A boys soccer season marking a huge change is beginning with frustrating, incremental change.
The huge change is the splitting of soccer into two divisions — one for large schools and one for small schools.
The frustrating, incremental change comes from the way the fields are melting ever so slowly on the central peninsula and in Seward.
Before this season, all the boys soccer schools in the state competed for one crown.
Peninsula schools Homer, Kenai Central, Nikiski, Seward and Soldotna are now competing for the Division II, or small-schools, championship.
Those five schools are in the Peninsula Conference, which will get two berths to state.
A conference featuring Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna valley schools and Kodiak will also get two berths, while a Fairbanks conference and a Southeast Conference get one apiece.
The decision to split into two divisions is drawing mixed reviews from the peninsula’s coaches.
Kenai Central, Soldotna and Homer, while never winning a state title, have more than shown an ability to be competitive with the large schools.
Since the official Alaska Schools Activities Association state tourney started in 2000, Kenai made eight appearances, Soldotna made six appearances and Homer made four appearances.
The schools also have had success at state. Kenai was second in 2016 and tied for third in 2017. Homer tied for third in 2014 and finished fourth in 2012. Soldotna finished fourth in 2007 and 2008, and the now-closed Skyview High School took third in 2004.
“Most of us on this team liked it how we had it,” said fourth-year Kenai coach Joel Reemtsma, who returns a senior class that played a large role in the two great finishes the past two years and also won a pair of Northern Lights Conference titles. “We thought we had another good chance of competing for the big-schools title this year.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge of potentially winning the small-schools division.”
Warren Waldorf, who has been head coach in Homer for 11 years and also has a great group of seniors this season, said the switch is tougher when he’s coaching a team that can compete with the big schools.
“It’s pretty rare when we can really be competitive with them, but we always think we can be in it and it gives us something to aim for,” said Waldorf, who has been to state in four of the past six years. “It gave you a great opportunity to play against better teams if you got that far, and we’ve been able to get that far.”
Soldotna fourth-year head coach Darryl Byerley also has a great group of seniors he would like to put up against the best. Byerley said he hopes the split does not impact the regular season, as well.
“Two years ago, we were able to play South, Dimond and West,” Byerley said. “Now there seems to be less of a desire for Anchorage to engage us in games. We may have to look at Southeast and Fairbanks to pick up games.”
The story is different for Nikiski and Seward, which have never been to state.
Second-year Nikiski coach Harrison Deever said the change gives his program a better shot at a first berth.
“I like the idea,” he said. “We still have to face Kenai and SoHi this year, so it doesn’t change that much for us.
“But I could see that working out for us in the near future.”
Seward coach Dustin Phillips, who has led the team for over 10 years, also approves of the change. Like Deever, he said the new plan not only gives a clearer path to state, but opens entry into the conference tournament as well.
Under the old system, only four teams from the Kenai Peninsula, plus Kodiak, even qualified for the conference tournament. Homer, Soldotna and Kenai have turf. Seward and Nikiski don’t. That means the Seahawks and Bulldogs get outside later. With so few conference games, a slow start could doom them to miss the conference tournament.
“I feel this gives us more of a chance to at least get into a postseason tournament,” Phillips said.
The conference tournament, at SoHi this year, will open with the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds playing Thursday then Nos. 1, 2 and 3 jumping into action Friday.
Oddly, even with the change, the path to state for Kenai, SoHi and Homer will be as tough as ever because each team is loaded with seniors and only two teams go to state.
“We’ve got two spots coming out so somebody is going to be left at home,” said Byerley, whose team was left at home last season after losing to Homer 2-1 in the conference third-place game. “It won’t be fun to be the odd man out.
“It’s going to be a matter of who keeps the kids healthy and shows up.”
And with five-time state champion Juneau-Douglas at the Division II level, the competition at state also promises to be tough.
Homer has an advantage early because Homer’s field has been pretty much clear since early March, while all the other peninsula teams are still waiting for snow to melt. Phillips said Seward got 8 to 10 inches of heavy, wet snow in the middle of the week.
Waldorf is not complaining.
“It’s possible to be match-ready inside the gym,” he said. “It’s possible to do it. I did it for a long time until we got turf.”
All the other peninsula schools would gladly trade Waldorf, though.
“The guys are getting a little antsy in the gym, but they are staying focused and working hard,” said Reemtsma, who has been to state in each of his three years at the helm. “Homer was nice enough to let us down there for a scrimmage.”
The first games on the peninsula are supposed to be Wednesday with Kenai hosting Nikiski, but Reemtsma is not sure if those games will happen.
The following is a closer look at the peninsula’s soccer teams:
Waldorf has 28 out for the program this season and said his squad is a bit deeper than in past years, when an injury or two could cause a major problem.
“I’m high on this team,” he said. “I’m working my tail off trying to get the most out of them I possibly can and they’re responding in kind.
“We’re all on the same page and getting after it every day.”
The Mariners have a tested senior class led by Charles Rohr, first-team all-conference in 2016 and 2017; Simon Dye, first team in 2017 and second team in 2016; and Oliver Beck and Charlie Menke, both second team in 2017.
Also in that senior class is Jordan Beachy and Timothy Blakely.
Sophomore Daniel Reutov was not all-conference last season, but Waldorf predicts that honor will be bestowed this season.
The coach also looks forward to the play of junior Dexter Lowe and sophomore Austin Shafford.
The lone loss to graduation for Homer was at goalie, but Waldorf said junior Tucker Weston has been coming along nicely.
Kenai Central Kardinals
Reemtsma has 35 players out for the program, about the same number as last season.
The senior class is led by scoring machine and senior Zack Tuttle, who made the all-state tournament team as a sophomore and junior. He also was the conference’s Player of the Year last season.
Fellow senior Luke Beiser made first team all-conference last season, while seniors Braydon Goodman and Kevin Ramos were second-teamers. Ramos was an all-state tournament player in 2016.
“He was injured and limping through last season, so it’s really good to have him back at full strength,” Reemtsma said of Ramos. “We expect great things from him.”
The list of seniors is rounded out by Riley McKee and Rykker Riddall.
“They’re a talented crew,” Reemtsma said of the seniors. “The challenge is playing well together.
“Any one of them can put together a great individual effort for sections of the game, but to put a full game together they have to rely on each other.”
As good as the seniors are, Reemtsma has long said Kenai will not drop off the map without them.
He expects juniors Damien Redder, Tomas Levy-Canedo and Travis McKinley; and sophomores Braedon Pitsch, Nate Beiser, Titus Riddall and Travis Verkuilen to continue to show why this year.
The coach also expects freshmen Leif Lofquist, Aidan Milburn, James Baisden and Kukoa Diorec to work their way into varsity action this season.
“We don’t have the depth we did last year, so it’s important they step up,” Reemtsma said.
The Kards did suffer heavy losses at sweeper in Max Dye and goalkeeper in Trsitan Landry due to graduation. Reemtsma said the goalie position is still up in the air and Kenai is working on changing its style to adjust to the loss of Dye.
The coach said the team still wants to be state champions, Division II or otherwise.
“If we do things right, practice hard, focus and train hard, it’s right there within our reach,” Reemtsma said. “Nobody is going to give it to us.”
Deever maxed out at 14 players last season, but had to play a few games with just eight as injuries and grade checks took their toll. This year, the number is up to 20, drastically increasing the chances the Bulldogs will field a full side each game.
“We’re still young and team-building, but we have most of our players back from last year and we have a very promising freshman class,” Deever said.
The Bulldogs had one win last season. Deever would like a few more this season, and would like the team to be competitive against squads like Homer and Soldotna as the season wears on.
Up front, Deever is very excited about the combination of freshman Gavin White, sophomore Michael Mysing and senior Luck Broussard.
Mysing has shown his skill at comp soccer, Deever has coached White for a while and is very impressed, and Broussard returns after missing last season with an injury.
On defense, Deever said sophomores Hammie Cox and George Napoka, and junior Cody Handley should put up a solid front.
Junior Shane Weathers will shore up the midfield, while Deever also likes the potential of Cooper Stock and Trevor Mysing.
“I’m excited for the season and curious to see what the freshmen and sophomore groups do together,” Deever said. “It’ll be exciting in the next couple of years as these kids begin to grow up.”
Phillips, buoyed by a strong freshman and sophomore class, is excited to have 19 players on the team. Last year, numbers were so low that the Seahawks played a junior varsity schedule.
The returning seniors for Seward are twins Case and Simon Estes, Egor Sturdy, Joel Williams and Brandon Lynch.
“We’re got pretty good leadership there,” Phillips said. “We’ve got a nice, solid base. All those guys have played since seventh grade.”
The coach is also looking forward to seeing sophomore John Moriarity on the field this season.
Phillips knows toppling Kenai, Soldotna or Homer will be a big task.
“This year we have to be realistic and know those teams have a solid, big group of seniors who have been playing together for a while,” he said. “Next year or the year after when our freshmen and sophomores will be a little more mature, we can be a little more competitive and maybe sneak in a berth to state over the next two or three years.”
After a down year for numbers last year at 26, the Stars are up to 40 this season. That’s a good thing, eventually.
“I’ve got 40 kids in the gym with soccer balls at their feet,” Byerley said. “It can fray the nerves.”
Byerley said he has a team with plenty of motivation after the Stars narrowly missed out on a third state berth in five years last season.
“It did leave the group of boys that are now seniors hungry for redemption,” the coach said. “Hopefully, they’ll avoid the senior slump that sometimes occurs when a team that’s had success in the past doesn’t want to work as hard to do well.”
The senior group is led by Eli Sheridan, a first-team all-conference player. It also includes Luke Trammell, Sean McMullen, Sam McElroy, Gavin Goggia, Ethan Bott and Chase Miller, who is in a four-way battle for the goalkeeping spot.
Another intriguing senior is Cody Quelland, who will try his hand at goalkeeper when he is not playing for the baseball team.
Sophomores Eli Wackler and Cameron Johnson got valuable experience as starters last season, while junior Ben Snow also got some seasoning.
A group of 17 freshmen have injected life into the program. Freshman Josh Heiber scored twice in the opener against West Valley, while Byerley said fellow freshmen Zach Burns, Jose Montague and Trenton O’Reagan can contribute.
Byerley said assistant Erik Dolphin coached a bunch of the freshmen on a comp team that won state a few years ago. Also assisting Byerley is goalkeeping coach Horst Haunold.
“We’ve got a large group of seniors and many of them are two- or three-year starters,” Byerley said. “This is when they want to bring it.”