The Kenai Central High School hockey team lost a little bit of its swagger after dropping the North Star Conference tournament championship game to Wasilla Saturday, but the Kardinals are hoping they can turn the defeat into motivation as they prepare for the state tournament this weekend.
Competition in the state 4A hockey championships begins today at the Big Dipper Arena in Fairbanks. The Kardinals will open the tournament against the Dimond Lynx at 12:45 p.m.
The Homer Mariners also head to Fairbanks for the state tournament and will face Tri-Valley in the Greatland (small-schools) division semifinals at 5:30 p.m. Friday.
"I think a major goal was regions. With that not going our way, I'm worried we're thinking about it too much," said Kenai's Trevor Baldwin, adding that he hoped his teammates would be motivated to prove themselves again, rather than sulking about their tournament seeding.
In fact, heading into the state tournament as the NSC's second seed, the Kardinals must face Cook Inlet Conference runner-up Dimond, a team they lost to last month by a score of 5-1, instead of the CIC's No. 4 team, Chugiak, a team they beat 3-2 this season.
"We could've had an easier shot or a harder shot (to advance in the tournament). We've got the harder shot," said Kenai's Dustin Moore.
In taking the harder shot, the Kardinals know they will have to play their best if they hope to be the first team from the Kenai Peninsula to advance on the winners' side of the bracket. The Kardinals lost their opening-round games in three previous state tournament appearances. Soldotna is the only other peninsula team to have qualified for the tournament, but hasn't won an opening-round game either. Both squads have won consolation bracket games.
"Our forwards will have to play really good defense, our defensemen will have to do their job, and our goalies have to do their job really, we have to play good defense all the way around," said Kenai's John McGlasson.
This year's state tournament, the Kardinals' third straight, will have a different feel as Kenai won't have the luxury of home ice with the competition moving from the Soldotna Sports Center to Fairbanks. While it will be hard for fans, friends and family to make the trip north, Baldwin said that bringing some hardware back to the peninsula would be a nice way to say, "Thank you for the support."
McGlasson said Kenai would be very motivated to make amends for a disappointing finish at the conference tournament with a strong showing at state.
"I hope we can make a run at it. It's our senior year, last shot. I hope to have something to remember besides losing at regions," McGlasson said.
"We have a drive to win," said Kenai's C.J. Henley. "We got beat, so we want to win now. We don't like getting beat. We're hungry.
"(Falling behind in the first period against Wasilla) woke us up. We started playing really hard. We played with more drive than we did the whole year. Hopefully, we can carry that into state."
The Homer Mariners have plenty of momentum to carry into the Greatland division of the state tournament, which is being played together with the 4A tournament this season.
"We'll get to interact with other teams and watch a lot of other games," said Homer coach John Butcher. "It will be neat to be a part of the whole thing."
Butcher said it also will be nice for his team, particularly his seniors, to play in a big venue in front of a nice crowd.
"They're excited. People get a chance to finally see them play hockey," Butcher said.
The Mariners play Tri-Valley Friday. Butcher said he expects a tough game, but also said his squad is up to the challenge. A win Friday would send the Mariners to the state title game with top-seeded Houston the favorite in the other semifinal.
"We'd like to bring the trophy home," Butcher said. "Our guys know we can do it. We've played both teams we'll be facing, and we competed strongly against both of them. If we go in and play our game, we have a chance to walk away with the whole thing."
Butcher said the whole team would be making the trip no injuries, illnesses or otherwise ineligible players.
"The whole team is ready and prepared. We've been working all season long to get to this point. We're going to head up there as a team to try to get it done," Butcher said.
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