Perhaps the motto on the I.D. tags that Kenai Central High School hockey team managers passed out after Wednesday's practice says it best: Small bird, big attitude.
The Kardinals may be the surprise team to be representing Region III in the Alaska School Activities Association State 4A Hockey Championships, but they enter today's 7 p.m. opening-round game against East with a little bit of swagger after knocking off arch-rival Soldotna in the North Star Conference tournament semifinals.
Kenai was overpowered by Colony in the championship game, but the Kardinals are still riding the wave of emotion from their victory over the Stars.
In other first-round games today at the Soldotna Sports Center, defending state champion Chugiak plays Region III champion Colony at 10 a.m., Region IV champion Dimond faces West Valley at 1 p.m. and Lathrop plays Service at 4 p.m.
Also today, the Nikiski High School squad travels to Brett Memorial Ice Arena in Wasilla to face Delta Junction at 4:30 p.m. in the first round of the Greatland Hockey Conference Championships.
"They seemed kind of dazed Monday and Tuesday, letting it all sink in," Kenai coach Brian Gabriel Sr. said of the Kardinals' preparations for their first trip to the state tournament.
"They haven't stopped smiling. They're kind of puffed up a little bit, but I think they deserve it."
"Who would have imagined -- it's the weirdest felling still having hockey to play," Kenai senior goaltender Steven Campanella said. "We've got one more chance to play in front of the home crowd. It's a great thing."
The Kardinals played East once this season in November. Kenai was tied 1-1 with the Thunderbirds late in the final period, but East scored three goals over the last three minutes for a 4-1 victory at the Peninsula Ice Challenge.
"We played them close, and I think that's an advantage for us," Gabriel Sr. said. "The kids know they can skate with them. It was so long ago, I don't think it's a good indicator of how we'll do, but mentally, I think that will help us out."
Kenai, which finished the regular season with a 12-14-0 record, will be following the same strategy that earned it the trip to state last week.
"We just have to put on a tight forecheck, hit and pin them against the boards. We have to score when we get the chance to score," said Kenai senior defenseman Jack Darsey. "Playing a really tight forecheck works well for us. The puck squirts out and we get scoring chances."
Dimond enters the tournament on tear, winning the Anchorage High School Hockey Association tournament championship game 5-1 over East (14-11-0). The Lynx, 19-4-1 overall, are on an 12-game winning streak.
Service, ranked No. 1 in the high school coaches' poll, enters the tournament with a 21-3-0 mark, while No. 3 Chugiak is 15-9-1 entering today's competition. Colony is 16-4-4.
While the Kardinals have matured as a team since playing East in November, Kenai's players are aware that East has been coming on strong as well.
"They've had just as much time as we have to prepare and change things up," Campanella said. "I think from the first drop of the puck, it's going to be whoever's up and ready to go at it -- whoever wants it the most."
Campanella said that his teammates were both nervous and excited on the eve of the tournament.
"It's exciting knowing that we're here at a state championship," Campanella said. "It's always a bonus to play at home. You go in feeling like you've got a leg up."
Nikiski enters the Greatland Hockey Championships as the sixth seed in the seven-team tournament. The Bulldogs, 5-16-1 overall, match up against the Delta Junction Huskies, who finished in third place at 8-3-1 in the conference standings.
Top-seeded Houston (12-0-0 in the conference) earns a first-round bye. No. 2 Kenny Lake went 9-3-0 in conference play, No. 4 Glennallen was 5-7-0 and Tri-Valley went 4-8-0 in conference play. Seventh-seeded Monroe was winless (0-12) in conference play.
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