Last year showed the perils of picking a Northern Lights Conference Southern Division soccer champion in the preseason.
Soldotna was riding high with three straight state championship appearances and had then-senior Blaine Carver, who won the Gatorade state player of the year as a junior.
Kenai Central, a program with a Kenai Peninsula-leading five state appearances, returned 13 seniors.
But it was Nikiski, which had not won a division title since soccer became a varsity sport in 1999, that rode the strong goaltending of Jordan Harrison to glory.
"Who, before the season, would have called that one?" said Kenai coach David Landry.
The Bulldogs return eight starters this year, but the graduated Harrison is not one of them.
"I don't see a solid favorite," Nikiski coach Jim Coburn said.
Skyview coach Rustin Hitchcock also said the division is wide open. He said that it is typically hard to pick a champion, but this year the graduation of players like Harrison, Carver and all those Kenai Central seniors makes a savvy pick even tougher.
"Every game matters because it is such a short season," Hitchcock said. "If you don't happen to step up to the plate and take a day off, you could find yourself in trouble."
The division has six Peninsula squads, but they play each other just one time. The top four teams in the division advance to the conference tournament.
With division games starting the last week of April and the state tournament slated to start on May 26, a bad start to the season can mean a quick end to the season.
"Once the games get rolling, momentum starts carrying you one way or the other," Soldotna coach Jeff Siemers said. "You don't have a lot of practice time to get the team to start doing something different."
Last year, the Peninsula did not qualify any boys teams for state for the first time since 2006.
The following is a closer look at five of the Peninsula teams:
The Mariners finished fourth in the division last season before losing in the first round of the conference tournament. Fourth-year coach Warren Waldorf is optimistic about what his mix of returning starters and key newcomers can accomplish this season.
"The players are enthusiastic, and they're working hard," Waldorf wrote in an email. "I can't imagine a more exciting group of students to coach. If this young squad can find a game to call their own in a hurry, they'll be fine."
Homer enjoys a heavy slate of home games this year, with eight of its 11 games slated for friendly turf. Three of its five division games will be at home.
"We've got a bunch of home games this year and want to play well for our fans and for those who travel so far to play against us," Waldorf wrote.
The returning starters for Homer are senior forward Bjorn Klaar, senior defender Robert Lewis, junior forwards Robin Glosser and Lewis Koplan, junior defender Andre Lovett, junior midfielder Kyle Wisner, sophomore midfielder Carson Duggar and sophomore defender Konstantin Reutov.
The key newcomers are senior forward Ismail Mohamed, junior forward Burl Tonga, sophomore goalie Grant Arseneau, sophomore midfielders Ethan Kizzia and Connor McCarron, freshmen defenders Quinn Daugharty and John Walsworth, and freshman midfielder Mario Glosser.
Kenai Central Kardinals
Landry returns just three players with significant varsity experience, but he is confident the strength of his program will allow the Kards to reload quickly.
Landry said assistant Justin Carr does a good job of getting the players in shape. Assistant Wally Ward is in charge of player development, while Joel Reemtsma does goalie training. Both Ward and Reemtsma are graduates of the Kenai program.
"Those guys can get the kids' attention," Landry said. "I'm a crusty, old guy anymore."
Senior James Watkins will play goalie after seeing some time in the varsity net last season. Senior midfielder and forward Avery Palchikoff and junior defender and midfielder Evan Atchley also return.
Landry said one positive thing about losing an entire team of seniors is that most of this team got a chance to play together last year at the junior varsity level. The coach also said this could be one of those years where foreign exchange students give the team a boost in talent.
"The coaching staff is really high on the kids," Landry said. "We've been in the gym for seven weeks and we haven't heard one complaint."
Despite the lack of varsity experience, the Kardinals will have to hit the ground running. Kenai's first four games are against Southern Division teams. Kenai also has just three home games this season.
Coburn has a ton of experience to follow up on the division championship of a year ago.
The eight returning senior starters are defender and midfielder Sam Taylor, defender Kovy Harbick, midfielder and defender Wesley Smith, defender and midfielder Ari Bennett, forward Nathan Stangel, midfielder and defender Jayden Tumbaga, midfielder and forward Stefan Krogseng, and midfielder and forward Tyler Peek.
"I don't think the kids have pressure," Coburn said. "They just want to go to the next level. If they put the work in, I think they'll get there."
A sign of the strength of the program is that the eight seniors aren't even guaranteed starting spots.
"We've got a great group of sophomores and I started a freshman at defense in the first game," Coburn said.
One key to the season will be goalie Kaden Spurgeon, a junior.
"He's never played in goal, but he's doing really well," Coburn said. "He's a great athlete."
Other key contributors will be junior midfielder Doogan Seater and junior midfielder and forward Camron Lott.
Rustin Hitchcock is looking for improvement after the Panthers went without a win last year.
"This year, we definitely made an upgrade," Hitchcock said. "We're more athletic and we have more speed even if the foot skills aren't quite there yet."
The coach said his key returners are junior Brad Guth, and sophomores Sam Janorschke and Preston Penrod. Hitchcock also is happy to welcome senior Jacob Brown to the team.
"We're really getting the athletes to focus on the sport and commit fully," Hitchcock said.
The coach said momentum will be key, both in each game and in the season.
"Every single game we want to get out to an early lead and capture the momentum," Hitchcock said. "We need that positive reinforcement."
In his 10th year, Siemers must figure out how to deal with the graduation of Carver.
"We'll need to be able to score goals and not depend on somebody who is not there anymore," Siemers said. "We had some good goal scorers last year, like his younger brother Cory, but other teams keyed on Blaine so much it made it easier for other players."
Siemers said key seniors will be midfielder Tate Syverson, defender Dawson Pearson and midfielder Daniel Koch.
"We haven't played at all together as a group," Siemers said. "It will be important that we come together as a team."
Cory Carver, a forward or midfielder, and Cameron Grothe, a midfielder, both received playing time last year as freshmen. Junior midfielder Dagen Walton was the lone sophomore on the team last season.
More experience comes from senior defenders Matt Fellman and Josh Stinnett. Senior Cody Vandehey played goalie last year and will play goalie or help in the field this year.
"We're coming in fit as a team," Siemers said. "Most of the players play other sports, so they have a fitness level they are able to bring to soccer."
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