After winning a game at the Class 4A state tournament for the first time in school history a year ago, the Soldotna girls soccer team is looking to repeat as Northern Lights Conference champions in 2011.
The Stars return a core group of players from the 2010 squad, which defeated Wasilla in the NLC title game and in a consolation game at state, and feature one of the area's top players in senior Kaili Sholin.
Yet coach Mike Tovoli isn't placing his squad atop the conference pecking order -- at least not yet.
"We need to prove we are a team that can repeat as region champions," Tovoli said. "Every game people will bring their 'A' game, so the bottom line is we need to bring the aggression day in and day out and match that intensity."
Kenai Central, Homer, Skyview and Nikiski are among those seeking to dethrone the Stars, and the coaches of those squads each expressed optimism leading into the season.
The Kardinals missed state by one goal last season, when 15 of the 20 players on the team were freshmen and sophomores. Coach Dan Verkuilen said the squad returns experienced and confident.
The Mariners have 45 players in the program, up from 32 in 2010, giving them added depth and more weapons than previous seasons, something coach Tommie CarlinSchauer believes will translate to success.
"We are going to be so much better this year," he said.
The Bulldogs boast an all-league goalkeeper in senior Angie Parrish and return all but four players from the 2010 squad.
Meanwhile, Panthers coach David Carpenter expects a successful campaign after his team qualified for regions for the first time in four seasons in 2010.
"I think we're going to be very competitive with every team in our division this year," Carpenter said.
Perhaps Verkuilen put it best when asked to assess the NLC, saying, "It's going to be a dogfight all season."
Here's a closer look at teams from the central Kenai Peninsula:
If there's a bright spot for Nikiski coach Mandy Adair, it's the depth of her team.
Adair, entering her third year, said it was a struggle to fill the lineup sheet in previous seasons because she didn't have 11 starting-caliber players.
That's not the case in 2011.
"I have been pleasantly surprised at the depth," Adair said. "In previous years I kind of have had a top nine or so and would fill in spots. This year we have a solid 11 and three or four girls who can come in and we won't miss a beat."
The Bulldogs lose four seniors -- Tyler Mabrey, Jessica Samskar, Maggie Braun and Hillary Bogard -- all of whom were starters.
Mabrey and Samskar anchored Nikiski's back line a year ago, meaning the focus now is to solidify the defense.
Adair said junior Kelsey Williams and sophomore Krystal Hamman, a transfer from Kenai Central, are front-runners to fill those slots.
However, Williams went down with a knee injury earlier this week and her availability is up in the air. Adair called Williams the squad's best field player.
"That would be a huge loss," Adair said. "If it's season-ending, there will be a starting spot that people will be fighting for."
At forward, the Bulldogs will be led by sophomores Tessa Lewis and Bailey Buchholz, and junior Dyann Wick.
Also expected to see serious playing time are Britany Tuttle, Minna Bogard, Brittany Scott, Kinsey Martin and Koey Dixon.
Then there's the return of three-year captain Parrish, who gives the Bulldogs a reliable stopper in net.
"I really don't even have to think about it, having someone so solid back there," Adair said. "I just know Angie is going to do a great job and be a leader and let people know where they need to be."
Last season the Bulldogs earned a No. 3 seed to the conference tournament, but were eliminated in the first round by Colony. Adair believes the squad can improve upon that finish.
Even on the phone, CarlinSchauer's optimism was evident.
Homer's coach is thrilled to have 45 players in the program -- up from 32 in 2010, 22 in 2009 and 16 in 2008 -- and believes that number will translate to victories on the pitch.
The Mariners are young, losing four seniors, but they also return a group of players who started on a consistent basis last year.
"The program is growing big-time," CarlinSchauer said.
Leading the way is senior sweeper Lizzy Needham, who will be expected to shoulder much of the load. The supporting cast includes sophomore midfielders Sarah Andrews and Hope Hudson, junior defenders Meaghan McCallum and Maggie Bursch, and sophomore goalie Caroline DeCrept, among others.
Throw in a generous crop of newcomers, and CarlinSchauer has a team he believes will hold its own against the league's best.
"We are going to surprise some people," he said. "It's going to be 10 times better than last year."
Expect a possession-type game from Homer, CarlinSchauer said, with the returning players coming in stronger and smarter than last year.
The coach wants his squad to control the ball, a style he likened to European soccer, and play meticulous.
A .500 record is achievable, the coach added.
"We're going to have a nice squad," CarlinSchauer said.
With eight returning seniors, Skyview will rely on experience and athleticism.
Carpenter said his team entered camp in peak physical form, which should serve it well during the early portion of the schedule.
Among the senior leaders are Rebecca Egan, Alicia West, Tamlyn Silva, Megan Janorschke, Carol Clonan, Caity Marang, Caitlin Baker and Annita Braun.
All of them will be relied on to fill the void left by the departure of last year's senior leaders -- Monica Hutchison, Kassy Ferganchick and Jessica Stewart.
"That's a big hit because they were a solid core," Carpenter said.
The arrival of Amanda McDowell, who also plays volleyball, gives the Panthers a No. 1 goalie. Last season Braun and Egan shared duties in net, but neither of them considered it their top position, Carpenter said.
With McDowell on the squad, Egan and Braun will be free to play their positions of choice.
"I don't think either of them ever dreamed of being a goalie, but they helped me out last year," Carpenter said.
Carpenter also is excited by the potential of junior Hannah Hutchison, a wrestler, as well as left-footed sophomore Nicole Tromblee.
The coach said he is preaching fundamentals at this juncture, and he wants his players to be the first to the ball when games begin.
He expects to challenge Kenai Central and Soldotna atop the division standings.
"I think it's going to be great. Last year we were beginning to get that attitude that we could be competitive. We never really got blown away, and I think that gave them some confidence," Carpenter said. "This year they have a little swagger in them. They have better aim in their shots. It's like waking a sleeping bear in a way. We'll see what happens."
Kenai Central Kardinals
It's state tournament or bust for Kenai Central.
"I don't think we will be satisfied with anything less," Verkuilen said.
To get there, the Kards must receive significant contributions from a group of underclassmen. Of the 16 players on the varsity roster, only two are seniors -- captains Allie McGahan and Shelby Toombs.
Taylor Ostrander, Christiana Garcia and Vanessa Anderson are juniors who Verkuilen said give the Kards added experience.
"We are a young team, but we've got a lot of experience out of our young kids," the coach said.
Verkuilen said he's close to finalizing a starting lineup, something that's coming together thanks in part to a recent trip to The Dome in Anchorage, where the team scrimmaged.
That allowed Verkuilen to get a closer look at the players -- in a game-type setting.
The squad's practices up to that point had been inside a gym, making it hard for the players to learn each other's nuances.
"Inside a gym with 30 girls, there's not a lot of room to spread out," he said. "It's just about becoming familiar with each other. For some of them, it's the first time they will be playing together."
Verkuilen believes the Kards will be a strong offensive side, producing many goals if they play to their potential.
Until the season begins, Verkuilen added, the emphasis is to maximize the use of practices and maintain a competitive atmosphere.
"They are focused on challenging each other daily in practice," Verkuilen said. "I tell them, 'Don't let practice be a waste of time. You have an hour and a half in the gym and need to max out the time.'"
The Stars are aiming for their third conference championship in four years, a season removed from their first state-tournament victory in school history.
SoHi figures to be strong again.
The graduations of Shana Powell and Emily Rohloff leave two holes at central defense and midfield, respectively, and their replacements have yet to be determined. But the Stars have quality returners in seniors Kaili Sholin, T'essa Tovoli, Erica Bylerly and Kaiti Van Meter.
The talent of that quartet, coupled with the experience the supporting cast gained during the postseason run of 2010, means the bar is high.
"Every year is different, but I am expecting a lot from the girls this year," Mike Tovoli said. "Until they step on the field, though, you never know."
Basketball players Becca Satathite and Katelynn Kerkvliet are battling for the starting goalie position, giving the Stars two capable stoppers.
Tovoli also expects solid play from Julie Litchfield, Phoebe Napolitano, Kylee Woodford, Heidi Westerman, Jordann Nelson, Molly Fenton, Christina Tachick and Sydney Goggia.
"Those young ladies have to prove they can contribute quality minutes," the coach said.
Getting off to a good start is something Tovoli said is critical if the squad wants to repeat as champs.
Since the season is only a month long, a string of early season losses could kill postseason hopes. The coach doesn't want to see his team play lethargic or get complacent simply because of last year's success.
"As I told them, this could be their third region title in four years," Tovoli said. "They know what it takes to get there. They know what they need to do as individuals, and they know what they need to do as a team."
, and return experienced and confident, said coach Dan Verkuilen.
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