Making the Alaska School Activities Association State 4A Hockey Championships is still a big deal.
But with plenty of players with state tournament experience on their rosters, both the Kenai Central Kardinals and the Soldotna Stars are hoping to be able to say a little more than, "Just being there was nice," when the tournament concludes.
"We've never made it past the first round. We've never been on the right (winners') side of the bracket," Soldotna coach Pat Nolden said. "That's one thing our team is aware of, and that's a goal."
Indeed, the Stars have qualified for their third trip to state in the past four years, but have yet to win a game. The Kardinals made their first trip to state two seasons ago with similar luck.
"It's a little different. I'm a little more excited," said Soldotna senior Derek Martin of playing in his third state tournament. "The last couple times, we came in a little intimidated.
"This year, things are more evenly matched. We want to play competitive games."
Nolden said the Stars are in a great position for that to happen when they face Dimond today at 7 p.m.
"It's the prime time game, we're playing the state tournament at home, and we're the underdog," Nolden said.
"Anchorage teams look at this game as a lay-up until they play each other again. We'd like to give them a battle."
Nolden said with Kenai facing East at 4:30 p.m., there should be a rollicking crowd in the Sports Center to support the home teams.
"It's SoHi-Kenai," Nolden said. "Kenai fans are going to linger over for our game, and SoHi fans are going to get there early to see Kenai. Hopefully, we'll have a big crowd."
The Stars have played Dimond twice this season, both close losses. Martin said he actually liked the way the seeding worked, pitting the Stars against the Lynx as opposed to the Thunderbirds.
"We always play a good game against Dimond," Martin said.
Nolden said the difference between the Stars and the Lynx is depth.
"They have three solid lines, quality defensemen and goaltending," Nolden said. "All their kids are Midget A level. We have five or six (Midget A-level players), and the rest are hard-working role players. If we can outwork them, get a few breaks, we could do well."
The Kardinals also have played their first-round opponent this year, but took a beating at the hands of the Thunderbirds.
"They shellacked us," said Kenai coach Brian Gabriel Sr. "We just didn't have an answer for their top line. They're great players that handle the puck well.
"I'm glad we played them -- we've worked on the things we'll need to do to shut those guys down -- get good goaltending, and tighten up in the defensive zone."
Kenai also would like to play more than two games in the double-elimination tournament.
"The seniors on this team have been working hard, and we'd like to have a win, if we can, while we're here," said Kenai's Adrian Borchgrevink. "Last time (at state) was not a good showing, going two and out."
Gabriel Sr. said the key for Kenai would be to build on the momentum of winning its first region title last weekend.
"Both games we won were come-from-behind wins," Gabriel Sr. said. "It's good to see that kind of character at this point in the season.
"The boys didn't panic. Against Colony, they were calm after the first period. They felt like they were still in the game. It was the same thing against Soldotna. That's something we need to build on as we go into state."
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