When the Region III Soccer Championships kick off this morning, expect the competition to be just as tight as it has been all season.
"I don't think any teams are super super strong on the scoring end, and defenses have evolved so everyone has a pretty solid defensive back," said Kenai Central girls coach Dan Verkuilen. "You can get shots off, but goalies have come a long way. Scores are not what they used to be -- there's a lot of one-goal games -- which is nice. It's exciting."
The Kardinals picked up the top seed from Region III's Southern Division with a 4-0-1 record in division play and will face the No. 4 seed from the Northern Division, Palmer, in quarterfinal action at 10 a.m. at Soldotna.
The tournament, hosted by Soldotna, opens with games at Soldotna, Skyview and Kenai for this morning's quarterfinal round, then moves exclusively to Skyview for this evening's semifinals and Saturday's third-place and championship matches.
In other girls quarterfinal matchups:
n Nikiski, the No. 2 seed from the peninsula with a 2-0-3 mark against division competition, plays Northern Division No. 3 seed Grace Christian at noon at Skyview;
n Homer, the No. 3 seed from the Southern Division with a 2-2-1 division record, plays Northern Division No. 2 seed Wasilla at 10 a.m. at Skyview;
n Skyview, the fourth and final seed from the Southern Division, plays Northern Division top seed Colony at noon at Kenai.
Verkuilen said it would be hard to handicap the tournament based on games played earlier this season.
"You know the caliber of players, but overall it seems like you're just playing someone for the first time," Verkuilen said. "There's a lot of physical play at regions -- the refs tend to let that go a little more -- so you have to be aggressive and play well. Teams have developed over the season, and they're fine-tuning for this weekend."
The Kenai boys also drew the top seed from the Southern Division with a 4-1-0 mark in division play. In the boys tournament:
n The Kardinals play Palmer, the No. 4 seed form the Northern Division, at noon at Skyview;
n The Southern Division's No. 2 seed Skyview, which finished division play with a 3-1-1 mark, will play Grace Christian, the No. 3 seed from the Northern Division, at 10 a.m. at Kenai;
n Soldotna, the No. 3 seed from the Southern Division with a 3-1-1 division record, will play its first home game of the season against the Northern Division's No. 2 seed, Wasilla, at noon;
n Nikiski, which clinched the Southern Division's No. 4 seed with a 2-2-1 mark in division play, will face Northern Division No. 1 seed Colony at 10 a.m. at Skyview.
"I think it's up in the air," Skyview coach Dave Carpenter said of the tournament. "I think Colony is always going to be a spooky team, but they've also shown a tendency to be hot and cold. With the other guys, you've got a bunch of even teams that can mix it up real well."
Three boys teams and three girls teams from the region advance to the state tournament next week in Anchorage, but with no losers' bracket, the first order of business for each team is to win in the quarterfinals this morning.
Winning means advancing to this evening semifinals at 4 and 6 p.m. at Skyview, and while two matches in one day may sound tough, teams have crammed their whole regular season into the past two and a half weeks, so they just might be ready for the potential 160-plus minutes of soccer.
Semifinal winners clinch a trip to the state tournament and play for the region title Saturday at 1 p.m. at Skyview; semifinal losers have one more shot at a state berth, but it means winning in Saturday's 10 a.m. third-place matches, also at Skyview.
"It's a fast and furious season," Verkuilen said. "A lot can happen. If you have a healthy team, you have as good a chance as anybody."
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