also felt a bit shortchanged when only four of its players were named to the first and second All-Tournament teams and honorable mentions lists.
“That has driven them,” he said.
SoHi gets its state tournament under way with a quarterfinal clash against the Chugiak Mustangs at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla. The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. tonight.
If that matchup sounds familiar, it’s because it is. SoHi and Chugiak produced a memorable, hotly contested battle two years ago in a first-round game that resulted in a 2-1 triple-overtime win for Chugiak, as the Mustangs became just the latest team to knock Soldotna out of the running early.
Urban was an assistant coach with the team then, under the guidance of head coach Aaron Swanson, but the memories are still there.
“The boys are excited, this is the first opportunity for some of them, and a second opportunity for the guys that were playing two years ago,” he said.
Urban said the Mustangs’ most dangerous quality is the team speed. If the Stars let their defensive focus slip, Chugiak could easily find itself on an odd-man rush against SoHi sophomore goaltender Billy Yoder.
“When they beat Dimond 6-2, you know they’re well coached,” Urban said, referring to Chugiak’s Cook Inlet Conference victory over the Lynx on Saturday.
However, Yoder has continued to build up his game in net for SoHi, and heads into state with a save percentage of 90 percent this year, a total of 690 saves on 765 shots.
SoHi has also been able to support Yoder on offense as well. Sophomore forward Cameron Knowlton leads the Stars with 36 points (20 goals, 16 assists) this season, while junior teammate Jace Urban has 22 points (11 goals and 11 assists), Levi Hensley has 20 (9 and 11) and Ethan Brown has 15 (7 and 8).
If SoHi manages to pull off the upset over Chugiak, Urban said it would dwarf last week’s upset over Palmer.
“That would be history-making for the program,” he said. “I don’t think you can compare that to anything.”