The Homer Mariners have gotten this far. The big question this weekend will be can they finish the job?
After a breakout 17-5-0 season, the Homer hockey program stands one, single game away from its first state tournament appearance in school history.
Homer’s quest to punch its inaugural state ticket begins Friday night with a 7:30 p.m. semifinal clash at the North Star Conference hockey tournament, which runs today through Saturday, and a Homer win would mark a milestone in its hockey program.
“If not now, when?”, asked first-year coach Chance Rockett. “If you don’t win, there isn’t a tomorrow. It’s that simple. It’s all cards on the table, every game.”
The single-elimination tournament features a pair of quarterfinal games tonight at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, starting with fourth-seeded Palmer taking on fifth-seeded Kenai Central at 5 p.m., and ending with third-seeded Wasilla matching up with sixth-seeded underdog Soldotna at 7:30 p.m.
Homer earned the second seed and the first-day bye that goes with it with an 8-2-0 conference record, while the Colony Knights took the top seed with a 9-1-0 NSC campaign.
At one point this season, the Mariners had an 11-game win streak rolling, helping to fuel the fire of a postseason run for Homer. The success has spurred Rockett to believing his players can capitalize on the moment.
“It’s super important, our goal has been to win the championship,” he said.
The Mariners got their 2017-18 campaign started with a narrow 1-0 loss to West Anchorage, one of only two times this year Homer has been shut out. The offensive-minded Mariners average five goals a game, and have hit double-digit scoring in five games this year.
In Homer’s five losses, four were one-goal games.
“We’ve been that close to a 21-1 record,” Rockett remarked. “It is phenomenal, but if you don’t win on Friday, it takes away a lot of the meaning.”
The first real test of the season came early, when the Mariners hosted a three-day weekend of conference games against the perennially strong Valley schools a week after Thanksgiving.
Homer opened eyes by sweeping the Valley competition — a first in program history — and stamped their name as teams to watch out for the rest of the season.
“We get no respect,” Rockett said. “Homer has never gotten that much respect from other teams, and it’s our obligation to go out there and earn it. We’re not pushovers, we’re not that Homer team that’s going to go home packing like others.”
Kenai Central head coach Jacob Newton said Homer is a dangerous team of skaters that move the puck efficiently, making for a hard night on the ice. In their most recent meeting against the Mariners, the Kardinals rallied from a three-goal deficit to tie it up with 90 seconds left, but ultimately ended up getting scored on with 11.7 seconds left to lose 6-5.
“You can tell every single player on that team believes in each other,” Newton said. “That can carry you a long way. They’re here to make a statement.”
Soldotna has been outscored by a combined 31-7 against Homer this year, leading Stars head coach Indy Walton to proclaim Homer as one of the obvious favorites.
“Homer’s a great little hockey town, they’ve got a pretty spread out team and great goaltending,” Walton explained. “(Goalie) Hunter Warren is a great kid, has great confidence. This is the best team they’ve ever had.”
If the action plays out like the seeding suggests, Homer could find itself in Saturday’s championship game against Colony, and punch its ticket to the state tournament in the process. The Mariners split their regular season meetings with Colony, winning 2-1 at home and taking a 5-2 loss on the road.
The overtime win over Colony that first weekend gave the Knights something to shoot for, Rockett said, as Colony isn’t accustomed to losing much on the ice. When the Mariners visited the Valley for a second round of three games in mid-January, Colony was waiting.
Homer went up 2-1 early in the third period, but Colony put the hammer down by scoring four straight goals to end the game and secure the conference victory.
“We want Colony,” Rockett stated. “We want them in the championship game, we want them on the big ice.”
Rockett stressed that while winning Friday’s semifinal is currently the top priority to make state, winning Saturday’s championship is not far behind due to the seeding implications at the big dance.
“We stressed that the Saturday title win is also important because then it probably leads to avoiding South and Dimond.” Rockett said in referencing the top two ranked teams in the state. “But can’t be focused on that. It’s one win, we’re in.”
Homer’s offense has been led this year by a core group of five seniors, Rockett said, a crew that includes skaters Dimitri Kuzmin, Spencer Warren and Tim Blakely, as well as defensemen Douglas Dean and Charlie Menke. Kuzmin and freshman Phineas Weston lead the team in scoring at 31 points this year, although Kuzmin missed an early portion of the season due to injury, while sophomore Isaiah Nevak tops the goal list with 17.
Blakely, meanwhile, has been on a roll recently with seven goals in the last five games, pushing his season total to 15, second-best on the team. Sophomore Tyler Gilliland has also turned heads with 27 points, 18 of them assists, and Ethan Pitzman has supplied depth with 15 assists.
“We’re three lines deep,” Rockett said. “Legitimately, every player can do something.”
Anchoring the defense has been goaltender Hunter Warren, a junior. Warren is 13-5-0 between the pipes this year with a .922 save percentage and 2.44 goals-against average.
Homer faces the winner of Thursday’s Soldotna-Wasilla matchup.
Palmer (4) vs. Kenai Central (5), 5 p.m. Thursday
It took an overtime goal by Levi Mese last Saturday night to separate the Kenai and SoHi squads in the final NSC standings, and it proved to be a difference maker. Kenai finished at 2-8-0 while SoHi wrapped up at 1-9-0.
Instead of meeting with the 7-3-0 Wasilla Warriors, the Kardinals get to play the 3-7-0 Palmer Moose tonight.
Kenai went 1-2 against Palmer this season, grabbing a 6-5 win at the Big Lake Lions Christmas Classic, which was sandwiched between a 6-2 loss and a 5-4 loss in conference meetings.
In the tournament game, Kenai’s Jakeb O’Brien netted the go-ahead goal with 1:33 left in regulation after a four-goal performance by Levi Mese.
Mese scored a hat trick last weekend against Soldotna, including the game winner in overtime, and all along the way has played one part of a deadly duo with teammate Matt Hagel on the Kenai front line.
That kind of offensive firepower has given Newton confidence in his team’s chances this weekend.
“In football, they say any given Sunday,” Newton said. “I’d say any given Thursday. We’ve got just as much chance as anybody.”
In his first year with the Kards, Newton said his relatively young squad has learned to jell quickly as the older leaders on the team have had to set the example. While Mese, O’Brien and Hagel have held station on the front lines, freshman Josh Tree has rapidly developed in goal for the Kards.
“Josh has been playing like a varsity goalie should, it’s a lot to ask of a young player,” Newton said. “He grew up playing goalie, he was with the Ice Hawks for a number of years, but when you’re facing junior and senior players with that much more varsity experience, things are moving faster and the puck is moving faster, and he’s really stepped up.”
Newton said Palmer’s defensive zone coverage will be the toughest nut to crack in Thursday’s quarterfinal.
“We’re telling everybody, do not give up a shooting opportunity,” Newton said about this week’s practices. “If you have a shot, take anything from the top of the circles.”
Wasilla (3) vs. Soldotna (6), 7:30 p.m. Thursday
The Stars lost both games to the Warriors this year by a combined score of 15-2, not very rosy from an outside perspective.
However, after losing two games to Kenai by a combined score of 17-3 this year, SoHi faced its old rival last Saturday in an intense overtime finish after leading for chunks of the game.
The Kenai game followed up an upset victory over state powerhouse Dimond the weekend before, giving head coach Walton and the Stars some serious late-season power.
“We talked about peaking, at the beginning of the season,” Walton said. “It was an uphill climb, but I’d say a lot of hard work off the ice, dry land (practice) two or three days a week, getting in the weight room, then holding (one hour, 15 minute) practices a day.”
Walton finds a familiar foe in Wasilla. As a 1988 Lathrop graduate, Walton had many head-to-head battles against Wasilla and the Schachle family as a player. Current Wasilla head coach Trent Schachle has led an impressive Warriors squad that has qualified to state seven of the past eight years.
“When Wasilla is on, they are very impressive,” Walton said.
This year, SoHi lost to Wasilla 6-2 at home and 9-0 on the road. Walton said the road loss came a night after the Stars had beaten Palmer in a physical contest, and during the game, goalie Mackenzie Powell was injured, which allowed the Warriors to tack on a few more goals.
Since then, sophomore Corbin Wirz has taken up the slack as SoHi tender, and has been running hot lately, helping the Stars stick in games against Dimond, West and East Anchorage.
“Corbin’s turned his game on,” Walton said. “He’s grown a lot. One of the things he’s grown on is just the psychological factor of the game, and his resolve.”
Leading the Soldotna offense has been sophomore Galen Brantley III and Alex Montague. Brantley has recorded a team-high 22 points with 14 goals, while Montague has notched 20 points with 11 goals.
Joining the staunch line play has been Wyatt Medcoff with 14 points, Braxton Urban with 10 points (including the game winner against Dimond), and a few underclassmen, highlighted by sophomore Journey Miller and freshman Dylan Walton, who each have seven points this year, and freshman Gavin Haakenson.
SoHi’s 1-9-0 NSC record does not do the Stars justice. Palmer’s 3-2 overtime Nov. 30 in Soldotna came with controversy, as officials gave the Moose the game-winning goal in overtime even though it appeared the puck entered the goal through a hole in the backside of the netting. SoHi players quickly attempted to point out the mistake to the refs by poking sticks through a pair of gaps in the net, but the game was called and Palmer was given the victory.
That lost opportunity, plus the close game SoHi played last weekend against Kenai, gives the Stars reason to believe they are in store for a big region run.
“I definitely feel like we’ve worked harder and put more time and effort into it than most teams,” Walton said.