After cramming a regular season into a couple of weeks, soccer teams will now cram a Northern Lights Conference Tournament into a couple of days.
The tournament will be held today and Saturday at Skyview High School and Kenai Central High School.
The high-stakes first round takes place this morning. In both the boys and girls tournament, the first round features four games where Northern Division teams face off against Southern Division teams.
The losers of those first-round games are finished with their seasons. The winners play just five hours later in the semifinals of the tournament.
The winners of the semifinals earn automatic bids to state and spots in the tournament championship game. The losers battle for third place Saturday at 10 a.m., with only the winner of that game earning a spot at state.
The following is a look at each of the first-round games:
Grace girls vs. Soldotna
The Stars, the No. 3 seed from the Southern Division, defeated the Grizzlies, the No. 2 seed from the north, 2-1 in late April.
The Stars have not had any games this week. Coach Jimmy Love said he hopes that has had a good effect on his team.
“It could be bad because we haven’t played competitive games,” Love said. “It could also be good for us because it’s allowed us to regroup and slow down and work on specific things.”
Love said one player is sick, but otherwise his team is ready to go.
“I’m hoping the weather stays the way it is now,” Love said Thursday while practicing in sunshine. “It’d be nice to play one game this season in soccer weather.”
Homer girls vs. Palmer
The Mariners are the two-time defending champions of the conference and they have earned the top seed from the south this year.
Palmer, the No. 4 seed from the north, just notched a 4-1 victory at Homer on May 4. It was Homer’s first conference loss in two years.
“I really believe the parity between all the teams is getting better,” Homer coach Mickey Todd told the Homer News. “It has been pretty even over the last couple of years. In any given day, anyone can knock something off. Everybody plays better soccer.”
Colony girls vs. Skyview
The Panthers came into this week without a win in the Southern Division, but then defeated Nikiski and Seward to earn the No. 4 seed from the south and earn a date with the No. 1-seeded Knights.
In late April, the Panthers and Knights played and Skyview took a 2-0 lead before the Knights stormed back and scored three goals in the final 20 minutes of the game for the victory.
“We’ve got to play 80 minutes,” Skyview coach Ronnie Kier said. “For 60 minutes, we played absolutely wonderful soccer.
“We were moving and passing well as a team. Then for some reason, we let down.”
Kenai girls vs. Wasilla
The Kardinals, the No. 2 seed from the south, defeated the Warriors, the No. 3 seed from the north, 4-0 this season.
Last season, Wasilla defeated Kenai by a goal in the regular season then repeated the trick by beating the Kardinals 1-0 in the first round of the conference tournament.
“The girls remember last year, so they are definitely excited,” Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said. “They also know regions is a whole new world. Everybody has a different package and attitude.”
Tuesday, Kenai lost to Homer 2-1 after giving up two goals in the first 15 minutes. Verkuilen said he hopes his team learned from the slow start.
Kenai boys vs. Grace Christian
The Kenai boys, the No. 1 seed from the south, opened up their season by losing 3-0 to the Grizzlies, the No. 4 seed from the north.
The Kenai boys started the season 0-3, but finished with a 6-4-1 record, including a victory over state power Juneau.
Landry said the group of players on his team has always been very talented, but they are also young. The Kardinals played in the first three state tournaments from 2000 to 2002, but haven’t returned since then.
According to Landry, the defense of goalie Justin Wisniewski and defenders Jake Malanaphy, Josh Werba, Devin Boyle and Brandon Goggia has been very solid lately and will have to reamain so for Kenai to advance in the tournament.
Soldotna boys vs. Wasilla
The Stars, the No. 2 seed from the south, dropped a 6-0 decision to the Warriors, the No. 3 seed from the north, early in the season.
Soldotna coach Jeff Siemers said his team, like the rest of the Southern Division boys teams, better be ready to play today. All the teams from the south were shut out in regular season games against their Northern Division first-round opponents.
“The Northern Division teams are tough this year,” Siemers said.
The coach said Wasilla crossed the ball well in the first meeting, so Soldotna needs to shore up its weak-side defense. Siemers also said his team did not create many scoring chances in the first game, so that also will have to change.
Colony boys vs. Nikiski
The Knights, the defending conference champion and the No. 2 seed, defeated the No. 3-seeded Bulldogs 4-0 on May 5.
Nikiski coach Jim Coburn said the Knights have an experienced team that works together very well.
“Their passing, strategy and communication on the field is excellent,” Coburn said. “It’s probably the best we’ve seen this year.”
Coburn, who starts three freshmen, said he hopes his team learned from watching the Knights the first time around. He also said playing a match on the peninsula can be an advantage because sleep and diet are not disrupted.
The Bulldogs will most likely lean heavily on Nikiski goalie Rick Miller, as they have all year.
Skyview boys vs. Palmer
The Moose, the No. 1 seed from the north, defeated the Panthers, the No. 4 seed from the south, 5-0 on May 5.
The Panthers trailed just 1-0 at halftime, but in the second half Devon Conroy had a hat trick to put the game away.
This time around, Skyview will have to control Conroy as well as figure out how to generate quality opportunities against Palmer’s tough defense.
Homer News reporter Ben Stuart contributed to this story.
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