The improved level at which soccer is now being played on the Kenai Peninsula has made the current season unacceptable. In order for soccer to grow, the season must grow. If the season does not grow, players will continue to face frustration and an increased risk of injury.
Things were grand back in 1998, the first year soccer was an official school sport on the peninsula. The sport didn't receive funding from the school district, but with high player turnout, that funding was only a matter of time.
Then in 1999, the sport actually received funding from the school district and the first Region III tournament was held.
Exponential growth continued in 2000, when the Alaska School Activities Association sanctioned a state tournament for the first time and both the Kenai boys and girls made it to that state tournament. Peninsula squads have made it to state every year except for last year.
Since 1998, fueled by the popularity of youth soccer, the 12 peninsula teams have typically not had any problem fielding varsity and junior varsity teams. The one exception is the Seward boys last year, who did not have enough for a varsity team. Students' enthusiasm for soccer shows the world's most popular sport is not a passing fad on the peninsula.
Soccer doubters who said a field sport could never thrive while stubborn snow was still gradually melting seemed to have been proven wrong. Track, another outdoor sport, had success in the spring. Why couldn't soccer?
However, as the level of soccer on the peninsula has improved, the differences between soccer and track have become more pronounced.
Track has never liked starting practice in mid-March when there still is snow on the ground, but it has been able to cope because there are plenty of useful drills and exercises track coaches can do in the gym and hallways. Skyview coach Rob Sparks actually likes spending the first couple of weeks inside because athletes are closer together and he can advise them better on technique.
When soccer was in its infancy on the peninsula, coaches could teach basics indoors. This was back in the days when many players were not well-schooled in trapping, passing and shooting. Many players now come to high school having played in summer leagues, so it's increasingly hard to find useful ways to practice indoors.
Being able to trap, pass and shoot is no longer enough. Soccer now demands tactics that can only be practiced by a team on a full field. This puts teams like Seward, which still is not on its field, at a disadvantage. A good deal of Seward's 7-1 loss to Skyview Tuesday can be chalked up to defenders' failure to understand how to react to a cross, something that can't be practiced in a gym.
Track also has the advantage of being held on a surface that can be cleared of snow and dried a lot easier than a field. This means that early season meets are held on a surface that allows the athletes to compete.
This is not the case in soccer. With the exception of the Anchorage Football Stadium, which has an artificial surface, most fields in Southcentral Alaska remain wet and muddy through late April, when there is only a few weeks left in the season. Now that teams prefer intricate passing over kicking and watching, muddy fields completely disrupt the joy of the game.
That puts soccer in situations like on April 23, when Nikiski's girls traveled to Houston to play on Houston's muddy field. In order to keep the field from being ruined, players could not wear cleats.
"It was depressing seeing them out there slipping and sliding," Nikiski coach Richard Kelso said. "I'm just pleased nobody got hurt."
Track also is at an advantage because the sport does not need as many competitions as soccer does. Most track teams schedule mostly Saturday meets, with a few competitions in midweek. This schedule gives athletes suitable time to recover and make adjustments at practice before the next meet.
Soccer must cram a whole region schedule into about three weeks. Peninsula teams must play five Region III Southern Division games as part of qualifying for the region tournament. Coaches also like to get a look at Northern Division teams that will be blocking their road to state.
Cramming all this into such a short season leads to situations like last weekend, when the Kenai boys played games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Soccer games are 80 minutes long. When players truly begin to understand what it takes to support players on offense and defense, they run for a good deal of this 80 minutes. This leads to fatigue, and that led to a rough contest between Kenai and Wasilla Saturday.
"Things got chippy because guys got tired," Kenai coach David Landry said. "Wasilla also was playing its third game in three days."
The schedule cramming gets worse at the region tournament, where teams play three games in two days if they want to advance to state.
With players no longer content to take the field with a school jersey and play the amateurish form of soccer known as kickball, it is time to question the way high school soccer is done on the peninsula.
An artificial surface is unlikely due to the shortage of cash in the school district and the cities. Plus, if such a surface is built on the central peninsula, Seward and Homer are not helped much.
Moving soccer to fall would mean the sport competes with football, swimming, cross country and volleyball instead of competing with only track.
The best place for soccer to start growing is to push the season into June and nearly double the time teams have to play on suitable fields. In the fall, football and cross country practice started this year on July 28, about one month before the first day of classes at peninsula schools. Yet the last day of the state soccer tournament will be May 22, while classes on the peninsula don't get out until May 27. In Anchorage, students will be in school until June 3.
A longer season will require sacrifices on the part of coaches, players and overworked administrators. It also will make life easier on those involved with soccer by creating more time on suitable playing fields and lessening the pressure to schedule around graduations, finals and proms.
Football and cross country teams are allowed to play while school is not in session because it would be impossible to have a legitimate season otherwise. Why can't this also be the case for soccer?
This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticisms can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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