Skyview's Gabe Fellman, right, collides with Kenai's Dusty Ward while chasing the ball during a recent game.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Kenai Peninsula high school soccer teams are coming off a regular season during which many squads had to squeeze eight or 10 games many of them with postseason implications as only the top four squads make the conference tournament into the space of two weeks.
With the Northern Lights Conference tournament kicking off today at Colony High School and the prospect of three games in two days, things don't get any easier.
"That day is just brutal," said Skyview High School boys soccer coach Dave Carpenter of the opening day of the tournament. "The first day, you just try to survive it. Then you've got to use your leftovers to try to get in (to the state tournament) through the front door.
"With round one an elimination round, and round two the same day, it makes for a grueling day."
And that's from the coach whose team won a pair of games at the state tournament last season and is the top-seeded team from the NLC's Southern Division this season.
Carpenter said his team is aware that a No. 1 seed guarantees nothing at the conference tournament.
"Everybody that's with me has been through a couple of tournaments as the No. 1 seed. They know they can be beat as the No. 1 seed, so they're all focused on that game," Carpenter said.
For the Panthers, the first-round opponent is Northern Division No. 4-seed Grace Christian. South second seed Homer faces North No. 3 Palmer; South No. 3 Kenai plays North No. 2 Wasilla; and South No. 4 Soldotna matches up with North top seed Colony in the opening round.
Teams still standing after the opening round play in this evening's semifinal matches. Semifinal winners earn a state berth and play for the conference title Saturday afternoon while semifinal losers play for third place and the conference's third and final state tournament berth.
In the girls bracket, South No. 1 seed Kenai meets North No. 4 Wasilla; South No. 2 Homer plays North No. 3 Grace Christian; South No. 3 Nikiski plays North No. 2 Colony; and South No. 4 Soldotna opens against North No. 1 Palmer.
"This was the goal for our seniors, to make it to regions," said Soldotna girls coach Jimmy Love. "I'm happy for the seniors they get to go out reaching that part of it but we'll see how far the girls want to take it past that."
The Stars finished the regular season with a couple of strong matches, and Love attributed the improvement on the pitch to better communication by his players.
"They started talking a lot more, and that started opening up some of the field, which allowed them to use the forwards' speed, which has allowed them more scoring opportunities," said Love.
Nikiski coach Richard Kelso said the team was plenty motivated to perform at its best this weekend. The Bulldogs tied Colony this year and while the Knights promise to be tough on their home field, Kelso expects his Bulldogs to be tougher too.
"We'll just take it one game at a time. If we win that one, we'll look at the next one," Kelso said.
The Mariners opened their season with a win over Grace and will look the defend their conference title.
Homer's only loss this season came against the Kenai girls, who finished up the regular season on a tear. Kenai coach Dan Verkuilen said he already considered it a successful season, but added his squad knows it's capable of more.
"They realize it could be their last game or it could be the start of something really neat," Verkuilen said.
The Kenai boys finished the season with four straight wins and head coach David Landry said his young team has found its identity.
"We'll just see if they can pull out this first one. It would be a glorious thing for them to do," Landry said.
Kenai's last few games were must-win games. Landry figures playing with that kind of intensity and desperation should help at the conference tournament and added that having just a few players with tournament experience could work to the Kardinals' advantage.
"I think at this point, it really hasn't dawned on them what they've accomplished. With so many underclassmen, they're not aware of the whole process. Maybe in some regards, not knowing what it's all about might allow some of these kids to sleep a little better. Ignorance can be bliss," Landry said.
On the other hand, the very experienced Skyview boys team knows all about the conference tournament. The Panthers finished second at the tournament last season on their way to a third-place finish at the state championships.
"They're pretty focused. It seems like they know what's ahead of them," Carpenter said.
The Homer boys will have to overcome an injury to their starting goaltender to advance in the tournament while the Soldotna boys won their tournament berth by virtue of a tiebreaker over Nikiski.
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