Kenai boys soccer players are framed by a melting snowbank as they practice last week. Kenai's fields have melted but they're still wet.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Starting later has always been an issue.
Now starting behind is beginning to overshadow that.
While Kenai Peninsula soccer teams are confined to practicing in school gyms while the snow melts away, squads in Anchorage are already playing regular season games on the artificial turf of the Anchorage Football Stadium.
Also at their disposal is the Wasilla Multi-Use Sports Complex, which opened in 2004, and the recently constructed 174,290 square-foot SportsDome at ChangePoint, which offers up to eight practice fields as well as the only regulation-size indoor soccer pitch in Alaska
“Anytime you can get on a field-like situation it’s a huge difference,” said Skyview girls coach Ronnie Kier. “You can’t simulate real games in a gym. There’s just no way to do that, and they can play year-round, which is another huge benefit.”
Soldotna soccer players Becky Warton and Rose Houglum do ball-handling drills in the gym last week. Snow and standing water has kept some teams indoors this season.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The consensus amongst the remaining peninsula coaches was exactly the same.
The vast opportunities -- including offseason club teams -- afforded to players in Anchorage puts them at another level.
“The ability of Anchorage and Valley schools to practice in indoor facilities really allows them to build on team strength and team play,” said Seward boys coach Brendan Smith. “Being confined to small gym spaces really doesn’t allow that opportunity.”
“It’s really hard to compete with. The kids can play through the winter,” added Nikiski boys coach Jim Coburn. “Because of the indoor facility there, they’re able to keep their foot on the ball throughout the whole course of the year. But that’s a big advantage.”
In his eighth season at the helm of the Kenai boys, David Landry said he has long advocated for a similar situation on the peninsula.
“It’s a dramatic advantage,” he explained. “I see warehouse buildings ... that I think would be wonderful if we could get somebody to sponsor us and clear it out and put a field turf inside. Just a place to kick a ball.
“You’re not going to improve unless you have the ball at your feet,” Landry added. “Like in basketball, you don’t get any better unless you have the ball in your hands.”
Despite playing in a smaller and less soccer-enthused community than Anchorage, Landry believes such a facility would still succeed in the area.
“If you build it, they will come sort of scenario,” he said. “Even if you had 100 feet wide by 200 feet long it would be just great to have anything. Most of these kids up in Anchorage and in the Valley, they’re playing year-round. In years past, that really set them above and beyond what we were ale to attain in such a short season, especially when your relegated to being indoors for such a lengthy period of time.
“It would probably raise the skill level 30 to 50 percent,” Landry added. “That would be a very safe assumption.”
For the time being, however, teams with no such opportunities have been resigned to gyms and are just now taking advantage of the warmer weather.
While the Homer boys and girls traveled to Grace on Saturday, most peninsula teams begin play this week.
But all of them will be playing later into the year.
The Alaska Schools Activities Association added an extra week to this year’s season, meaning the state tournament will culminate after graduation and most teams won’t be playing three games in as many days.
At least not as much as in the past.
“Last year, our schedule, because of bad weather, turned into nine games in 12 days. That was pretty rough,” Nikiski girls coach Tom Bennett said. “Hopefully we’re going to be having one or two days off between games now.”
Coburn agrees with his counterpart and said Kenai and Soldotna should be the top boys teams in the area.
“It will be a battle. There’s a lot of good teams in the conference right now,” he said. “Kenai’s got good senior leadership and some great players on their team. Kenai and Soldotna were both strong last year.”
The Kenai girls are looking to make it back-to-back-region titles after dethroning defending two-time regional champion Homer last season after the Mariners advanced to state three of the previous four seasons.
The Soldotna girls are also seeking a third consecutive trip to the region tournament and with a strong senior class and a talented group of youngsters, the Stars should be back in the thick of the hunt.
“We’ve got a lot of good returners,” said SoHi girls coach Jimmy Love. “We’ve got a lot of girls new the program that I think will add some depth. Their soccer skills and knowledge will add to it.”
Following a heartbreaking defeat at the region tourney last season, the Kardinals are looking to qualify for the state tournament for the first time since 2002, the last of three straight trips to the big dance.
Kenai came within 20 minutes of doing so last year, leading Wasilla 1-0 in the second half of a third-place regional contest before the Warriors knotted the game and eventually won it on a penalty shot.
“We know that we could have finished that one and gone on to state,” Landry said. “It was very, very close and the boys played hard.”
Having started nine sophomores at one point last year, the Kardinals certainly have the experience to make a run at it again.
Led by senior returners Tyler Smith, Jake Malanaphy, Josh Werba, Chad Moore and four-year starter Dusty Ward, Kenai should have a potent offense.
“He’s probably the best midfielder on the peninsula. He’s just a quality, quality player,” Landry said of Ward, who will control the game from the center midfielder position. “He’s just solid all the way around. We look to him to kind of set the table for a lot of people. He can control the game and he can literally take the game over when he gets in that zone.”
They also return three-year starting goalie, junior Justin Wisniewski, who Landry believes is one of the best keepers in the state.
“We only are going to go as far as our goalkeeping can take us and we’ve found that out over the years,” he said.
Other key returners include juniors Cory Toombs, McKenan Steinbeck, Jeremy Narlock and Devin Boyle.
But don’t count out the freshman class, which includes Justin Calhoun, AJ Ewing, Oliver Kiech, Michael Morin and Barry Norwood.
“These are guys that are just a little cut above the rest of the freshman class,” Landry explained. “Some of these boys are going to be ready for the physicality of the high school game.”
In Jeff Siemers’ first season as head coach in 2002, the Stars captured the region title.
And despite a fairly young squad this year, Siemers is rather optimistic.
“I definitely hope we’ll be able to do better than the last couple of years,” he said. “Having quite a few freshman that saw some varsity time last year I think will help us this coming year that they’re sophomores now. We graduated (only) three seniors and that will help us as well.”
Senior returners Brook Carver and Christos Asimakopoulos will be relied upon to control the midfield while sophomores Kyle Van Ryzin, Matt Grubb and Anthony Griglione will be looking to build off their freshmen experiences. Returning sophomore Dan Gellar will probably be the starting goalie.
“Overall, that they’ve played with each other for a good amount of time through the comp season as well as last year in high school season will hopefully create some chemistry for us,” he said. “I think we’ll do well as long as we can continue to play with all 11 on the field and play as a good unit.”
Returning after a one-year layoff, Panthers’ coach Dave Carpenter is reverting back to the basics.
“We’ve been trying to work on ball touches and I think that’s what they needed more last year,” he said. “We’re trying to get them back into a nice passing game. We’ve been spending a lot of time just working on that.”
Having coached Skyview to consecutive state tournament appearances in 2004 and 2005, the first resulting in a third-place finish, Carpenter stepped down prior to last season when the Panthers went 2-10.
Despite low turnout for the team and a highly competitive conference this season, he expects his boys to be in the thick of the state tourney race behind talented squads from Wasilla, Kenai and Soldotna.
“It’s going to be a fun year. I’d never count us out,” he said. “I think there’s two teams out of the peninsula that are going to make it out of regions.
“I think we have the talent this year and somebody should step in and do quite well,” Carpenter added of peninsula teams. “We’ll give it a shot. Why not us?”
Looking to make that a reality are returning seniors Buck Kunz, Jake Bauer, Tanner Hansen, Brad Mallett and Zach Walgenbach and juniors Eric Dolphin and Jake Walgenbach.
“It’s a really a unique group. That group of kids, Jake and Buck and Tanner, were freshmen and sophomores at both state runs,” he explained. “They learned the game well. They’ve got a lot of experience and it’s kind of their turn to take over and do what they can. Plus they just love the game, therefore I think they’ll do real good.”
However, Carpenter is in a bit of a quandary with his keeper situation.
The job is up for grabs between Hansen, juniors Richie Shirnberg and Ryan Wehrli and senior German exchange student Ben Wild.
“We’ll find one,” he said. “But trying to get him outside and starting to get work in before we actually start playing is going to be tough.”
The Bulldogs are coming off a successful season in which they advanced to the region tournament.
But with three freshmen and four sophomores slated to start this season, Coburn, entering his 11th season, said this could be a rebuilding year.
Leading the team will be returning seniors Kenny Fagan and Shane Hardesty, juniors Josh Vance, Paul Delago and Nick Kellie and sophomores JD Hall, Wiley Bennett, Ian Krogseng and Beau Calderwood.
Freshmen Josh Hall, Calvin Williams and goalie Jordan Harrison will also be counted on to contribute if the Bulldogs hope to qualify for regions again.
“He’s been working really hard and doing a great job,” Coburn said of Harrison. “He actually won the job over two upperclassmen. I expect big things from him.
“I do have some other seniors who just didn’t play varsity last year,” he added of his team’s depth. “It’s definitely a young team. We’re going to be young for the next couple of years.”
Earning their first win in at least the last two years last season was monumental for the Seahawks’ program, according to Smith.
Now he’s hoping to build off that.
“We only lost four players from last year so we have really strong team, most of which are sophomores,” he said.
Led by returning seniors Kipp Dixon, William Clock, Logan MacDonald and Alex Cloward, who was second on the team last season with five goals, Smith is encouraged with this team’s potential.
“I’m really optimistic about this season,” he said. “I have a feeling that a lot of teams might underestimate us this year given our record last year. But in reality, three or four of those losses last year could have gone either way.”
Returning to help steady the ship are juniors Jonathan Lo, Matt Worabel and Alan Logan and sophomores Andy Cloward, Caleb Earl, Mike Zweifel, Pyper Dixon, Tyler Haddow and goalie Josh Zimmerman, who started every game as a freshman.
“I played keeper in college (Colgate University) and he has skills that I never had as a freshman in high school,” Smith said. “I went to camp after that and got better. I hope he does the same. In terms of raw talent, he’s a very good athlete.”
First-year junior Thomas Witthake is also looking strong, Smith said.
“I’m really excited for this player,” he said.
Mariners’ coach Pam Fogg said her juniors held back last year, despite possessing massive potential, because they weren’t seniors.
In their final year now, she’s expecting them to shine.
“We have a solid group of seniors this year. They were the kids that had the knowledge and the skill last year but held back because they weren’t the seniors,” she explained. “It’s a good core group and they’re working real well together and all have real positive attitudes.”
The Mariners have also been fortunate to get outside a little earlier than most teams.
“We’ve got a beautiful 20 acres on the back side of the harbor. We painted out a field. It’s gravel, but dry space,” Fogg said. “We’re getting a feel for the size of the field. In previous years, we don’t step outside until we go to Grace. We try to play on a field when we’ve been tapping the ball to each other in a gym for two months.”
Out with a shoulder injury last season, striker Keith Bell is returning for his senior season in top form.
“He’s going to be our scorer,” Fogg said. “We missed him. He’s back and he’s looking strong and he’s taking that leadership role really seriously.”
Other returners include seniors Beto Cosio, Peter Walsworth, Garrett Hoanin, Kevin Christianson and Levi Ryan, juniors Aaron Lewis, Haven Multz, Ethan Martin, Lance Cahoon and Sam Satre and sophomore David Buckley, who started several games as a freshman last season. Fogg is also excited about freshman Mark Walsworth.
But perhaps the most promising player is junior goalie David Sandoval, who is from Ecuador.
“He has incredible, cat-like responses. He’s just got great ball sense and he’s probably played since he can walk,” Fogg said. “He’s just got perfect positioning. He’s talking to the kids and they’re responding because they realize he knows exactly what he’s talking about.”
She’s just hoping everything can come together.
“We’re definitely looking to have a really good year. I’m very optimistic and the kids are working hard,” she said. “They’re optimistic as well. They’re all about having fun and working hard. They’re not holding back at all.”
The Kardinals return just four starters from last year’s region championship team.
“We had a senior group that pushed each other a lot,” Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said. “It was a neat deal. It was kind of contagious with the younger kids. This year we have as much skill as we did last year with the younger kids coming up. Last year was one of those years where we had the varsity experience.”
Verkuilen said he will be counting on senior captains Taylor Brewer and Devon Copple to fill in the leadership gap left from last year.
In addition to finding leadership, Verkuilen must shape an almost totally new lineup starting with Thursday’s game against Grace Christian.
“I’m in the dark until I see everybody out there in the big space,” Verkuilen said. “I can see who moves well, who moves together. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”
Copple, senior Kari Frates and sophomore Kaylee Grant figure to make up a big part of the defense that protects goalies Kyla Steward, a junior, and Lacie Wortham, a sophomore.
Brewer will start at center midfield. Others that could join her in the midfield are senior Rebekah Summer, senior Katie Foley and sophomore Shelby Daly. Some of those midfielders also will see time at forward.
The Kardinals must replace a big scoring punch from last year because they lost two forwards to graduation, a forward to injury and another forward to a move out of town. Verkuilen is hoping for a boost from freshman Casey Coupchiak.
“As far as a shooting team, we’re as good as we’ve ever been,” he said. “There’s no replacing speed. We’ll see how that all pans out.”
The Stars advanced to the region tournament in Love’s first two seasons as head coach but lost 1-0 to Grace last year.
He’s hoping his experienced group of seniors and juniors and talented freshmen can lift them over the hump this time around.
“We have a little bit from every class that’s got something to offer this year, which is good for long term growth as well,” he said.
But the team may only go as far as senior midfielder Lauren Senette takes them after earning all-region honors last season.
“She’s one of those girls that everybody kind of looks to her for where to go, what to do. She’s a silent leader,” Love said. “She’s got great ball work. She’s got a confidence about herself and her game.”
Alongside Senette are returning seniors Whitney Ischi, who was out with an injury last season, Mikala Smith, Jenni Stenga, Rainy Sirouis and Liz Rohloff. Junior goalie Becky Warton will be returning to block shots between the pipes.
Forward Jordan Love also had health issues last year but is expected to return strong for her junior campaign.
Love is also hoping for big things from sophomores Jessi Stenga, Holly Perkins and Monica Maryott, all of whom are skilled players, he said.
“They’ve got good minds. They think about the situation they’re in before they’re ever in it,” Love explained. “So they usually don’t end up getting themselves caught. They never give up. They keep going and going and going.”
Freshmen Jenna Redford, Shana Powell and Emily Rohloff are also expected to contribute, as are first-year seniors Jenna Fowler and Leah Swan.
Led by fourth-year senior Nicole Van Ryzin, the Panthers are out to win more than two or three games this season, a mark they’ve attained in Kier’s first two seasons at the helm.
The difference this year, though, may be in the field.
Scheduled to host eight home games last season, Skyview was forced to hit the road when spikes remained in the field from the Arctic Winter Games. By the time the snow thawed, the regional tournament had already arrived.
“Our first home game was the first game of regions and we played on the football field,” Kier said. “Those girls deserve some home games and hopefully the field will dry off quick enough to where we will get some this year.”
Patrolling the field from the center-midfield position, Van Ryzin will captain a rather veteran squad.
“She’s pretty much our leader. Just like basketball, she’s solid,” said Kier, who also coaches her on the hardwood. “She just does the right things, makes the right decisions and is in the right spot at the right time.”
Other returners include seniors Chelsea Martin, Ariel Mercier and goalie Chantal Schefers and juniors Amanda Millay, Mallory Millay and Joanna Graves.
German exchange student Claudia Sohns is new to the team, but seems to be fitting in well, according to Kier.
Also out for the team is track athlete Jennifer Holland.
Numbers will play a key role in the success of the Bulldogs this year.
After not winning a game last season, Bennett is working with 18 girls for the upcoming campaign -- and most of them are freshmen.
The lone returners are seniors Claire Bennett and Jessica Bowlin and juniors Rachel Bogard and Jennifer Lukassen.
“They will be the core of our team,” Bennett said.
What will probably decide the team’s fate is the play of the 10 freshmen vying for playing time. More importantly, though, is how well freshman keeper Hailey Driver adapts to the high school game.
“We have high hopes for her. She played middle school goalie and really likes playing goalie and really wants to learn,” he said. “She’ll probably see quite a bit of action.”
Nikiski opens the season in less than two weeks at Wasilla and has just recently began practicing outdoors.
After going 2-4 last season, the Seahawks are scheduled to play eight games this year and have 30 girls out for the team.
As far as second-year coach Myla Liljemark is concerned, that’s progress.
“The word is getting out that soccer’s fun. I’m looking forward for even more girls coming out next year,” she said. “It is the most popular sport in the entire world. It’s important that it is popular in Seward, too.”
One highlight from last year’s campaign was a 2-0 victory over Nikiski, the first in school history, Liljemark said.
Looking to build off that are returning seniors Janessa Anderson -- who led the team in goals last year -- Juno Prochazka, Erin Moore and Angela Bailey.
While she hasn’t chosen a keeper yet, Liljemark said the battle is between junior Samara Johnson and sophomore Daryn Repasky, who played goalie last year.
“I don’t know which one will be playing keeper because they’re both awesome,” she said.
She also said she has a position for every girl on the roster, another welcoming predicament to be in.
A disappointing setback in the first round of last season’s regional tournament may serve as motivation for this year’s Mariners’ squad.
After a stellar 12-1 regular season, Homer lost to Palmer in its opening game of regions.
Coach Mickey Todd thinks that may take the target off their backs for the time being, after claiming region crowns in 2004 and 2005 and placing second in 2002.
“Nobody will be aiming for us because at tournament, we didn’t even show up,” he said with a laugh.
But with three seniors who have traveled to state twice, placing fourth in 2005, the Mariners may be the team to beat.
Captains Claire Siekaniec, Katherine McCarron and Erika Gavenus all know what it takes to get back to the top.
“They have been playing since they were freshmen. They’ve won two region crowns,” Todd said. “Those three seniors have played in the state tournament twice out of the last three years.”
Having been named the Most Valuable Player of Region 3 last year and finishing second by one vote two seasons ago, Siekaniec will be expected to lead Homer once again.
“She’s a strong player. She’s a leader on and off the field for me. She understands the game of soccer well and has real good ballhandling skills,” he said. “She loves to play. She’s a great soccer player.”
McCarron remains a stalwart in goal, starting her fourth straight season between the pipes.
Also returning are seniors Kristin Vantrease, Jenny Merritt and Rachel Bornheimer and juniors Emily Kizzia, Marin Lee and Hannah Andrews.
With 40 girls in the program, Todd has a plethora of talent to choose from.
“We have a good turnout from our freshmen and sophomores,” he said. “We’ve got good numbers and good athletes.
“That’s always our goal is to make it to state which means we have to be in top three in the region, which means we can’t get eliminated in the first round,” Todd added. “Besides that, we have a strong group of kids.”
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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