The phrase, "That's soccer in Alaska," is quickly becoming synonymous with "That's life."
Soccer is in its fourth season as a varsity high school sport on the Kenai Peninsula, and coaches have become adept at making the most of the resources available while the snow melts off the playing pitches -- that means practices in the gym, running in the hallways, workouts on the beach and drills in the parking lot for players dreaming of green fields.
"We haven't seen green grass. We've been working (in the gym) on striking skills and passing skills," said Nikiski girls coach Richard Kelso. "Any coach wants to be training on the facilities they play on, but this is Alaska ..."
The beach at Kenai has become a popular substitute training facility, offering plenty of room to spread out during a cooperative low tide.
"We spent a few weeks indoors, getting the rust off," said Kenai girls coach Dan Verkuilen. "We just got out on the beach this week. The tides were right. It's been good to be able to spread them out."
Teams from Skyview and Soldotna also have ventured out onto the beach during low tide.
"It's very nice of them to share. Kenai has been very generous with their beach," Soldotna girls coach Katie Tongue said.
As the quality of soccer on the Kenai Peninsula continues to improve from year to year, learning to use the whole field -- spreading out -- has become more important to the teams' game plan.
Instead of just knocking the ball long and then chasing it -- kick-and-run soccer -- players on the peninsula have developed the technical ability to control the ball and make accurate, short passes, a much more entertaining style of play.
"Every year, the quality of play gets better and better than it used to be," said Skyview boys coach Dave Carpenter. "The quality of play in the defensive end is where you should see improvement. I've been encouraging my fullbacks to be aggressive offensively."
A ball-control attack allows a team's defense to push forward into the opponent's end of the field, while defenders usually have to hang back in a kick-and-run situation because the strikers, more often than not, aren't able to control the long balls and the other team has the opportunity to counterattack quickly.
For a team to play a ball-control game, though, every player on the field has to have the skill to settle the ball quickly and find an open teammate with a pass. It's a more complicated game to play, but with more and more players coming to high school programs with playing experience, it's a strategy that has become more feasible for area coaches to employ.
It does take a long time for players to unlearn old habits.
"I was hoping to see it more from my team (Thursday)," said Skyview girls coach Tony Lewis after an informal scrimmage against Soldotna on the Kenai beach. "We do it in the gym and look real good, but as soon as we get on a big field outside, we lose it. There's a definite improvement, but it's not where I'd like it to be. It's a product of playing here. Plus, kids here don't watch soccer."
"Everybody has a good sense of the field -- or the basketball court, anyway," Tongue said. "It's been nice to get out on the beach and stretch. We weren't sure what to do with all that space."
Still, being able to hold the ball will be important for the peninsula teams when they take on the region's highly skilled squads from Colony and Palmer. The Kenai boys and girls teams both adopted the style to clinch berths at last year's inaugural state tournament.
"I think Colony is the team to beat," Lewis said of the Region III girls competition. "Palmer should be good because it's got its two best players back, and Kenai should be good again -- they should be the team to beat on the peninsula. I think SoHi will surprise some people, though."
On the boys side, Colony should again be the team to beat, but everything else is based on rumors and assumptions from last season's performances.
"Everybody's in that seclusion stage," Carpenter said. "Once everything gets rolling, it's going to be interesting."
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