Members of Skyview High School's soccer team practice at Sunrise Park in Soldotna last week. Snow and water has kept Skyview from using its own field.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Kenai Peninsula high school soccer teams have gotten used to cramming a two-month season into five or six weeks over the past few years. The good news for this year's teams as they prepare to jump into competition is that many of them have had opportunities to practice outdoors on a full-sized pitch before their first scheduled game.
"With this wonderful weather, how could we not feel good?" said Nikiski girls coach Richard Kelso. "We were surprised to actually get out on our field the past few days. ... We're miles ahead, learning on a field (instead of in a gym)."
Not all teams have been as fortunate. While the Panthers have found some space to get outside, Skyview boys coach Dave Carpenter reported the fields to be somewhat glaciated where ski trails cross the pitch. In Homer, boys coach Mike Olsen said his squad has been practicing at a local church, and Soldotna's fields hadn't been deemed playable through last week.
The Stars played a match against Grace Christian at Anchorage Football Stadium last week #&151; their first foray out of the gym #&151;and boys coach Jeff Siemers said the transition from gym to field always takes a little while.
"It's good to get out of the gym, be able to spread out and see what you're made of on the field, but it's always an adjustment going from four walls to a nice big, green area," Siemers said.
Coaches on the peninsula reported high turnout for soccer teams this season, and skill levels continue to improve as the peninsula's players are playing the game before entering high school and playing with club teams outside of the high school season.
"It's gotten nothing but better with all the peninsula schools," said Nikiski boys coach Jim Coburn. "My seniors, a lot of them started playing when they were in elementary school. ... I think that all the teams seem to improve every year. It seems to get tougher and tougher to qualify for regions."
While Olsen said he expects his Mariners to be the team to beat in the boys competition this season, Carpenter expects his squad to be right in the thick of things in Northern Lights Conference (formerly Region III) play.
"I honestly feel we've held that spot for a couple of years, where everybody's shooting at you," Carpenter said. "I think it's helping the peninsula as a whole that we did have that breakout year. It will be a horse race between us and Homer. I'm excited for that game."
The Homer girls are the defending conference champions, and coach Mickey Todd said the Mariners were ready to defend their title, though he said it wouldn't be easy.
"Kenai is always tough and SoHi is always tough. I'm not sure what Skyview will bring, and Nikiski has always played us tough," Todd said.
The following is a team-by-team breakdown of the NLC's Southern Division:
The Mariners opened the season with a 3-1 win against Grace Christian on the Anchorage Football Stadium turf.
"They're eager to try to defend their region title," said head coach Mickey Todd. "We definitely didn't play a great game against Grace, but we showed a lot of composure and experience."
The Mariners will be led by seniors Bailey Lowney, Amanda Conley and Katie Gavenus.
Underclassmen returning from last year's roster include sophomores Claire Siekaniec, Katie Arno and Erika Gavenus, and junior Kyenna McKinstry. Kathryn McCarren, a sophomore, will be back protecting the goal for the Mariners.
"We've got some good incoming freshmen #&151; three or four will see a lot of playing time #&151; so we're actually a young team, but we have strong seniors in Katie (Gavenus) and Bailey," said Todd.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said he's excited about the mix of players this season.
"It's a really good, cohesive group of girls, and they all seem to have the common goal of trying to get out of regions this year," Verkuilen said.
Verkuilen also likes the leadership he sees this year as players have been stepping forward and communicating with their teammates.
Chelsea Harris and Keely Boyle return to captain the Kardinals. Other seniors include Rochelle Stretch, Karlyn Remsen and Jessica Summer.
Returning juniors include Haley Mishler, Branda Gabriel, Kelsey Brewer and Samantha Calderwood, and Verkuilen also expects contributions from a group of sophomores, including Taylor Brewer, Whitney Ischi, Katie Foley and Samantha Navarre. Junior Kassi Kiel will be back in goal for the Kardinals.
"It seems like we have a good, solid first team and a lot of depth," Verkuilen said.
Head coach Richard Kelso has veteran squad to put on the field this season.
"I'm optimistic with having so many seniors that have been in the program for a number of years. They've been working well together for the last year or two," Kelso said.
Returning seniors include Teena Patterson, Krystal Gladden, Racheal Gerke, Whitney Hitchcock, Amber Delago, Kristen Frederic and Jenni Garrison.
Sarah Herrin will be back in goal for the Bulldogs, and Kelso also expects contributions from returners Stacey Griffel, Jackie Palm, Amber Huhndorf and Clare Bennett.
"We're enthusiastic, optimistic and ready to start playing," Kelso said. "They are just raring to go."
First-year coach Ronnie Kier has a large group of seniors and juniors to work with, making things a little easier as he takes over the squad.
"The girls seem to know what they're doing. It makes it easier for me because I don't have to sit there and explain things over and over," Kier said.
Kier expects Amber Kunz to play a key role with the Panthers' attack while Cady Bon, Kim Massey and Laura Smith will anchor the defense. Ginny Berg will hold down the midfield for the Panthers.
Splitting time in goal will be Jenny Andrus and Chantal Schefler.
Jimmy Love, in his first season coaching the Stars, said he inherited a program in very good shape #&151; his job is to continue to keep it going in the right direction. Love said he's been able to fill holes left by last year's seniors with players from the junior varsity squad and some talented freshmen.
The Stars opened the season with a win at Grace Christian last week.
"We played great, which was very exciting, and hey, we got to play outside finally," Love said. "I think we were a little anxious, a little nervous for our first game outside, but we pulled it together very well and escaped with a win. It was a really great way to start the season."
Key returning players include Lauren Senette and Tory Coursen; Love expects Katie Mills to make an impact and will rely on Stacey Foster and Katey Jones for both their skill and leadership.
Players jumping into the varsity lineup include sophomores Rainey Sirois, Jenni Stenga and Mikala Smith, as well as freshman Jordan Love.
The Stars will field a very athletic team #&151; most players on the roster play several sports at SoHi #&151; and Love is looking forward to getting going with the rest of the season.
"We'll see where the season takes us. I'm hoping we do well," Love said.
Coach Mike Olsen has high expectations for his team this season after opening the season with a win over Grace Christian.
"As far as I'm concerned, we're the team to beat. It's up to the kids how we're going to perform, but if (the game against Grace) is an indication, we're going to be all right," said Olsen.
Returning players include seniors Joe Hoanin, Whitney Cushing, Tim Walsworth and goalkeeper Taber Webb, and junior AJ Isenhour. Brazilian exchange student Francis Carvahlo has made an impact, and Olsen has several players making the jump from junior varsity to varsity this season.
Other players expected to contribute this season are Beto Cosio, Keith Bell and Garrett Hoanin, as well as John Scheffler, Carmen Ricciardi, Dylan Toole and Matt Satre.
"I think we have some potential. It's really up to the kids as to what effort level they want to put in, and what commitment level," Olsen said.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
Kenai Central coach David Landry said his team might be the darkhorse of the conference.
"We're a pretty young team this year. We could be classified as a total unknown," Landry said. "We're having to pretty much reload and rebuild from back to front."
The Kardinals have just three returning seniors in Cory Whiteley, Ryann Hansen and Marcus Reemstma. Junior Ju Kim and sophomores Dusty Ward, Chad Moore, Chris Hall and Tyler Smith saw playing time last year, and Landry said he has a nice group of freshmen, though it may take a few games for them to adjust to the pace and physical play of the high school level.
The Kardinals are looking forward to a road trip next weekend for games against East and Grace Christian on the Anchorage Football Stadium turf.
"Because of our youth, it may take a while to get over the awe of playing on that surface, but they'll learn. It should be a fun time for them, and I'm hoping that little road trip will get us together as a team," Landry said.
"I'm real enthusiastic. By the time regions come along, we believe we'll be a team in the mix for everything."
Coach Jim Coburn said he has a large group of seniors to work with this season.
"It's one of the better groups of seniors I've worked with as far as work ethic and behavior," Coburn said.
Coburn said the team would be adorning their jerseys with American flags this season to show their support for area National Guard members who have been called to active duty, including the team's assistant coach Troy Zimmerman, Will Schwenke, who is the father of John Schwenke, a player on the team, and Ken Felchle, a Kenai Middle School teacher.
Returning seniors include Robert Doty, Travis McGahan, Ben Kellie, Joe Keith, Schwenke, Travis McCaughey, Jared Mazurek, Zack McIrvin and Brandon Reid. Senior Lance Penhale, playing his first season of high school soccer, is in the mix, and juniors Israel Blatchford and Jordan McCaughey round out the starting roster, with Rick Miller and Corey Smith seeing time in goal.
The Panthers opened their season with a trip to Juneau, and while their record is 0-2, coach Dave Carpenter said playing in a competitive tournament has its advantages.
Carpenter said his team, which placed third in the state tournament last season, will be a senior-led squad. State tournament all-stars Trevor Barber, a midfielder, and goalkeeper Matt Stalnik are back to lead an experienced squad. Also returning are Kyle Eshleman, Sean Mallette, Corey Fowler, Gabe Fellman and Richard Derkevorkian. Tyler Thornton has been playing well, and Carpenter is counting on sophomores Buck Kunz and Jake Bauer to fill some gaps.
Carpenter credited Jason Smith with a great state tournament last season, and is excited about the prospects of freshman Erik Dolphin. Tanner Hanson has proven a solid backup for Stalnik in goal.
"Here we go again. It's going to be exciting this year," Carpenter said. "It's going to be pretty good soccer, and the behavior's been good, so it should be interesting and competitive this year."
The Stars are led by a strong junior class this year that includes Kevin Laurion, Brennan Jackson and goalkeeper Kory Wilbanks, while seniors Brennan Best and Garrett Gardner should provide leadership.
Coach Jeff Siemers is relying on several sophomores to fill supporting roles, including Christos Asimakopoulos.
"It's a fairly young team overall, but one that's beginning to play pretty well with one another," Siemers said.
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