Eight boys and eight girls high school soccer teams from Region III have made the first cut of the season -- qualifying for the region tournament by finishing among the top eight teams during the regular season.
Now for the hard part.
The Region III Championships kick off today at Houston, and three of the eight teams qualified in both the boys and girls brackets will advance to the Alaska School Activities Association State Soccer Championships next weekend in Anchorage.
But to advance to the state tournament, a team must play three matches in two days, without the security of a losers' bracket.
"It's a tough thing to ask any team to do," said Kenai boys coach David Landry. "This is a real rugged competition. Games are non-stop, with no timeouts, and you barely get a chance to catch your breath."
Surviving the first round will be the key for the peninsula teams in the field. In the girls bracket, Nikiski opens up against top-seeded Colony, Homer faces Wasilla, Skyview takes on Palmer and Soldotna gets another shot at Kenai.
In the boys bracket, Skyview faces Colony, Kenai squares off with Soldotna, Homer plays Palmer and Nikiski matches up against Wasilla.
"The kids would love to play two games Friday, because that means the first one was a victory," said Nikiski coach Jim Coburn.
In seasons past, predicting the teams that would advance through the first round was relatively easy, but this season, the crystal ball is a bit murky.
"There's a lot of teams that can compete," said Skyview girls coach Tony Lewis. "This year is different than any other years where you've had the haves and have-nots. I don't see that this year. I think there's going to be some surprises."
"It seems like a nice, broad playing field," said Soldotna girls coach Katie Tongue. "Even us underdogs can compete. Every game's got that element of not quite knowing what's going to happen. That makes it fun."
Lewis is hoping the Skyview girls will be one of those surprises by building on momentum created last weekend with a tie at Kenai and a win at Homer.
Kenai and Soldotna should provide yet another entertaining match.
"That hometown rivalry is always a good part of the game," Tongue said. "We're definitely going to try to counteract their fast breaks that caught us a little on our heels."
Kenai girls coach Dan Verkuilen was happy to see the Kardinals end the regular season with a win over Soldotna, and some of that emotion should still be on tap for today's match.
The Nikiski girls were relieved to learn that they were, in fact, the eighth qualifier for the tournament.
"When I heard we might not be in, I thought, 'Oh my goodness,' and I realized then I would be disappointed," Nikiski girls coach Richard Kelso said. "So, yeah, I'm excited.
"The way Colony plays soccer, I tell my girls this is the way we want to play. I think when you play a team that good, it makes you play better."
The Bulldogs will be missing midfielder Laura-Beth Covich and will be scrambling to fill that hole, but Kelso is looking at the tournament as a learning experience for his younger players.
"We're building for next year," Kelso said. "Getting to regions is more experience for the girls coming through. We're going to make it as tough as possible for Colony."
The boys match between Soldotna and Kenai also should provide some entertaining soccer.
"That's a tough draw," Landry said. "A total of three goals has separated us over the last three seasons. Fortunately, it's always been in Kenai's favor."
The Skyview boys open up the tournament against a talented Colony squad while Nikiski will play Wasilla.
"Last time, it was a pretty good game," Coburn said. "We spent quite a bit of time down in their half. Hopefully, we'll shoot a little better."
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