The regular season has whittled down Region III soccer's 11 boys and 11 girls teams to just eight each.
But as to who goes on from here, it's anyone's guess.
"I think it's going to be wide open," said Skyview boys coach Dave Carpenter. "Especially down the stretch, everything was a one- or two-goal game. There weren't any blowouts once everyone got going."
"I think the region is a fairly level playing field," said Kenai boys coach David Landry. "I don't think anyone wants to play anyone -- there isn't one team you could say you really want to play. ... You could have Soldotna, winning (a region berth) on a coin toss, walk right through regions."
The girls bracket appears to be as equally unpredictable.
"This whole year was really hard to predict. A team would have a good game, then fall to or tie a team they didn't think should be with them," said Kenai girls coach Dan Verkuilen. "Every team has had high-scoring days and low-scoring ones. ... (In the region tournament) they always seem to be tight games. You have to play that full 80 minutes to get it done, plus some (with overtime)."
With its format of three games in two days, the Region III Championships, today and Saturday in Palmer, are tough from both a physical and mental standpoint. The top three teams advance to the state championship tournament.
The physical challenge is obvious -- the opening game is a must-win for any team to advance, and the semifinals will kick off about five hours after the end of the first match.
"Games are bang-bang," Landry said. "That's a fairly short turnaround. I've tried to explain to the kids that you've never been through anything like. The only way (to prepare for it) is to experience it."
As if that's not enough, there's also the mental component to the tournament, from dealing with the pressure of possible elimination after just one game, to balancing all the other things that are going on as the school year winds down -- finals, graduation, etc. -- while still maintaining focus for 80 minutes at a time.
Playing far away from home doesn't help, either.
"Playing away is never easy," said Homer boys coach Ed Kelley. "Through the season, we've been able to come up with victories on the road, but being away from home, and a six-hour bus ride, can eat away from your focus."
The ability to stay focused will be critical, especially as bodies tire in what promises to be some very closely contested games.
"It's going to take an absolute commitment on every player's part, 'This is what I want to do,'" Landry said. "Without that, you're not going to go far."
The Skyview boys enter the tournament as the Southern Division's top seed and will face Colony to start. Carpenter said he had a hunch things would shake out that way, but said the Panthers, 8-1-1 on the season, won't be taking anybody lightly.
"We haven't even thought past (the first game)," Carpenter said. "Drawing Colony in the first round -- they're a Northern Division power, historically -- I don't care if they come in 1-4. That's who we're preparing for."
Likewise, Southern Division No. 2 seed Homer is preparing for Grace Christian, though Kelley said he'd love to get another shot at the Panthers in the championship match. Homer's only division loss was to Skyview in a match the Mariners dominated until the Panthers pulled out a win in the final minutes of play.
"But we'll settle for state," Kelley said.
The Kardinals open against Palmer, while the Stars open up against Wasilla, a team they tied during the season.
In the girls bracket, Soldotna won the top seed from the Southern Division and will face Grace Christian. While a No. 1 vs. No. 4 matchup may sound favorable, the Stars haven't forgotten their loss to the Grizzlies in their season opener.
Division No. 2 seed Kenai plays Wasilla -- the Kardinals played to a draw with the Warriors this season -- while No. 3 Homer plays Palmer. No. 4 seed Skyview will play the Northern Division's top seed, Colony.
Peninsula Clarion ©2015. All Rights Reserved.