Some peninsula soccer coaches are not happy with a new division system that they said gives Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna valleys teams an advantage in qualifying for the Region III tournament.
The new system, which takes effect this year, divides Region III soccer teams into two divisions.
The South is made up of Kenai Peninsula teams Homer, Seward, Kenai, Soldotna, Skyview and Nikiski. The North is made up of Colony, Wasilla, Palmer, Houston and Grace Christian.
Teams will now qualify for the region tournament based on their record within the division, not within the region. Four teams from each division qualify.
This means two teams get left out from the South, while one gets left out from the North. This also means that traditionally weak teams such as the Houston or Grace Christian boys and girls are guaranteed a spot in the tournament. In the tournament's three-year history, neither team has ever qualified for state.
"I know we weren't too pleased with it," said Homer girls coach Mickey Todd. "We have stronger teams here than there overall.
"Either Houston or Grace gets an automatic bid, and that's not fair, really."
According to Chris Perk, the athletic director at Homer, the new system is in response to the difficulty teams have getting in all their games every year due to fields that often aren't playable until late April or early May.
Instead of having to schedule all the teams from the other division, teams will just schedule two games against teams from the other division. These two games will have no bearing on who goes to the region tournament, except possibly in the case of a tiebreakers.
Having to schedule only two nondivision games will cut down on the hectic travel it takes to press all the games into May.
"I can see the part where they're cutting the number of games," said Kenai girls coach Dan Verkuilen. "We're always scrapping like crazy to get them in."
Verkuilen also said those nondivision games will be good for practice before the division games count.
The benefits of the system are already becoming apparent this year.
Because scheduling was done before the new division system came in place, all teams are scheduled to play 10 region games this year.
However, since most fields still aren't playable, teams are now canceling nondivision games instead of rescheduling them.
"It's nice because it takes the pressure off," said Rich Houghton, Seward's athletic director. "We don't have to squeeze all those games in anymore."
However, Verkuilen also is disappointed with the new system. He'd like to see peninsula schools get to keep playing quality Valley schools like Colony so the peninsula can continue to learn quality soccer.
"To me, it seems like it's designed to allow teams in the North to play more games against Anchorage teams," Verkuilen said. "That eliminates some of the opportunities schools have down here to play quality teams."
The spring soccer season has forced coaches to deal with many awkward things, including practicing in a gym, playing some games in muddied Valley fields using tennis shoes, and playing three games in two days at the region tournament.
It appears the division system is just one more thing they'll have to live with.
"I don't know if I could say it's fair or not fair," Seward girls coach Laura Beck said. "We have an odd number of teams. What are they going to do?"
BOYS TEAM BY TEAM OUTLOOK
The Mariners field a young team this season, with just one senior in goalkeeper David Bell.
Coach Ed Kelly expects his team to improve, though, as it acclimates to playing at the high school level.
"I've coached a lot of these players in club ball, so they've been coming up with me for a while, but it's a whole different level now," Kelly said.
Returning defenders include Van Hawkins. Monte Garroutte moves into the midfield joining Cam Poindexter and Zefren Christiansen. Ivan Bucher also returns to the Homer midfield while Llosh Winne pushes forward alongside Wes Busby.
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
The Kardinals return plenty of experience from last year's state qualifying team, starting with a solid back line and building forward.
Eric Nyce returns to mind the net for the Kardinals, a task made easier with the defensive trio of Wally Ward, Marcus Webster and Cory Janson patrolling the field in front of him.
Carlos Carreon returns to anchor Kenai's midfield with plenty of help from Richard Alexander and J.D. Pault.
Up front, Adrian Borchgrevink, the team's leading scorer, should continue to scare opposing defenses. Joining Borchgrevink on the front line will be Owen Brewer and Nick Barnes. Micah Lillard also has provided a spark up front.
"Most of these guys played the majority of last year," coach David Landry said. "We have a good nucleus of guys that have been playing in our system, and a real large freshman class that bodes well for the future."
Landry said the Kardinals will continue to emphasize their ball-control attack, building from the back.
"We're not going to be a surprise to anybody, Landry said. "We're always going to try for ball control. The short passing game, that's the sort of game that breeds success."
The Bulldogs suffered an early setback when a vandal turned their recently-cleared soccer field into a race track, but Nikiski has managed to get a good foothold on the start of the season.
"We're ready to go," coach James Coburn said.
Coburn said that some of his veteran players opted not to return this season, but the team is well-stocked with talented underclassmen.
"We have some pretty promising freshman that should help us out, but it will be more of a rebuilding season," Coburn said.
Returning veteran players include sweeper Nigel Penhale, along with Brandon Huhndorf, Wayne Aitken and Tony Aitken. Josh Winters, an all-region performer last year, will be back in goal for the Bulldogs.
Rustin Hitchcock, Joey Wicker and Kevin Gerke will provide more veteran leadership while Nick Russell and Miles Jorgensen are younger players Coburn hopes will be able to put their skills to use. Ryan Swanson and Nathan Smith also could make an impact on the Nikiski lineup.
"The main reason some of them are going to see some varsity time is that their skill level is a lot better than freshmen we've had in the past," Coburn said.
"We still have a young team this year, mainly sophomores and juniors, but they're looking good," coach Marvin Tapsfield said. "It's a short season, so they're going to have to do some fast developing."
The Seahawks will look to seniors Robbie Blankenship, a goalkeeper, and Ryan Gaule, a fullback, for leadership on the field.
Juniors Keith Wolfe, Nic Schafer and Matt Ernst and sophomores Blake Pullins and Scott Hubbard round out Tapsfield's core group of players.
"Those are my key players I'm going to build the team around," Tapsfield said. "We're not a real strong team right now, but we're going to build as the season goes along and we can get a couple games under our belt."
Coach Dave Carpenter has broken up practice sessions in the gym by sending his players out to break up the field, chipping away at what was the base of the ski trail that crisscrossed the Skyview field.
Carpenter has a good group of returning players to build around, including goalkeeper Josh Rowell and defenders Mike Sturm, Ely Evanson and Sid Cox. Matt Matarrese also will be counted on for contributions.
"We dedicated a lot of time to getting into shape. We've been doing a lot more running than in the past," Carpenter said.
Carpenter said the Panthers will work on maintaining possession in the attacking end.
"We've got some kids that seem to be working well together," Carpenter said. "We'll try to work on ball control up front. Defensively, we should be alright."
Carpenter said that 17 freshmen came out for the team this year.
"Of them, there's three that are going to compete for varsity positions," Carpenter said. "They might get their cage rattled a little bit when they find out the intensity (of varsity soccer), but they're definitely skilled players that can walk in and make a difference."
First-year coach Jeff Siemers takes over a talented and skilled Soldotna side.
"I've been real impressed with their teamwork and unselfishness," Siemers said. "They've done a real good job with their one-two passes, and they're real unselfish, which will help us."
Siemers will rely on Anthony Murray and Ben Histand to anchor the midfield, along with Peter Kim and Chris Houglum.
Johnny Mills is expected to make an impact at forward, and Matt Meacham and Scott Laurion will anchor the defense in front of keeper Adam Kiffmeyer.
"I'm new to the area, so I'm beginning to learn about the rivalries and the tough teams," Siemers said. "We're just out to play soccer and do the best we can."
GIRLS TEAM BY TEAM OUTLOOK
KENAI CENTRAL KARDINALS
This will be the third year of the state tournament in Alaska. Thus far, the Kardinals are the only girls team from the peninsula to play in the big event, having qualified in both 2000 and 2001.
Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said that experience of going to state is invaluable, and he returns a number of players with state experience.
The team will be led by senior captains Jamie Montgomery, a midfielder; Karli Knudsen, a forward; and Amy Fischer, a midfielder.
"The bottom line is it's nice to have seniors that have been in intense competition and know what to expect," Verkuilen said.
Other players with state experience include senior defender Kirsten Ehrhardt, senior defender Rachael Popp, senior forward Katherine Amen and senior goalie Wendy Wiles. Other seniors for the Kards are Amber Brown and Maura Penegini.
Verkuilen also has a solid crop of juniors to fill in around those seniors. The group includes defender Janna Krein, midfielder Rachel Knowles, forward Erin Smith, forward Katie Burck, forward Laticia Haynes, forward Angelica Carreon and utility players Angie Sheldon and Mira Tetri.
Finally, Verkuilen also likes what he's seen from sophomores Breezy Saltzgiver, Laura Moore and Heather McIntyre.
The Mariners earned the No. 5 seed in the region last year before losing in the first round of the region tournament.
Homer coach Mickey Todd, who is assisted by his wife, Wendy, thinks his team can be just as good this year.
One potential problem Todd sees, however, is that in graduates Fianna Condon and Nikki Fry, the Mariners lost 95 percent of their scoring.
"I would say we're as competitive as we were last year," Todd said. "Our defense returns all of our starters, except for the goalie."
Members of that defense include seniors Kelly Biele, Hannah Baechler and Syverine Abrahamson and junior Lilly Sloth. The goalie will be Chaunna Dietz.
The Mariners will be looking for scoring from junior forward Carly Garay and sophomore striker and center halfback Chantrelle Cousins.
Patrolling the midfield for Homer will be junior Holly McCune and senior Lindsay Horst.
The Bulldogs slipped into the Region III tournament last year as the No. 8 seed. In the first round, Nikiski was eliminated after a 4-0 loss to Colony.
At the time, Nikiski coach Richard Kelso said the experience in the tournament would be a good way to build for the future. The future is now as Kelso returns a lot of seniors this year.
"We've got a lot of seniors," Kelso said. "Those girls have been with me a number of years, so they sort of know how to play the game.
"They're progressing nicely each year, and getting better and better. But we tell them other teams' girls are getting better, too, so we have to keep working on our skill level to move in the right direction."
The returning seniors that Kelso mentioned are midfielder April Lofstedt, forward Amanda Weaver, midfielder Joy Carr, defender Aurora Zinck and midfielder Cassie Thompson.
Other experience will come from junior goalie Karen Rabung, junior defender Rainey Reilly and junior defender Kayle Meyer.
"We also have some promising freshmen that are coming through," Kelso said. "It's exciting for Nikiski's program."
The Seahawks failed to qualify for the Region III tournament last year, but early results hint that a different ending could be in their future this year.
In its first game of the season, Seward lost 3-0 to Colony, which is traditionally a region power. However, the Seahawks were able to keep the score at 0-0 in the first half.
"We're actually pretty strong this year," Seward coach Laura Beck said. "We've got some seniors that were instrumental last year."
Those seniors should bond to give Seward a defense that's tough to penetrate. The seniors are goalie Jamie Frederickson, who had 23 saves against Colony, stopper Amber St. Amand, fullback Chelsea Woelkers and fullback Kristy Regis.
On the flip side of the coin, the Seahawks will rely on younger players to get them goals and to control the midfield.
Those players are junior forward Megan Schaaugard, junior forward Miranda Mahle, sophomore wing Elsa Gaule, sophomore midfielder Kristin Beck and sophomore forward Emma Seigel.
The Panthers qualified for the Region III tournament last year as the No. 6 seed. Skyview then played Palmer close before being eliminated in a 1-0 loss.
The team had a problem putting the ball in the net in that loss to Palmer -- a problem Skyview coach Tony Lewis said has often plagued his teams.
"We've always had a problem putting the ball in the net, so I continue to focus on that," Lewis said. "I'm always confident in our defense, and we usually have good goalies that won't let silly goals go in.
"If we can do something on offense, we should be set. Plus, that will take even more pressure off the defense."
Toward that end, Lewis envisions a change in the responsibilities of junior Jenny Carpenter, a first team all-Region III player last year.
"She was more of a defender last year in the stopper position," Lewis said. "We're going to move her up to make use of more of her offensive abilities."
Lewis said some key players that will be in the hunt with Carpenter to score goals are sophomore forward Marina Holt -- Skyview's leading scorer last year -- and junior forward Ann Verba.
Junior Christina Colvin will provide a steadying presence in the midfield, while junior Jamie Beever will direct the defense from her sweeper position. Some of Beever's charges will be seniors Donna Sadler and Shari Isaak.
Senior Katie Lockwood will take over for graduated Ailis Vann in goal.
"She's going to have some big shoes to fill," Lewis said of Lockwood. "She had actually been someone who was close to Ailis in the past, but last year Ailis really stepped up."
The Stars earned the No. 7 seed in last year's Region III tournament but were eliminated in the first round by Kenai.
Soldotna coach Katie Tongue said she hopes an experienced midfield can get the Stars back to the tournament for a little longer run.
"I'd say the midfield is definitely the core and the strength of the team, without a doubt," Tongue said. "There's always a little bit of concern because there's not as much experience on defense.
"Hopefully, it will all fall together before the season progresses too far."
Returning in the midfield for the Stars are juniors Jennifer Senette, Erin Wolfe and Sam Penner, although Penner will be seeing time at forward this year. Sophomore Annie Penner also returns in the midfield for the Stars.
Tongue also will get some experience from junior Rachel Besse, a forward and defender.
On defense, Tongue said sophomore Ricki Jackson will play a key role as the sweeper.
"We have new freshmen coming in that are inexperienced, but they have a lot of potential," Tongue said. "They're going to fill in on offense and defense."
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