The biggest news to start this year's high school soccer season may just be that the season is actually starting -- for the first time in several seasons, the first week of the season hasn't been postponed while teams wait for snow to melt.
"It actually feels like you're playing soccer, albeit a little cool and a little windy," said Kenai Central girls coach Dan Verkuilen. "But we'll take it."
Not all of the peninsula's six high school soccer programs have been able to get onto their fields just yet. Seward got a big dump of snow just before spring break that had finally melted away late last week and the Seahawks were practicing in a parking lot.
The pitch in Homer had just thawed last week, so Homer girls coach Mickey Todd figured the team's first games this weekend in Juneau would be the first foray onto a full-sized field for the Mariners.
On the central peninsula, teams have spent varying amounts of time outside. The Skyview boys have had several practice sessions at Soldotna Middle School because their home field still was icy, and the Nikiski teams had been outside a little bit, but were still waiting for their field to be playable.
Kenai and Soldotna both have been able to practice on their fields. That's a pleasant change from past seasons, when the entire month before the first game was spent in the gym or on the beach, trying to simulate a live game.
"The ground is still hard, but it's starting to soften up," Verkuilen said. "It's been dynamite to be able to spread (the team out) and put them in position, and use the large spaces to demonstrate things, especially where we're trying to introduce a lot of new kids."
Skyview girls coach Tony Lewis, whose team began play Friday and Saturday in the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, said knowing the first games were most likely going to happen as scheduled had helped his team focus through preseason workouts.
"Now the kids have a goal they can work toward. It's not just something out there that's going to happen sometime," Lewis said. "It will also help in the long run. Now we can play games and have practices.
"One of the things that's happened in the past (due to postponements) is that we've played all our games in a row, and we never have time to work on things (between games)."
A chance to tweak things midseason could be crucial as most coaches are expecting the competition for the peninsula's four Region III tournament berths to be tight.
The Soldotna boys won the region tournament last season, and the Kenai boys finished third for their third straight trip to state.
"It'll be a dogfight through the peninsula," said Skyview boys coach Dave Carpenter.
The Nikiski boys notched a win and a tie against perennial region powers Wasilla and Colony last weekend, and coach James Coburn expects competition on the peninsula to be just as tough.
"I think all the peninsula teams will be skilled," Coburn said. "Mat-Su teams found out last year that peninsula teams are skilled now, and we can actually provide some good competition for them. I don't see any peninsula teams being any easier."
On the girls side, the battle for the four peninsula region berths should be just as intense. Homer made it through to state for the first time last season.
"Girls soccer on the peninsula has improved greatly -- the skill level, and knowledge and concepts of the game have improved greatly," Todd said, adding that exposure to the sport before middle and high school is helping to boost skill levels at the varsity level.
"Regionwide, kids just have more playing time before they get to high school. The soccer association in Homer has done a great job of that."
"You can never underestimate anyone," Verkuilen said. "As a whole, the region is getting tighter. Soldotna has a lot of good returning seniors. Homer usually has a strong, aggressive team. Between Skyview, Nikiski, and Seward -- you never know. It's who progresses. All teams start with talent, it's a matter of who puts it together in the right way."
The following is a team-by-team look at the peninsula's high school soccer programs:
Coach Mickey Todd said the excitement from last year's state appearance is evident this year -- at least in the coaching staff.
"We look at the kids and feel we're a better ballhanding team," Todd said. "Our speed and our improved ballhandling are going to make us a better team than last year.
"Of course, we have a really small team. We don't have any depth -- we only have about 16 players."
Seniors Holly McCune, Libby Bushell, Lillian Sloth and Heather Strutz all were starters on last year's team and will provide leadership for this year's squad.
"We're looking to have a good season if we can stay away from injuries," Todd said. "It just comes down to being able to win conference games."
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
With nine of 11 starting positions open, coach Dan Verkuilen said it's been an exciting preseason.
"We're basically putting a new team together. Getting it to work is a fun challenge," Verkuilen said. "For a lot of (this year's players), soccer is their first love. They're sponges right now, and anything you can feed them, they're ready to soak it up."
Seniors Janna Krein and Rachel Knowles are the only returning starters from last year's squad. Verkuilen even is working with a new assistant coach in Brad Nyquist after former assistant Tim Peterson took an administrative position with the school district this year.
Verkuilen also has the services of seniors Katie Burck and Letecia Haynes, along with a couple exchange students.
Juniors Heather McIntyre and Krista Jackson are out for the team, but Verkuilen said his depth lies with the freshmen and sophomores, who have speed to burn. Among the freshmen vying for varsity spots are Kassi Kiel and Kelsey Brewer, who are competing to start in goal for the Kardinals.
"It's one of those years where we've got a group of girls that want to do well and want to get it done," Verkuilen said.
The Bulldogs lost a good portion of last year's squad to graduation, but coach Richard Kelso said that just gives a young team incentive to work harder.
"It just means the kids are enthusiastic and young and keen to get out there," Kelso said.
Returning seniors include Rainy Reilly and Emily Grimes, and Kelso said he had a great turnout for the team this season with a lot of talented freshmen.
Amber Delago saw varsity time last season, and Kelso is hoping she and her fellow attackers will be able to find the back of the net.
Other newcomers expected to contribute include freshman goalkeeper Sarah Herrin and senior exchange student Hisa Miyara, who Kelso said has some excellent skills for someone who claims to have never played the game before.
Kelso said the opportunity for so many younger players to have a chance to develop during the course of the season will be exciting.
The Seahawks will rely on the leadership of senior Nalani Kasischke and juniors Elsa Gaule, Emma Siegel and Kristin Beck this year.
"With those four, they're going to lead this group anywhere they want to go," said coach Laura Beck.
Katie Daubney is back with the Seahawks after missing last season with an injury, and Ann Linville is competing for a spot protecting the woodwork. Annaleah Beck also is expected to make a big contribution.
"We have a really nice group of sophomores and freshmen that haven't played a whole lot but are hardy and willing to get in there," Beck said.
Beck said she has 19 players on the roster, and she attributes the low numbers to the perennial problems Seward has with getting onto a field. She added that the players that truly love the sport always come out for the team.
Also on the Seward roster will be Maddie Elde, Lexie Blankenship, Julie Kenick, Katie Ernst, Jennifer Perry, Jessi Nelson and Teal Hetrick.
Beck also will be working with a new assistant coach in Jennifer McDonald.
Beck said the only problem during preseason training has been several cases of road rash from practicing in a parking lot.
"It's hard to have them slow down and be safe when all they want to do is get out and play," Beck said. "It's going to be a strong group -- very cohesive."
The Panthers lost Jamie Beever to a foot injury before the season started, but coach Tony Lewis has several other seniors on which he can rely.
Jenny Carpenter is back to anchor the defense and midfield, and Lewis said Ann Verba started to come into her own toward the end of last season. Other seniors include defender Chelsea Holden, goalkeeping prospect Morgan Lyons, Alecia Wood, and Amber Zuck, who returns after sitting out last season.
Lewis said midfielder Anna Evanson and forwards Ashley Waldrip and Marina Holt, all juniors, should make some key contributions. Sophomore Ginny Berg has demonstrated a knack for scoring goals, and classmates Jaime Miller and Amber Kunz are ready to step up to the varsity level. Sophomore Laura Smith is competing for time in net.
Lewis said he was pleased with his team's performance in a preseason jamboree with Homer, Wasilla, Soldotna and Kenai.
"I think a lot of teams are going to be pretty competitive," Lewis said. "Homer and Soldotna are going to be the standout teams, but a lot of other teams are going to compete ... the rest of us are really going to have to battle it out."
Coach Katie Tongue said she was excited by this season's prospects under the leadership of seniors Jennifer Senette, Sam Penner and Erin Wolfe.
Juniors Ricki Jackson, Abby Kiffmeyer and Abby Penner also return from last year's squad.
"We have a huge squad of freshmen that are very enthusiastic, hard working and love soccer," Tongue said. "A couple will be playing with varsity."
Heather Sinclair, a freshman, already has played defense with the varsity squad.
Sophomores Katey Jones and Stacey Foster also will provide some steady play.
"They look really, really good," Tongue said of her squad. "I hope they get some of the success they deserve. Hopefully, we'll see some balls in the back of the net. They're working great together, and there's a lot more support around the field."
Coach Ed Kelley said his team has a great mix of seniors and underclassmen this year, led by senior captains Ivan Bucher, Cam Poindexter and Van Hawkins. Seniors Giuseppi Ricciardi and Wes Busby also are returning letterwinners.
"Basically, we lost one senior from last year," Kelley said. "It was a difficult year last year, but the dividends are going to pay off this year with experienced sophomores and juniors."
Kelley expects junior Monte Garroutte and sophomore Nate Riedel to be key contributors, and added that several freshmen, who came up through Homer's club program, will make an impact.
Kelley has set lofty goals for his squad after the Mariners failed to earn a region berth last season.
"We want to return Homer soccer to where it was a couple years ago," Kelley said. "We've always been successful. Last year was disappointing, but it's fed the competitive instincts for this year."
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
The Kardinals graduated 10 seniors last year and lost three more potential starters, two to injury and one to comp hockey, but coach David Landry does have five players with tons of varsity experience lining up in the middle of the field.
Micah Lillard was the team's second-leading scorer last season while Cory Whitely, Chris Amen and Zack Hicks all saw time in the midfield. Cory Janson returns to anchor a defense that has been the Kardinals' strength over the past few seasons.
Landry said a couple of transfer students, Jacob DeCloot and Randy Reamer, have shown an awful lot of talent during preseason workouts, and as usual, a couple of freshmen, Kyle Lapz and Josh Fell, have turned heads.
Landry also is hoping for contributions from Matt Myer, James Haddock, Grant Wisniewski and Tyson Joliffe, all players that have been around the program for a few years.
Also, Tyler Morris has shown promise in goal while Marcus Reemtsma joins the team after running track last spring.
Landry said longtime assistant coach Pete Ehrhardt returns to the sidelines, and added that a return trip to the state tournament remains the team goal.
"That's our whole focus," Landry said. "Our program has enjoyed considerable success. We've tried to simplify the game and make it a ball control game. We've been able to come out of the region tournament -- one of these years we'd like to win that doggone thing -- but (making state) is going to be our goal every year."
Nikiski already has played three games, and the Bulldogs are 1-1-1 against some good competition.
"We actually started kind of slow because we didn't have a field to practice on," said coach James Coburn. "We had a lousy first game, but we've got a really strong group of seniors. When they're all on the same page they really work well together."
The Bulldogs lost playmaker Brad Harrison to injury in the first game of the season, but a solid corps of seniors includes starters Rustin Hitchcock, Nathan Smith, Joey Wicker, Josh Winters, Kevin Gerke and John Rooper. Steve Carlson and Richard Hilleary, both seniors, also will be called on for contributions.
Coburn said the Bulldogs have a really strong group of sophomores and several skilled juniors. Nick Russell, a junior, scored three goals against Colony while sophomore Travis McGahan had a big assist and made a defensive save in a win over Wasilla.
Other sophomores to crack the Bulldogs lineup are Robert Doty and Travis McCaughey, and junior Jeremiah Taylor will be vying for some varsity time after impressing Coburn in his first season of soccer.
Coburn said more than 50 athletes came out for the team this year.
"For a 300-kid school that's amazing," Coburn said. "The first year I did soccer, I had 15. Kids just love the sport. Through Boys and Girls Club or competitive league in the summer, 99 percent of kids that try the sport love it, and love for the sport drives interest."
No information was available on the Seahawks when the Clarion went to press.
The Panthers have some talented underclassmen to go with a good group of returning varsity players.
"Quite a few (returning players) started last year," coach Dave Carpenter said. "We've got to find a new center midfielder, and a new sweeper, one fullback and a new goalie, but everyone else steps into where they (played last year)."
Returning seniors include Matt Mataresse, Mitch Burdick, Mike Sturm, Keith Massey, Sean Reeves, Jeremy Mercer and Jacob Oliver. Exchange student Johan Granvik adds to Skyview's corps or seniors.
Juniors Jacob Gauthier and Chatchay Apaipak should make some key contributions, and sophomore Trevor Barber saw some varsity minutes last year.
Carpenter said Matt Stalnik, a sophomore transfer from Chugiak, might just be "the most competitive keeper we've ever put in there."
Carpenter said the skill level of incoming freshmen continues to improve, though it sometimes takes a little seasoning before underclassmen are ready for varsity.
"I think I've got some very talented underclassmen," Carpenter said. "I don't think they can keep up physically with some of the seniors, but they're more skilled."
The defending region champion's roster will be filled with new faces this spring.
"We lost lots of key starters from last year, but we have some younger guys that did real well on JV last year that hopefully will be stepping it up this year," said coach Jeff Siemers.
Seniors Chris Houglum and Peter Kim and junior Johnny Mills are the only returning starters from last year's team. Siemers said his newcomers have yet to distinguish themselves, but he's hoping that by the end of the season, several will have stepped up to the challenge.
In the meantime, the focus will be on coming together as a team and improving from game to game.
"I think they have it in them if they decide they want to do it," Siemers said. "We've got some expectations to live up to from last year, and we want to try to keep that going."
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